Monday, December 29, 2003

The Liberals are heading into a nasty year
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The bad news is that it was a pretty crummy year for the Liberal government.
And the worse news is that next year looks even tougher.
You can chalk up some successes. Premier Gordon Campbell survived the drunk driving conviction. Vancouver got the Olympics, a huge win for the government. There was some job growth in the Lower Mainland. The oil and gas industry did well. And there was more progress on relations with First Nations, through treaty talks and interim economic agreements.
After that, the good news gets skinny. Things didn't get worse in health or education, which is something.
But an awful lot did go wrong.
Campbell is less popular than ever. The Liberals are still doing well in the polls by B.C. standards, but have lost a lot of support.
The BC Rail sale could have been considered a triumph, if it wasn't so badly tainted by the broken campaign promise, and the premier's almost delusional denials.
The attempt to privatize the Coquihalla bought the Liberals a lot of grief, for no benefit. The botched liquor store privatization made them look both incompetent and untrustworthy, especially to people who invested big in private liquor stores on the strength of the the government's now broken promises.
And then there's economic development. This was supposed to be the year of forestry, but you sure can't see any results on the ground. The 20-per-cent tenure takeback, central to market-based stumpage, is stalled. The softwood dispute is unsettled, and the proposed deal includes quota provisions Forest Minister Mike de Jong said would never be accepted by B.C.
And despite all the talk about the Heartland, it's tough to see much activity beyond the oil and gas boom in the Northeast.
And on top of all that, there's the ugly sight of police raiding the offices of top staffers for ministers Gary Collins and Judith Reid.
But tough as it's been, next year looks much worse for the Liberals.
The economy should be better. Most forecasts have it growing by about three per cent, but good enough to jump B.C. up to the middle of the pack among provinces. The Liberals will bring in a balanced budget. And the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform is the best thing ever to happen to government in North America.
But the headaches for the Liberals are going to be enormous. And they are going to come in the final 12 months before the next election.
The biggest will be in health care. The regional health authorities still have major changes - unpopular changes - to make to meet the Liberals' spending limits. Meanwhile, doctors and the government are heading towards a war as the fee agreement with the BC Medical Association expires. Doctors want more money while the government says the wage freeze applies to them. The result will be more disruptions in the health care system. And no matter what the positions are, the public always ultimately sides with the doctors. (Nurses will also be in a similar position.)
The teachers' contract will also be up, and the government is going to try and have it rolled over for another year to allow for reform of the bargaining system. Teachers don't want that; again expect more conflict.
Then there's the new mandatory time limit on welfare, which will see thousands of people lose benefits, and the continued confusion in the ministry of children and families, where a restructuring is more than a year behind schedule and budget cuts are being pushed through despite significant risks to kids.
And on top of all that, there are the big spending cuts. Spending has actually risen by $870 million so far under the Liberals. But the balanced budget due in February will include $900 million in cuts. Three ministries must cut more than 20 per cent of their budget; another five must cut more than 10 per cent. It's going to hurt.
It's a tough way to start a prolonged election campaign.
Footnote: The unknown quantity is new NDP leader Carole James. If she champions issues of high public concern - health care, education, jobs and community stability - and demonstrates competence, she'll begin to appear as an alternative for some voters. If she is seen as defender of big public sector unions, or anti-economic growth - she's already burned bridges in some coastal communities by opposing offshore oil exploration and aquaculture - Campbell will look more attractive.