Friday, October 29, 2004

Byelection bad news for Liberals, disaster for Greens

VICTORIA - That was a convincing win for the NDP in Surrey, a blow for the Liberals and a disaster for the Green Party and Adriane Carr.
The Liberal spin is that it's tough for governing parties to win byelections.
True enough. The last victory by a governing party was in 1981. People can safely send a message of dissatisfaction in a byelection, without having to worry about which party will form the government.
But this was a still a sharp slap in the face for the Liberals. The Gordon Campbell party took 60 per cent of the vote in the riding in 2001, while the NDP stumbled home with 20 per cent, results that almost exactly reflected the provincial vote.
Now the Liberals could only win the backing of 33 per cent of voters, while the New Democrats topped 50 per cent.
The defeat comes less than seven months before the provincial vote next May, and after a big effort by the Liberals. They thought they had a strong candidate in Mary Polak, and poured taxpayers' money into pro-government advertising during the campaign. Campbell helped out, and they came up with a flood of spending announcements and even tax cut one week before the vote.
It didn't work. The Liberal challenge is to get beyond denial, and figure out why they have lost the support of more than half the people who voted for them in 2001.
Their first reaction was that voters just wanted to signal their dissatisfaction. In the general election voters they'll have to vote for us, said the Liberals, because the NDP would be worse. It's a complacent, even arrogant, attitude. If people think you're doing a bad job you need to improve.
For New Democrats, the win demonstrates that their dismal record in government is no longer fatal to their hopes. That's good news for leader Carole James, whose main challenge is to show that the party has changed.
The NDP was able to field campaign workers - something that didn't happen in 2001 - and run a winning effort.
The victory is also a big practical boost for the party. The NDP gets a much greater opportunity to press the Liberals in Question Period, and to get the party's views into the public debate. New MLA Jagrup Brar has six months to show up at every elementary school concert and service club lunch in the riding, and raise issues that affect all the Surrey ridings. And generally, the party gets some badly needed hope.
The big losers are Carr and the Green Party.
Carr chose to run herself in the byelection, saying that party leaders have traditionally taken the first chance to seek a seat.
The decision backfired. The Greens captured fewer votes than they did in 2001, finishing with less than nine per cent.
Worse, the byelection left voters with an obvious conclusion. A Green vote, under our current system, will be a wasted vote in almost every riding in the province.
That was fine in 2001, when it was clear the Liberals were going to win a huge majority. Voters could safely go Green, either because they liked their policies or didn't support of the two main parties. In 68 of the 79 ridings the Liberals would have romped home even if every Green voter had decided to back the NDP.
The byelection results show that things will be different this time. The Liberals and New Democrats will be locked in a number of close races, and perhaps even in a battle to form the government.
The only people who will safely be able to vote Green are those in ridings where the races aren't close, and those who don't care whether the Liberals or the NDP form government. That leaves the Greens with bleak prospects.
The results should send a warning to Campbell. People are unhappy with the style and substance of the government. It's a message that needs to acknowledged, not denied.
Footnote: Liberals moved quickly to blame the defeat on the active NDP support by big unions, which did pour workers into the campaign. But the government made a big push as well, and ultimately the defeat reflected the judgment of the 12,000 people who voted.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

