Friday, June 18, 2004

New Democrat on FN Summit; a mine plan dies; and lessons from polls

VICTORIA - Random notes: A long-time New Democrat and former deputy premier takes a leading First Nations' role, a mining company stock skids after a B.C. government decision and a RAV poll highlights a big Liberal problem.

The newest leader of the First Nations Summit is coming into the job with a lot of political and bureaucratic experience - mostly on the opposite side from the BC Liberals.
Dave Porter is one of two new people elected to the summit's leadership, joining Chief Ed John.
Porter is chief treaty negotiator for the Kaska Dene Council, in the province's far northwest.
But he's also a former deputy premier and cabinet minister in the Yukon NDP government of the late '80s, and was an assistant deputy minister for aboriginal affairs under the B.C. New Democrats. Porter was also tapped by then energy minister Dan Miller to become the province's first oil and gas commissioner when the NDP wanted to make it easier for energy companies to do business in the province.
Porter's arrival comes at an interesting time. After what looked like a significant improvement in relations over the last two years, things have gone wrong. A new group, the Title and Rights Alliance, has created unusual unity among First Nations and promises to adopt more effective pressure tactics.
And the Treaty Commission, which manages the process, has pledged to become more aggressive in publicly pressuring any parties - First Nations or federal or provincial governments - that are blocking progress.
What's it mean? Porter knows the government and bureaucracy, and that could help get agreements - or it could make him a more effective opponent. (The federal government has bailed from the treaty table with the Kaska Dene, saying legal disputes have to be resolved before talks can resume.)

Things were looking up for Cline Mining Corp. The company, listed on the TSE Venture Exchange, had seen its lightly traded stock climb from 15 cents to 50 cents in April, before settling into the 40-cent range. The price was rising on plans for an open pit mine near Fernie, which the company said would produce $5 billion worth of coal during its lifetime and 1.500 jobs.
That changed May 28, when Energy Minister Richard Neufeld killed the project, citing environmental concerns and a desire to avoid conflict with U.S. opponents.
Within a few days the stock had lost half its value, and the company canceled plans to raise another $300,000 to work on planning for the mine.
The move surprised most people in the area, including mine opponents who were getting ready for a big fight.
But the odds were heavily stacked against it. Liberal MLA Bill Bennett said he had taken local opposition to Neufeld and Premier Gordon Campbell. And the anti-mine lobby across the border in Montana was organized and efficient. They had already persuaded Secretary of State Colin Powell to write Ottawa with concerns, and scored wide publicity, including a sympathetic New York Times story. (The mine would have been near Montana's Glacier National Park.)
Cline is considering its next move. But the enviros have already launched theirs, arguing that the same principles mean that plans for coal bed methane development in the south Kootenays should also be shelved.

If you want to understand the problem facing the Campbell Liberals, take a look at a poll commissioned by business types to show support for Vancouver's RAV line.
The poll found 69 per cent of those surveyed supported the line, with 46 per cent strongly supporting it.
But when the pollster asked about the Liberal offer to take on all the risk of cost over-runs - and come up with $170 million for another line - support fell. Only 65 per cent of supported going ahead with the line, and only 39 per cent offered strong support.
It's a better deal for Lower Mainland residents, but the association with the provincial government was apparently enough to drive support away.

Footnote: More poll news. StatsCan reported this week B.C. residents have the lowest satisfaction with health care services among the provinces. The province is also one of only three where satisfaction has fallen over the last three years (along with Newfoundland and P.E.I.).

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Harper has a good TV night, Martin falls short

VICTORIA - Stephen Harper should sleep more soundly after the big debate.
And for Paul Martin, more restless nights.
The whole winner-loser commentary on debates is a bit of a mug's game.
But if you look at what the leaders needed to achieve in this week's TV debate, Harper had the best showing. (Except perhaps for Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, but he's irrelevant in an English-language debate.)
Martin, who needed to rescue a faltering campaign, couldn't shake off the big liabilities he's dragging along behind him.
Debates are mainly chance to take a quick measure of the person, and to contrast the media image with a somewhat twisted form of reality. (The leaders are wearing make-up, and have spent hours rehearsing. Bright lights are shining in their eyes and they're talking to a camera lens. It's not a normal setting.)
That makes it an advantage to enter the debate as the underdog. The lower the initial expectations, the easier it is to surprise people with your insight or warmth.
Stephen Harper is still an unknown quantity for many Canadians. All he really needed to do was show up, avoid big mistakes and reassure people that he isn't a maniac anxious to arm Canadians, gut the health care system and make heterosexual marriage a legal obligation.
Harper succeeded, especially with the people who matter. By now each party has a firm base, people who won't be swayed by the debate. The leaders' target audience is the 30 per cent of voters who are uncommitted or wavering.
Harper didn't seem crazy. (It is a great advantage to start a debate knowing that you win if you don't seem nuts.) He didn't hide from his views, and acknowledged Canada's diversity. He didn't shout. He didn't seem the obvious bogeyman the Liberals had claimed in their attack ads. Mission accomplished.
Martin had a much bigger challenge, and he couldn't meet it. The sponsorship scandal was like a yoke on his rounded shoulders. His commitment to health care waiting list reduction was mocked, as the other leaders pointed out that inadequate federal funding under the Liberals had helped create those waiting lists.
Martin had the huge task of convincing voters that he would be a strong and decisive prime minister, delivering a clear - and different - type of government. But ultimately he appeared to offer more of the same, and that is not what many voters want.
Jack Layton had a tough job as well. He tried to convince people that the Conservatives would be very bad for Canada, while dissuading them from the obvious conclusion that they should thus vote Liberal to block Harper. That would have required a huge leap in the perceived credibility of the NDP. It didn't happen.
What now?
The Conservatives just have to keep doing what they they are doing, targeting their efforts more and more specifically to close ridings.
The Liberals need to rethink a campaign gone wrong.
The attacks on Harper as a social conservative have not worked, and the debate should confirm that they won't. He's to the right of many Canadians, to use that somewhat arbitrary characterization. But he's no more extreme than lots of the people most voters know and work with.
Harper looked weakest on fiscal policy - what governments take in and how they spend it.
The Conservative plan calls for tax cuts and more money for the military and health care. Harper says he won't cut spending in other areas, just slow the growth.
But Martin argued that the plans will leave a $50-billion shortfall over the next five years, and the Conservatives will be forced to make significant cuts. It's a good issue for the Liberals to push in the coming days. And it will find the most receptive audience in critical B.C. and Ontario ridings, where provincial government tax cuts have raised awareness of the risks.
But for now, Harper has become the favorite.
Footnote: Not much for B.C. in the debate. A passing reference to the softwood lumber dispute, but nothing on treaties, or First Nations generally, or energy policy. Not even a token reference to the broader issue of Western alienation, which Martin had said was a major concern before the campaign began.