Friday, September 10, 2004

Search warrant opening good news for Liberals

VICTORIA - The latest information on the raids on the legislature doesn't make the Campbell government look great, but it's far from political bad news.
Supreme Court Justice Patrick Dohm ruled the public could see a small portion of the search warrant applications in the raid on legislature offices last Dec. 28.
The information was still heavily censored, with nothing about the other searches linked to the drug investigation that was the start of the entire exercise.
And - this is important - all the information represents are the police suspicions that led to the searches. Nothing is proven. No one has even been charged in connection with the legislature raids.
The documents show police suspected Dave Basi, the former top aide to Finance Minister Gary Collins, was secretly helping Omnitrax, one of the bidders for BC Rail's Roberts bank line, and Omnitrax lobbyist Erik Bornman.
Police alleged that Robert Virk, the senior aide to former transportation minister Judith Reid, was helping Basi, and passed on documents about the BC Rail deal.
The police theory was that Virk and Basi were helping Bornman because he was a mover and shaker within the Paul Martin wing of the federal Liberal party. The duo believed he could help them get good jobs after Martin won the coming election, police told the court in justifying the search warrants.
Police said they suspected that both Basi and Virk illegally accepted a benefit and committed breach of trust.
Remember, nothing is proven and only Basi and Virk remain under investigation.
It's still a messy cloud to have hanging over the government, for a couple of reasons.
Ministerial assistants are senior staff members, who in most cases work very closely with the minister. They attend most meetings, often decide who gets to see the minister and are involved in policy discussions. Hiring them should be a pretty careful process. The police are suggesting that the Liberals may have got it very wrong. (Basi was fired after the raids; Virk has been on paid leave for more than eight months. The government has never successfully explained the different treatments.)
And the information in the warrants is a reminder of just how tight the ties are between the federal Liberals and a core group within the provincial Liberals. (The investigation included searches and interviews with several senior B.C. federal Liberal insiders.)
It's not a welcome reminder. The Campbell Liberals are a coalition, and one issue that could split them apart is the question of ties to a federal party.
Many provincial Liberals are federal Conservatives. If they believe that the provincial party is dominated by federal Liberals who are working closely with the federal party in a partisan way, those federal Conservatives will be angry. They will be even angrier if they believe the association has brought trouble down on the provincial party. And they will have an option if the new Conservative provincial party gets off the ground.
But those concerns aside, the provincial Liberals can mostly see the release of the information as good news.
There are no suspicions or allegations of broader involvement, nothing that links any politicians in any way with the raids or investigation, and nothing that suggests negligence or inattention.
Nobody apparently benefited or lost from the scheme, except for the taxpayers who were out about $1 million when the sale of BC Rail's Roberts' Bank spur had to be cancelled because of the charges.
Even the timing of the release of the information is helpful for the Liberals. Voters have the chance to consider the search warrant material, and form whatever opinion they will, long before next May's election.
In terms of voter support, it's not likely that this information changes a great deal.
People predisposed to dislike or suspect Gordon Campbell will have another reason for their position. Supporters will be buoyed. and most voters will be considering other issues.
Footnote: The Liberals made the odd decision to announce $20 million in health care funding in the day the search warrant information was released. The timing was likely aimed at setting the stage for the Martin health summit, but it meant less media attention to a good news story.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Liberals betraying trust with wild gambling expansion

VICTORIA - The Liberals used to think gambling was terrible.
Gordon Campbell said gambling creates addicts and hurts families, back when the Liberals were in opposition. And his position was clear.
"No new casinos," said Campbell. "The only way the government gets money from gambling is from losers. We don't want an economy based on losers. There will be no further expansion of gambling. We'll try to reduce it.''
The Liberal New era platform even promised to "stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families."
But after the election everything changed and the Liberals rushed to ramp up gambling throughout the province, striving to recruit more losers, to use the premier's word.
There were 2,400 slot machines when the Liberals were elected. Now B.C. there are almost 5,000 slots.
The Liberals have opened mega-casinos and are pushing more addictive forms of gambling into small communities by encouraging bingo halls around B.C. to add slot machines. They have allowed drinking in casinos - something it also used to oppose. Alcohol and gambling; a match made in heaven if the aim is to encourage people to lose more.
It's worked. The government's take - its share of peoples' losses - has climbed by 50 per cent, to $850 million, under the Liberals. They plan to push that to more than $1 billion in the next two years.
It wasn't just the premier who used to be opposed.
Children and Families Minister Christy Clark used to speak out against casino expansion. She said gambling destroyed families, and resulted in violence against women. Any government that really cared about women wouldn't expand gambling, she said.
Katherine Whittred grilled the New Democrats about their much more modest expansion plans. "Faced with the avalanche of research into the negative effects of increased gambling on women, can the minister tell the House why she won't stand up for B.C.'s women and oppose the premier's dangerous gambling expansion?"
Kamloops MLA Kevin Krueger opposed gambling expansion on clear moral grounds.
Krueger warned of the dangers of problem and pathological gambling. He spoke sadly about the terrible tragedy in which a man entangled in a gambling addiction was accused of trying to kill his wife and child by setting them on fire.
More places to gamble meant more horrors, he said then. "The people it hurts the most are the ones we have a responsibility to protect, such as the poor, women and abused families," he said.
Please, Krueger urged New Democrat backbenchers. Stand up to your premier. Halt the gambling expansion. It is simply immoral.
Big deal, you may say. Politicians say one thing and do another. Circumstances change, the realities of governing and making tough choices come into play.
But this is different.
The Liberals' objections to gambling expansion were based on principle. They believed it was wrong for government to profit by exploiting peoples' weaknesses, by putting money ahead of the harm to individuals and families.
It's defensible to flip-flop on selling off a government-owned railway.
But how do you walk away from your principles, and not leave something important behind?
Campbell is right.
Government gambling is built on creating losers, and persuading them to lose more and more.
About 1.9 million gamble through some B.C. government lottery or casino or game of chance each month.
The government currently plans to lure 200,000 more people into becoming regular gamblers over the next four years, winning them over with marketing campaigns and by pushing seductive slot machines into neighbourhoods from Cranbrook to Prince Rupert.
And the Liberals are doing it knowing they are hurting people. About 90.000 people are already problem gamblers in B.C. The government's expansion plans mean another 9,000 will slide into that abyss.
What's sad is that based on their past statements, the Liberals know that what they are doing is wrong.
Footnote: Communities looking at putting slots into bingo halls to get the 10-per-cent of revenue that goes to the host municipal governments should talk to University of Nevada gambling expert William Thompson. Gambling sucks money out of the local economy that would have been spent on other goods and services, he says. An average B.C. slot machine rakes in $140,000 a year from losing gamblers. And most of that money leaves town.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

