Friday, December 31, 2004

What to watch for on the political front in '05

VICTORIA - Nine things things to look for as we head into another year of politics, and perhaps both federal and provincial elections.
First, can NDP leader Carole James escape the party's past and her own fuzzy image in voters' minds and achieve some sort of breakthrough in the May election?
My guess would be that an election today would produce a clear Liberal majority, with about 45 seats to the New Democrats' 35 or so. Bad news for the 30 Liberals who stand to lose their seats, but a convincing win.
But there are 15 weeks before voting day, and a lot can change. The ability of James to win voters' confidence is a key variable. Right now about 32 per cent of voters approve of James' work as opposition leader, and 27 per cent disapprove, according to the latest Mustel poll.
Those are likely the voters already committed to a party. James' ability to convince the 40 per cent who haven't made up their minds that she's a credible leader - or her good fortune in coming up with a Gordon Wilson-type breakthrough moment - could change things dramatically.
Second, will an NDP candidate list that includes too many tarnished veterans - like Glen Clark advisor Adrian Dix and former MLA Harry Lali - make it easy for the Liberals to convince voters that the voting New Democrat is risking a return to the incompetent past?
Third, can Gordon Campbell convince voters that his government isn't mean-spirited, does have a social agenda and can be trusted? The polls indicate voters have serious doubts about the government's interest in struggling British Columbians and don't believe Campbell when he promises a new direction. (The big broken promises on gambling, BC Rail and respecting contracts haven't helped.)
Fourth, can the Liberals stick together? The party - a coalition of free enterprisers with a wide range of views on health, education and social policy - has stayed unified. But they were helped because they were focused on cutting taxes and spending. Now the surpluses are large, and the choices more diverse. The divide between the traditional small 'l' liberals, who want to spend on a social agenda, and the conservatives who don't really see much of a role for government, is threatening to widen .
Fifth, can the Liberals deal with their own candidate problems? The emergence of social conservatives - like Mary Polak and Cindy Silver - is already being criticized by sitting Liberal MLAs. Stephen Harper learned painfully how much damage that candidates who are seen as extreme social conservatives can do to a party's hopes.
Sixth, will the B.C. economy continue to perform? Most indicators point to decent growth in 2005, with the only worrying factor the risk of a decline in U.S. housing starts and problems for the forest industry. Economic growth means more jobs and gives voters a reason to stay the course with the current government.
Seventh, will the BC Rail scandal emerge as a significant issue. The corruption charges are serious and allege that the $1-billion sale was compromised, and that taxpayers and other bidders lost money as a result. The Liberals' claim that this somehow had nothing to do with government makes no sense. A huge public asset was sold in a tainted process, prosecutors charge, and that has everything to do with government. The fact that the case is before the courts will help the Liberals deflect questions, but it also means regular headlines.
Eighth, will Paul Martin's minority government survive the year? The best bet is that it will, and that British Columbians can expect more attention from the federal Liberals in preparation for a vote in 2006. But the problem for Martin is that the longer the governs, the more adrift the federal Liberals seem to be. The strategy of putting off the eventual election is looking politically dangerous.
And ninth, will a positive referendum vote on electoral reform change everything in B.C.
Stay tuned.
Footnote: The other things to watch for are the risk of school disruptions as the BCTF negotiates its contract and the potential for mounting problems in the health care system. Health and education are critical areas for voters who are already skeptical of the Liberal record.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Time for transportation push for B.C.'s regions

