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.

Monday, June 28, 2004

B.C. fares badly in the federal election

VICTORIA -That was a discouraging election.
We didn't matter here in B.C. - again.
We established that Canada effectively has a one-party system.
And while minority governments have their advantages, it's hard to see that this one will benefit B.C., or tackle any hard issues.
It's more disappointing because it looked like we would count this time. That maybe a handful of voters out here could determine Canada's future.
But then before the first results were in from B.C., the Liberals had won their minority government.
It's not just petty regional pride at stake. Parties in power pay the most attention to the regions that will have the greatest impact on their chances of re-election. B.C.'s lack of importance has been demonstrated once again.
A bigger issue, not least for Conservative leader Stephen Harper, is that the election raised real doubts about the fundamental basis for his party.
I crunched the numbers after the 2000 election. Even if the Conservative and Alliance votes had been pooled in every riding, the Liberals still would have won a comfortable majority.
The lesson seemed pretty clear. It's not enough to unite the right. You've also got to attract support from the middle.
And if there was ever at time for that to happen, surely this was it. The polls showed voters were appalled at the sponsorship scandals and Liberal infighting. But instead of increasing its share of the popular vote, the new Conservative party went backwards, perhaps most dramatically in B.C. where the combined Alliance-Conservative vote in B.C. fell from 57 per cent to 36 per cent.
Which raises some very basic questions about why the Conservatives exist, and how they need to change if they wish to be anything more than a perpetual opposition.
There's nothing inherently wrong with minority governments.
But this particular government could be a problem for B.C. A Liberal-NDP minority is the worst outcome for the BC Liberals. (Between David Anderson and Jack Layton the moratorium on offshore oil and gas development is now more firmly in place than Layton's hair.)
It's not just the likely policy swing to the left as a result of the federal coalition. The federal New Democrats - including a much bigger B.C. contingent - know that British Columbians will be voting next May. They are not going to be enthusiastic supporters of any federal measures that make Gordon Campbell's government look good.
And given the federal Liberals' likely focus on Ontario, B.C. issues like softwood lumber will have a hard time grabbing much attention from Ottawa. (How many times did you hear the issue raised during the campaign?)
It's not all gloomy. Minority governments do have to pay attention to voters. The party in power usually has some control over when the next vote comes. But they also know that at any time the opposition parties could force an election. They have to be ready. And on some issues - like urban infrastruture - a minority government could have benefits for B.C.
But the downside of the uncertainty is that we are launched intio a perpetual election campaign. Martin will likely want to wait until the sponsorship scandal has faded before the next election. But we could be heading to the polls next spring - when we also have a provincial election.
Overall, the federal results are likely alarming for the BC Liberals. The federal New Democrats took their share of the B.C. vote from 11 per cent to 27 per cent in this election, largely at the expense of the Conservatives. They emerged as a significant home for protest votes, a role Reform and Alliance had taken over through the '90s. It's an ominous development for the Campbell Liberals, who attacked Layton and his party during the campaign with no apparent impact.
The people have spoken. I just wish we had mattered a little more.
Footnote: A big win for the Green Party. New election finance rules replace big donations with public funding based on th number of votes each party gets. The Greens are in line for more than $1 million a year, a huge amount for the cash-strapped party. Expect a lot of it to be spent in B.C. - a benefit for the provincial Greens and a headache for the NDP.