Saturday, May 22, 2004

Liberals' arrogance could cost them next vote

VICTORIA - If the Liberals take such pride in a business-like approach, how come they haven't learned one of the most basic business lessons?
The Ipsos-Reid poll this week didn't just show the NDP ahead. It found that more than one-third of the people who voted Liberal in 2001 have quit supporting the party.
The Liberals seemed genuinely unperturbed. It's normal for support for a governing party between elections, they said — forgetting that in B.C. it's also normal for the governing party to be defeated when the election comes round. People just haven't recognized that things are better, they say. And anyway, once voters take a harder look at the New Democrats and Carole James they will come back to the Liberals. (Which suggests a campaign slogan along the lines of 'Vote Liberal - The Lesser of Two Evils.')
What's missing is any acknowledgment that the one-third of supporters who have repudiated the party may have some real concerns that need to be addressed. Maybe those 340,000 people have something important to say.
I used to run newspapers. And if one-third of our regular readers had quit buying, I'd have wanted to know why. And how to win them back.
British Columbians are both the customers and shareholders of government. But there's no acknowledgment from the Liberals that their dissatisfaction matters, that anything needs to change, or that mistakes have been made. No one apologizes for broken promises, or acknowledges that many people have not seen the promised improvements in their lives.
Premier Gordon Campbell speaks of a rising optimism, of people beginning to see real benefits.
But one-third of the people who voted Liberal disagree. And even if they're expert in nothing else, you have to concede that they likely know more about their own lives than government.
Their perception is reinforced by the recent BC Progress Board report. The board is an extremely useful Liberal creation that uses objective indicators to rate B.C.'s performance in a number of areas against other provinces.
While there are encouraging signs, progress is slow. B.C.'s economic growth in 2003 was fourth strongest in Canada, up from eighth in 2002. We moved up one place to sixth in employment. Both are positive changes, but not likely to produce the kind of sweeping optimism Mr. Campbell hopes for in the runup to next May's election.
The most critical measurement of Liberal effectiveness is likely business investment. The tax cuts and deregulation efforts were all intended to produce badly needed investment, creating jobs and a stronger, more diversified economy. Again, there are signs of progress. Per capita business investment increased 5.9 per cent last year, the third strongest growth among the provinces. But that wasn't enough to move B.C. out of its sixth place standing.
And the province slid backwards, relative to other provinces, in both productivity and research and development spending.
There are lots of legitimate explanations for the slow progress, from the many external factors buffeting B.C. to the simple reality that economies are difficult to change. And there are some hopeful signs, like the RBC Economic forecast this week that the province would have the best growth in Canada in 2005, at 3.5 per cent.
But the statistics make the Liberals' claim that people across the province are seeing significant change in their lives look delusional. The employment rate, according to the Progress Board, is pretty much the same as it has been for the past decade. That's the reality that people see, despite Liberal news releases touting monthly job growth.
The Liberals are refusing to acknowledge that, just as they are refusing to accept that the huge number of people who no longer support the government may have legitimate reasons. They are unable to admit error, apologize for mistakes, or learn from missteps.
And as a result they raise the spectre of a government defeating itself by refusing to listen to and respect the views of the electorate.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Liberals ignoring message in falling poll standings

