Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Liberals' election campaign plan based on more spending

VICTORIA - Gary Collins gave a good sneak preview of the Liberals' campaign strategy when he unveiled the latest look at the province's finances.
No more talk about balanced budgets, and not much talk about tax cuts. That's yesterday's news.
"We get to stop talking about balancing the budget," Collins said. The deficit for last year was $1.3 billion, better than the Liberals had expected, and their plan to balance the budget this year is on track.
"Now is the exciting part," Collins said. "Now is the point where we get to dream as a province." The next step after balanced budgets is surpluses, and that means there is money to spend.
The campaign will start in earnest in September, with a new focus on ways of spending money. (I know, September may seem early to start the campaign for a May election. But fixed election dates - a good idea - do allow all the parties to map out a much longer campaign strategy.)
The kick-off will be the formal pre-budget consultation. Each year a legislative committee tours the province to collect ideas on what should be in the budget. But since the election, ideas or suggestions that involved spending money were off limits.
Not this time. Collins said the committee will be able to gather ideas on projects or initiatives that involve more spending. It's even time to dust off rejected proposals from the last three years and put them on the table. "All of those things now, you can look at them fresh," he said.
It's an important shift. The Liberals have done a poor job of communicating any sort of vision to support their spending cuts. That's left the appearance that their actions are ideological, and that the measures are being taken without concern for the average citizen. Their challenge is to convince people that the sacrifices made sense, and had a purpose beyond decreasing the tax hit on the affluent.
They've left it late. The New Democrats have pulled ahead in the polls, Gordon Campbell's personal approval rating is running around 30 per cent and their government has a reputation for a lack of interest in the peoples' lives at best, and meanness at worst. Those perceptions are difficult to change.
But not impossible, and the Liberals do have considerable good news to deliver.
The economy - even in regions that have been struggling - is showing signs of broad improvement.
The budget calls for a small $100-million surplus this year. But the Liberals are conservative budgeters - they've beat their targets by an average $800 million a year. That means there will be money for some positive announcements this fall.
And there will be a much bigger pot of money to work with in the pre-election budget coming next February, especially if the federal Liberals come up with health care cash. Collins is already talking about more money for schools and early childhood education.
There are other choices for the surplus. The government could use the money to reduce debt, and the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation is already lobbying for more tax cuts instead of more spending.
But the obvious choice is spending increases. B.C.'s taxes, says Collins, are competitive and the debt burden has always been manageable. (And tax cuts are of little political advantage; followers of the taxpayers' federation are going to vote Liberal with or without cuts. The challenge is to win over people considering voting NDP.)
Collins also waxed enthusiastic about the Green Party's performance in the federal election. "I think they're here to stay, and I think they're going to grow," he said.
He hopes so, anyway. A stronger Green Party is great news for the BC Liberals, who stand to benefit if anti-government votes are split between the Greens and NDP.
The summer should be a quiet time. But the Liberal campaign strategy is in place, and ready to go starting in September.
Footnote: What's the NDP to do? The most important challenge is for Carole James to convince voters that the New Democrats can do a better job of managing the surplus than the Liberals, and won't plunge the province back into deficits or blow the money on bad ideas and big raises for public sector unions.

No comments: