Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Nominations creating problems for NDP and Liberals

VICTORIA - I bet the Liberals did a little dance when they heard Adrian Dix had won the NDP nomination in Vancouver-Kingsway.
For Gordon Campbell, it’s like Christmas came three weeks early. Figure the Dix nomination is good for a few Liberal wins in close seats, as well as big laugh lines in campaign speeches.
I’ve nothing against Dix, who seems a decent enough person.
But he’s got two huge strikes against him.
Dix is best known as a powerful figure in the former NDP government, generally seen as Glen Clark’s closest political advisor.
That’s not a real strong resume item. The Clark government stumbled from crisis to crisis, lacked clear political focus and managed to fall to astonishingly low approval ratings. It’s like going out on a job interview and telling people you were responsible for Enron’s financial strategies.
And then there’s the famous memo to file. Right after police raided Clark’s home he produced a memo, written by Dix. Look, Clark said, this shows that I had nothing to do with the casino application of his friend Dimitrios Pilarinos.
Clark said the memo proved that he had spoken about the issue with Dix almost a year earlier. “The premier asked me to ensure that he take no part in any aspect of the decision on Burnaby casinos,” Dix wrote in a memo, dated July 17, 1998, which he then filed away.
It was an important piece of evidence. But it was, in one critical way, fake. Dix didn’t write the memo in July; he wrote it months later, got the office date stamp from a secretary’s desk, and rolled the date back.
That’s no crime. But it shows remarkably bad judgment.
Dix’s candidacy is a gift to the Liberals. NDP leader Carole James faces the critical task of assuring voters that the New Democrats have changed if the party is to do well at the polls next May.
Now every Liberal campaign speech can remind voters that Clark’s top advisor could end up in an NDP cabinet, and to talk about the famous memo-to-file and the casino scandal.
Dix has a right to run, and the active New Democrats in his riding picked him over three other candidates.
But that’s no consolation for James. (And it is interesting that she chose not to, or wasn’t able, to persuade Dix not to run for the sake of the party’s overall prospects.)
The Liberals have their own nomination worries.
Less than two months ago Gordon Campbell put a brave face on the party’s defeat in the Surrey byelection, and vowed that candidate Mary Polak would win the riding in the election next May.
Polak apparently isn’t so sure. She’s decided to try and get the Liberal nomination in Langley, where former cabinet minister Lynn Stephens isn’t going to run again.
It’s hardly a vote of confidence in the Liberals’ prospects in Surrey, where Polak has been a high-profile and controversial school board chair, responsible for an expensive legal battle over children’s books that depict gay parents.
Polak’s move has also exposed the divide within the provincial Liberals.
She’s seen as a social conservative, the kind of person who would find a home in the federal Conservative party (or even more comfortably in the old Canadian Alliance).
Stephens represents of the wing of the Campbell party that would be more comfortable in the federal Liberals. She says Polak is too right wing to represent Langley and should stay in her own riding.
A similar spat is shaping up in North Vancouver, where MLA Dan Jarvis - who has been critical of the government - faces a challenge from school trustee Cindy Silver, a lawyer and staunch social conservative who has argued against same sex marriages.
It is, as the federal Conservatives painfully found out, risky business to have candidates seen as conservative ideologues.
The process has barely begun, and both parties have reasons to worry.
Footnote: One plus for the NDP is that people actually want the nominations. In 2001 it took arm-twisting to get sacrificial victims to be battered by voters. A minus is gender equity; only three of 16 nominated candidates are women.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Economy good enough to be good news for Campbell

VICTORIA - It was a lot of economic good news for the Liberals in one day.
First StatsCan reported that B.C.'s unemployment rate had hit its lowest level in 23 years.
And then the panel of independent economists that advises Finance Minister Gary Collins predicted that B.C.'s economic growth for the next five years would likely be better than the Canadian average. Not spectacular growth, but welcome, especially in light of the huge risks posed by rising oil prices and the collapsing U.S. dollar.
The unemployment news is mostly symbolic. They November drop in the unemployment rate to 6.4 per cent meant good headlines for the Liberals, but it didn't really reflect a stronger economy or help for B.C.'s hardest hit regions.
The unemployment number didn't go down because more people got jobs. Instead, it fell because a large number of the people who had been looking gave up.
StatsCan gets the unemployment rate by calculating the number of people without jobs as a percentage of those who are working or actively looking. If people quit looking the pool is smaller, and the rate goes down.
In November about 23,000 fewer people had full-time jobs than in October; about the same number got part-time jobs; total employment stayed the same.
But about 11,000 people quit looking for work, pushing down the jobless rate.
StatsCan doesn't track the reasons for the drop in people in the labour force. People get discouraged, go back to school, move to Alberta.
The end result is the same. The unemployment rate goes down, but the number of people working actually stays the same. The total they are earning - and spending in the local economy - may even drop, if part-time work replaces full-time jobs.
The trend should be a special concern for the province's regions. It's may sound encouraging that no region of the province had double-digit unemployment last month. But if the reason is that people have given up and moved away, it's much less positive.
Still, the employment trend since the election has been positive, despite some terrific blows to the economy. About 2.1 million people were working in November, up 150,000 from the time the Liberals were elected. (The economy produced a little over 100,000 jobs in the comparable period at the end of the NDP era.) Debate wage levels and part-time work if you like, but more jobs is a good thing.
The report from the province's Independent Economic Forecast Council was more solidly encouraging. The council - 13 independent economists from the private sector - was set up to ensure the province's budgets are based on realistic projections. Their latest update predicts B.C. will outperform the Canadian economy in all but one of the next five years.
It's not soaring growth. The council predicts GDP growth of 3.3 per cent next year, a slight decline from this year. But B.C.'s economy will grow faster than the Canadian average, which the economists project at three per cent.
They predict B.C. will match the national average in 2006, with three-per-cent growth., and then stay slightly ahead of Canadian average through 2009.
Boom times its not; the annual growth rate for the period is only slightly better than the growth during the five years of the Clark government.
But the B.C. economy was better than the Canadian average only once during the Clark years; it's predicted to consistently beat that target ove the next five years. And most other things being in balance, that is good news for British Columbians.
It's impossible to know how much governments deserve credit for good times, or blame for bad times. The Liberals' critics will claim that they're simply the beneficiaries of a booming world economy, low interest rates and high commodity prices.
But those same critics have been bashing the government for being too pro-business. Surely they have to concede that some of that pro-business approach may be attracting investment.
Footnote: Politically, the economy only matters when things turn really bad, because voters are unsure how much of a difference government makes. The Mustel Group tracks the top issues on voters' minds in its polling. Only one in six voters pick the economy as the top issue, with health care the dominant top choice.