VICTORIA - The Liberals seem genuinely - and bafflingly - at ease in the face of the latest poll that shows they could lose the election next May.
And their reaction helps explain why voters are deserting the party.
The Ipsos-Reid poll is the first to show that the New Democrats have taken a clear lead over the Liberals. They have the support of 44 per cent of decided voters; Liberal support has fallen to 37 per cent.
The news is even bleaker across what the Liberals used to call the Heartland. Carole James and the New Democrats are at 46 per cent outside the Lower Mainland, while the Liberals have fallen to 33 per cent. Unless those numbers change 20 to 25 Liberal MLAs outside the Lower Mainland will be gone after the election.
So what do the Liberals say?
First, they point out that governments traditionally lose popularity during their term. "Part of a normal cycle," said Economic Development John Les, a comment echoed by other ministers.
That's only partly true. A year before the last election the NDP was down to 16-per-cent support; they barely climbed to 22 per cent in the actual vote. And it ignores the reality that for B.C., that "normal cycle" ends in the defeat of the government after one term.
Second, they say that voters will return to them when the NDP has to come up with some specific policies and people remember just how bad the previous government was.
That may be. It's hard to believe that the voters could go from detesting the New Democrats to welcoming them back in just four years. (The emergence of many members of that bumbling government as potential NDP candidates is great news for the Liberals.)
But it's risky to base your election optimism on the idea that people will eventually decide they have to vote for you because they have no other choice. That kind of support can easily be lost.
And finally the Liberals say the public has got it wrong. We just haven't noticed yet how much better things are today than they were three years ago, and once we do Liberal support will surge.
That last response illustrates one reason the Liberals are doing so badly in the polls.
About 1.6 million people voted in the last election; about 930,000 of them voted Liberal, a huge show of support.
But based on the latest poll, more than one-third of those people have decided they no longer support the party.
Implicit in all the Liberal responses is that those people have got it wrong. They don't understand what the government is doing. They haven't recognized how much better their lives are.
It's a response that reinforces the impression that the government doesn't care what the public thinks, that is distant and arrogant and rigid. It adds to the perception that this is a government that is so certain that it is right that it no longer listens to people with a different view.
The fact is that some 340,000 people who supported the Liberals three years ago have decided the government has failed them.
None of the Liberals who responded to the poll suggested that it might be useful to figure out why these people have decided the government is doing a bad job. None of the MLAs or cabinet ministers suggested that maybe the government needs to listen to these people, and learn why they think the government has lost its way. None of them suggested that these people might have good reasons for withdrawing their support.
That doesn't mean government by poll; principles remain important.
I used to manage newspapers. And if one-third of the customers quit reading the newspaper, I'd want to find out why. And I would figure that we were doing something wrong, and better fix it.
The Liberals should want to know why the people they serve are giving them failing grades.
Footnote: The Green Party is down to 11 per cent support, from a high of 20 per cent. That's good news for the NDP. The Unity Party stood at five per cent provincially and eight per cent ourside the Lower Mainland. That in turn is bad news for the Liberals, who could lose support to Unity.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Anderson's offshore opposition plaguing Campbell

VICTORIA - The BC Liberals may officially be neutral in the coming federal election, but many of them will be rooting for Environment Minister David Anderson to lose his Victoria seat.
Anderson is waging a one-man campaign against offshore oil and gas development in B.C., at least according to Premier Gordon Campbell.
Anderson claims to be open-minded. We just don't know enough to consider lifting the 30-year-old ban on development, he says.
But the provincial Liberals - and a lot of people from all parts of the political spectrum in coastal B.C. - are convinced that Anderson's position is a scam. They believe, with considerable justification, that the career politician is dug in on the issue, and no matter how much information is brought forward he's going to call for more.
Anderson dove into the offshore waters again this week. He sent a memo to all the nominated Liberal candidates advising them that until the "knowledge gaps on the risks involved, the resources at stake, and the economic and social factors that might have a bearing" are filled the ban stays put.
The BC Liberals have been getting increasingly frustrated with Anderson's position. They want the moratorium lifted now, to allow work by 2010.
Partly, they just think he's wrong. The provincial Liberals point to a recent Royal Society of Canada report as the latest in a string of studies that have concluded that with proper controls the moratorium could be safely lifted. And the Liberals note that around the world - from the deep waters off Newfoundland to the shallow banks around Scandinavia - development has gone ahead successfully.
The Liberals are also convinced that no amount of information would change Anderson's mind or remove his obstructionism.
It's a reasonable conclusion, based on his statements and actions. If Anderson is concerned about the "knowledge gaps," it is well within his ability to address them. Instead of sniping at the province, he could commission the studies he believes are needed to determine if offshore development is possible.
The comments from BC Liberals like Energy Minister Richard Neufeld are getting increasingly cranky about Anderson.
Campbell says he's getting much more positive comments from other federal Liberals, including Prime Minister Paul Martin.
But there's no sign of their briefing notes to Liberal candidates offering an alternative to Anderson's negative comments on the possibility of offshore oil and gas development any time soon. They haven't rebuffed Anderson's attempts to downplay the significance of the federal panel now holding hearings on the issue. He's the one speaking for the federal government, and he's saying no.
Offshore oil and gas development is going to be an emotional, controversial issue. And federally and provincially, it involves lots of political risks.
But the evidence, based on independent studies on the B.C. issues and the industry's global track record, increasingly indicates that safe development, under appropriate regulations, is possible.
The potential is enormous. The reserves are estimated at 9.8 billion barrels of oil, a resource worth some $110 billion. That's 10 times the size of the Hibernia field that has brought an offshore boom to the East Coast.
Coastal communities need the help. The coastal forest industry continues to struggle, the fishery has been through a decade of decline and even tourism has failed to recover. Offshore oil is seen as one of the last best hopes for a number of desperate communities.
Campbell is going to get that message again next week, when he heads to the northwest for a joint cabinet meeting with Alberta Premier Ralph Klein in Prince Rupert. The premier's agenda will include some fundraisers and other activities in the region. He's going to hear a lot about the region's economic crisis.
Offshore energy isn't the only answer. And even with federal co-operation, the 2010 timeline is probably unrealistic.
But it does offer huge potential benefits. And as long as Anderson is speaking for Ottawa, any chance of progress seems remote.
Footnote: Opposing any offshore development makes sense politically for the federal Liberals. They have no realistic chance of winning seats in B.C.'s regions, but hope for success in Vancouver and Victoria. But the economic problems - and sense of alienation - in the rest of B.C. will be worsened if they have to live with policies shaped to please people who live in the big cities.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Liberals have bungled the children and families ministry