VICTORIA - B.C.'s regions should be pushing hard to make sure a new Progress Board report on transportation issues doesn't end up gathering dust.
Communities outside the Lower Mainland need lots of help to prepare for current and coming challenges. but transportation improvements offer one of the best bets for economic development and diversification.
Make it possible for people and goods to move efficiently and cheaply and all kinds of opportunities - from tourism to resource development to small business - are opened up.
The Progress Board is useful creation of the Campbell government, set up to provide regular independent reports on how things are really going in B.C. and occasional special bulletins.
The transportation study, by UBC prof Michael Goldberg, offers a challenge to the provincial government and to communities to come up with transportation strategies - and actually execute them - that will boost regional economies.
Much of it is not complicated. But the report's recommendations are sweeping and will test both the provincial government's commitment and communities willingness to work together.
That's going to be especially true in the area of air transportation. Goldberg has a number of recommendations aimed at opening up B.C. to more international flights as part of a global trade push.
But he also says it's time for more consolidation within the province's regions. Almost three dozen airports have some form of scheduled service, he says, and that leaves many too small to cope with increasing security costs and other infrastructure demands.
Some airports - Comox, Kamloops, Kelowna and Prince George - need to expand, Goldberg says. Others - like Williams Lake and Castlegar - are the right size.
But others need to shrink or even close, with service consolidated in a nearby centre, he suggests. Smithers, Terrace/Kitimat and Prince Rupert all have airports, he says, but the region would be best-served by one larger airport in Terrace. Castlegar should be the airport for Trail and Nelson. Williams Lake should serve Quesnel. And either Fort St. John or Dawson Creek should emerge as the region's airport, the report says.
It's always a tough sell to get communities to set aside their local interests and focus on the region. But the principle makes sense.
The short-term blow to communities that see their airports downgraded could be cushioned by other recommendations in the report, which include a call for improved highways.
"A key strategic consideration should be establishing a workable timeframe for improving - to the greatest extend possible - key segments of east-west and north-south highways to 'shrink the distance' between major centres and to enhance external market connectivity," the report says. Priority should be given Trans-Canada Highway improvements in the Rockies, four-laning portions of Hwy 97 from Prince George to the U.S. and a lot of improvements in the Lower Mainland.
And to pay for the roadwork, the government should look to more tolls, the report says.
The report also makes a case for a much larger role for the Port of Prince Rupert, a change that would require major expansion of the port number of other projects. Rail tunnels need higher ceilings to accommodate modern container cars and highway improvements in the northwest corridor are also needed.
And Prince Rupert's port needs to be supported with an inland container handling facility in Prince George, Kamloops or the Fraser Valley - a big boost for one or more of those communities.
The report also recommends that a new Pacific Port authority be created to take on responsibility for all five ports in the province, with the ability to borrow money, build facilities and manage the entire system.
Tax breaks for airlines and rail and trucking companies are also recommended, along with a big push to ensure that effective security controls are put in place without compromising the flow of goods.
It's a good blueprint. But communities will have to push if they want to see action on problems that have been around for a decade.
Footnote: The report confirms Prince Rupert's advantage as a gateway that gets goods to mid-America far more quickly than any U.S. port. But the port is hurt because shippers bringing goods from Asia now have to return empty, because there is little outbound trade through the port.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Enough about same sex marriage, already

VICTORIA - It's probably wrong to classify the same sex marriage debate as completely irrelevant.
But where are our priorities? Children are going hungry, drug addiction is a national crisis, our health care faces big challenges over the next 20 years, our political system is wounded - and we're wringing our hands over a word.
This isn't a debate about whether gays and lesbians in a committed relationship should have all the rights of heterosexuals. Every significant participant, including Ralph Klein and Stephen Harper, agree that they already do, and should.
It isn't a debate about whether churches should be somehow forced to recognize same sex marriages. Every serious participant agrees they shouldn't.
All this thrashing and political posturing is about whether two people can get a piece of paper from a government office that says they are married. Some people would like a different word on the piece of paper; some think that marriage is OK. That's it.
The courts - from the BC Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada - have ruled that the gay and lesbians have a right to be married. The federal Liberals plan to change the law to recognize that right.
And for all the fuss, the new law doesn't have any real impact.
Churches would not have to perform same sex marriages. The legal or economic status of the couples would be unaffected, since the economic rights of people living together have already been established. With or without the piece of paper, same sex couples will be living together, raising children, going about their business.
Nothing really changes. That's what's puzzling about the claims that this represents some big threat.
Same-sex couples will be able to get a form from a government office that says they are married. That's it. That piece of paper will have the meaning and significance that they - and others - choose to give it. No one is forced to share their view.
Many people believe same sex relationships are wrong, or that real marriage can only involve a man and a woman. They are fully entitled to continue to hold those beliefs. I have a friend whose grandmother went to her grave refusing to acknowledge his marriage, or his children, because his wife was from outside their religion. It was sad, but she had a right to that belief.
As people will have right to believe that same sex marriages aren't 'real.'
The arguments against same sex marriage seem weak.
Gay relationships are less stable, some argue, stable relationships are good for children, so gay marriage is damaging to society.
Except that gay and lesbian couples will still choose to raise families, with or without the piece of paper. There's no change. If anything, marriage vows encourage stability.
Others - like Conservative leader Stephen Harper, who is floundering badly on this issue - argue that the real issue is whether laws should be made in the courts or Parliament.
But the courts are simply saying that Parliament has to make laws that don't conflict with each other. Parliament passed the charter of rights, and a marriage definition law that conflicts with it. That had to be sorted out.
Other opponents of the change resort to tired slippery slope arguments, the last refuge of those unable to support their position. Allow one change to the definition of marriage, they say, and the next thing you know people will be marrying their cats. It's foolish. No sensible person could believe a court would uphold such a definition, or that Parliament would pass such a law.
I figure that if two men or women want to marry, as they define it, more power to them. It's a blessing to find someone to share this life. If you disagree, I respect your view and you're continued right to hold that opinion.
But this isn't a big change. Let's move on to more serious problems.
Footnote: Why not then, if this is not significant, leave things as they are? We can't. The charter of rights provides a right to same-sex marriage. The only way to wipe out that right requires an extraordinary use of the notwithstanding clause to waive the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all Canadians. And that's dangerous.