New parties of the centre-right threaten Liberals

VICTORIA - Who would have thought that the Campbell government could face a big threat from what most observers would dismiss as fringe parties.
Unity Party leader Chris Delaney grabbed some attention last week by announcing plans to merge with the B.C. Conservatives and adopt their name.
So who cares, you may ask? The Conservatives barely exist and Unity claims about 4,500 members. It doesn't sound much like a big deal.
But it could be.
Because even a small gain in the new party's share of the vote could cost the Liberals closely contested ridings.
It's a little bit weird even to be writing this. After the Liberals' huge 2001 win, it seemed impossible to imagine that they could be challenged in next May's election.
But the polls show the New Democrats and the Liberals effectively tied now. And that sets up a classic B.C. showdown between the evenly matched forces of what we can arbitrarily call the right and the left. If the vote is split within either flank, that side is in trouble. (See the 1991 and 1996 elections, when the right vote split and the NDP won.)
Enter Unity and the Conservatives.
Unity, the child of another unite-the-right marriage, has made a dent in public consciousness, keeping up a steady stream of statements on the issues. The party registers in the polls, claiming seven per cent of decided voters in the southern Interior in the last Ipsos poll.
The Conservatives haven't made much of an impact. But they've got a name, and more importantly they have the potential support of B.C.'s strong federal Alliance-Conservative network. Some federal Conservatives believe the Campbell Liberals are too tightly tied to the federal Liberal party, and that B.C. needs a provincial Conservative wing aligned with the federal party. MP Darrel Stinson has already signed on.
It's a big problem for the Campbell Liberals, because even a small loss of support to another party on the right is serious.
The UBC Sauder School of Business sponsors on-line election stock markets, and to help the punters professor Werner Antweiler has an on-line 'voter migration matrix election forecaster.' The chart lets you model the effects of different vote shifts since the last election. (Google 'ubc election stock market' to try it yourself.)
The most recent poll, from the Mustel Group poll, showed the NDP at 42 per cent, Liberals at 40 per cent, the Greens at 11 per cent and the rest of the parties sharing six per cent of the vote. Plug those values into the model and it predicts a Liberal majority, with 46 seats to the NDP's 33.
But if a new Unity-Conservative party - or any other on the centre-right - takes even two per cent from the Liberals, everything changes. The forecast is for a virtual tie, with the NDP with a slight advantage.
It's not science, but it should be a concern for the Liberals. Unity, which barely attracted more votes than the Marijuana Party in the 2001 election, is poised to play a major role in next May's vote.
And if the merger fails, or Unity proves to be too socially Conservative for British Columbians, then there is the BC Democrat Alliance, another centre-right party looking to capitalize on the Liberals' weakness. Leader Tom Morino is a two-time Liberal candidate and former member of the party's provincial executive who hopes to follow the path blazed by Gordon Wilson and his PDA party.
Come on, you may say. Voters who don't want the NDP back aren't going to vote for some new party. They'll recognize the pragmatic need to unite behind the Liberals. But almost 200,000 people voted Green last time, even though most knew their local candidate couldn't win. They had a message to send.
The new parties of the centre-right offer voters the same chance to send a message. Gordon Campbell should be worried.
Footnote: The Surrey-Panorama Ridge byelection - when Campbell finally calls it - will be a good test for the new parties. The Liberals will likely run Mary Polak, known as a 'conservative' school trustee. The Unity-Conservative candidate will likely be Heather Stilwell, Polak's cohort on the board, while Molino plans to run for the new BC Democrat Alliance.