VICTORIA - The Walls' audit got the headlines, not surprisingly.
It was a bleak recap of government mismanagement. The audit confirmed that failed Prince George car dealer Doug Walls - a long-time advocate for the disabled - pushed his Liberal connections in advancing his personal interests, his vision for the children and families ministry and the career of his pal and ally Chris Haynes.
It worked pretty well. Walls was handed more than $500,000 worth of government contracts, often in violation of the rules. The government improperly wrote off more than $500,000 worth of debts owed by a company with tight ties to Walls. (The total loss to taxpayers when it went broke was more than $2 million.) Haynes got the deputy minister's job. And the ministry committed to the kind of services for the mentally disabled that Walls was pushing.
The audit didn't find any wrongdoing by politicians, although it all still looked bad. Walls is a relative by marriage of Premier Gordon Campbell, a confidante of Advanced Education Minister Shirley Bond and was a wheel in the Liberal party. He traded on all those things, lobbying Campbell and top strategist Martyn Brown on Haynes behalf (a move he said drew a rebuke from Campbell), name-dropping shamelessly and confirming Bond's appointment ot cabinet before it was public.
But it's all no one's fault, according to the Liberals.
Haynes, fired over the affair, leaves with more than $500,000 in severance and deferred vacation pay, despite the auditors' report. Former children's minister Gordon Hogg says he feels vindicated. No one is fired or disciplined. (The severance issue will be a problem for the Liberals. Anyone in private business who was found to have improperly written off a $500,000 debt to a friend would not be collecting a big cash payout.)
But the Walls' audit, ugly as it was, wasn't even the worst news released by the ministry.
Rather cynically, the government chose the same day to release an assessment of their efforts to restructure the ministry.
The "readiness report" revealed that after more than two years and tens of millions of dollars, remarkably little progess has been made.
The ministry unveiled its big plans in January 2002. The government would slash spending on children and families, and save money by moving to 11 new semi-independent authorities. Ten regional authorities - five aboriginal, and five non-aboriginal - would take over children's services. A Community Living Authority with a $600-million budget would provide services to mentally disabled British Columbians and their families.
The transition work was always going great, according to Hogg, ahead of schedule even. A year ago he said the Community Living Authority and the first two regional child protection authorities would be up and running by last fall.
He was wrong. The regional authorities won't be ready until 2006. After the bleak readiness report on the Community Living Authority new minister Christy Clark said the target start date for it is now late 2005, two years later than Hogg promised.
The report reveals that the most basic questions haven't been answered. The ministry doesn't know how services will be delivered. It hasn't developed the organization, systems or management team to make the authority work. It doesn't know how it will cope with transition costs, or even rising demand given its current reduced budget. It hasn't figured out what's going to happen to staff.
It's shocking that so much time and money could have spent so ineffectually without anyone in government noticing - not MLAs, government caucus committees, the premier, cabinet, the top bureaucrats. It's a grimly incompetent performance.
It's also a betrayal. The Liberal promised an end to endless bureaucratic restructuring in the ministry during the campaign. Campbell spoke passionately of the need for more money.
But what they have actually been delivered is arbitrary budget cuts and a botched and mismanaged re-organization.
Footnote: The failure is hardly a surprise. The Liberals were warned repeatedly that the idea of simultaneously restructuring the ministry while cutting the budget by more than 10 per cent was reckless. They chose to ignore the warnings, and apparently also chose to ignore the fumbling in the ministry's restructuring plans. Now the spending cuts are going ahead while the changes that were supposed to make them possible without hurting children and familes are stalled.