'Crackdown' on drunk driving really masks decriminalization

VICTORIA - Don't fall for the rhetoric about getting tough on drunk driving.
While the debate about decriminalizing marijuana rages on, we've already quietly decriminalized most drinking and driving offences in B.C.
The Liberals introduced changes to drinking and driving penalties in the brief fall session, and even got a few headlines that talked about a crackdown on impaired drivers.
But the changes - though useful - continue the process of decriminalizing drinking and driving, and treating it as a less serious offence than Parliament intended.
Canada's laws say that drinking and driving is a criminal offence.
But enforcing the law would cost money that the government doesn't want to spend, for police and prosecutors and court time. So the province has moved to cheaper alternatives, with much less serious consequences for drinking drivers.
About 51,000 drinking drivers were caught by B.C. police last year. But only 7,000 - 15 per cent - faced Criminal Charges. The rest received 24-hour roadside suspensions and were sent on their way.
In some cases, there may not have been clear enough evidence for criminal charges, and the blood alcohol level is lower for a roadside suspension is lower.
But the government's own review released last year found that police just don't have the time to process drunk drivers and do the work needed to lay charges. The government also doesn't want to pay for the prosecutors and court time needed to handle more offenders, with drinking and driving offences already taking one-quarter of provincial court trial time.
It's too expensive to enforce the law, so charges are now reserved for the very drunk, repeat offenders or people who are in accidents.
The changes to provincial laws didn't change that. The government remains unprepared to pay the cost of enforcing the law.
They amendments are useful, but relatively minor compared to all the rhetoric about the dangers of drinking and driving.
B.C. will finally end its dubious distinction as the only province that doesn't require offenders to take a course on drinking and driving, and if necessary receive alcohol counselling. (Alberta has been requiring the courses for 30 years.)
But the province still took a baby step. Only repeat offenders and the small minority convicted of a Criminal Code offence will have to take the course. The government estimates that one in seven of those guilty of drinking and driving will have to take the course. the message - intended or not - is that 85 per cent of drinking drivers aren't really doing anything too bad, and have just made a little mistake.
The other changes are also worthwhile, but small. Minimum fines for driving while suspended were raised from $300 to $500, and possible terms of vehicle impoundment doubled.
And the government introduced the use of ignition interlock devices, which require some offenders to provide a breath sample before they start their cars.
Again though, it's a small step. Only drivers who have been convicted of three Criminal Code drinking and driving offences will be considered for the program, and it remains optional. In Ontario, the device is mandatory after two convictions. (But then in Ontario a third conviction brings a lifetime driving ban, which can be reduced to 10 years. In B.C. the ban is only five years.
Overall, the changes make sense. But they are very small, even timid steps.
One reason is likely pragmatic. Make the consequences too tough and penalties too severe, and drivers will have the same incentive to spend time and money fighting them. That is what helped lead the government to move away from Criminal Code charges in the first place.
Still, the overall message is that the government is only moderately concerned about the problem of drinking and driving, and prepared to take only small measures to deter the hundreds of thousands of people who take to the roads impaired each year in B.C.
Footnote: What's urgently needed is an awareness and education campaign. The government's report on the issue found drivers weren't aware of the current penalties, and underestimated the legal consequences. People won't be deterred by penalties that they don't even know exist.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

New way of electing MLAs offers great hope

VICTORIA - OK, it's confusing, but you should be wildly enthusiastic about the chance to change the way we elect MLAs and governments in B.C.
It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once political parties are in power they aren't much interested in changing the system that got them there, even if it has huge flaws.

But Gordon Campbell, to his credit, promised to give a randomly selected citizens' assembly the chance to see if there's a better way of electing governments.
And what's more, he promised that any recommendation would go to a binding referendum at the same time as next May's provincial election.

Now they've done it. The 160 members of the assembly, after 10 months of study and consultation and public hearings, have come up with what they say is a better way.
You have six months to assess their proposal before the referendum. It deserves your full attention. The assembly came up with two basic conclusions.

First, that the current system isn't working. The make-up of the legislature doesn't reflect the votes of British Columbians. The New Democrats, for example, received 22 per cent of the vote in 2001, but have 2.5 per cent of the seats. The Green Party had the support of 12 per cent of voters, who have no representatives in the legislature. In 1996, the NDP received 40 per cent of the votes, but 52 per cent of the seats.

The assembly also found that the current system concentrates power in the hands of the party leadership, with the result that MLAs are seen as servants of the party, not the people that elected them.

Second, the assembly decided that the best way to improve the system was by moving to a single-vote transferable system, already in use in other jurisdictions.
It's painfully complicated to explain, and a full review will follow in a later column.

But basically, there are several key elements.

The legislature would stay the same size, but individual ridings would be larger, and would elect more than one MLA. Three Prince George constituencies, for example, could become one larger riding that would elect three MLAs.

And the way you vote would change. Instead of marking an 'X' beside one candidate, you would rank the people on the ballot in order of preference. One of the Liberals may be your first choice, because you like the party and the candidate.

But your second choice might be an independent candidate who has done a good job on school board, or a New Democrat whose abilities you admire. You don't have to say yes or no to a party, but can effectively split your vote among several.

Here's where things get complex. When the votes are counted, the rankings come into play and the votes are weighted to ensure a result that reflects the preferences of the voters.

The result, the assembly says, would be a much more diverse legislature, with candidates representing a wider range of voters.

And as importantly, it would -- by ending the domination of two main parties -- lead to a greater need for parties to co-operate with each other, and would shift power from the premier's office to backbenchers.

There's room for a full debate about the pros and cons, and much to learn about the specific proposal going to the referendum. The assembly hopes to have that work done by mid-November.

But this is an extraordinary opportunity for real change, to a system that has worked in other parts of the world for decades.

Few can deny change is needed. The legislature isn't representative; barely half the eligible population bothers to vote; citizens don't feel well-served by their MLAs; and this place is an embarrassment too many days.

The citizens' assembly is composed of two people from every riding in the province, from students to seniors and farmers to scientists. They consulted the best experts, and the public, and produced a recommendation. It deserves serious consideration.

Footnote: Green Party leader Adriane Carr immediately trashed the proposal. She favours a different proportional representation system, and wants to organize a "no" campaign in the referendum. It's a short-sighted, negative response to the one best chance for change that would actually help the Greens and other smaller parties.