Thursday, March 03, 2005

A U.S. wine boycott, weird answers and bashing Baucus

VICTORIA - Notes from the front: A U.S. wine boycott, weirdness in the house and that pesky Montana Senator Max Baucus.

Forest Minister Mike de Jong’s suggestion that B.C. liquor stores stop selling American wine as one way of fighting back in the softwood dispute makes sense.
De Jong sounded discouraged after a day of Washington meetings with U.S. politicians revealed that the softwood dispute isn’t on their radar screen.
It’s not that they’ve decided U.S. lumber producers are right. The whole thing is just a non-issue for them. it doesn’t matter politically, and there’s no reason for them to pay attention.
Maybe Canada has done a lousy job of pressing the issue. But so far American politicians have no reason to care whether Canadian lumber exports are being blocked. (Canada has funded a lobby group to push the idea that the duties are pushing up U.S. housing costs. It’s hasn’t worked.)
Canada is finally raising the threat of retaliation, asking the WTO for permission to impose $4 billion in retaliatory duties on U.S. imports. But that process is slow - Canadian companies get a chance to argue against any duties that will hurt their businesses - and could take a year. Given the U.S. perception that Ottawa has trouble actually making decisions, it’s a distant threat.
But telling the Liquor Distribution Branch to quit buying U.S. wine is a simple, quick response. American producers - mostly Californian, but some in Washington and Oregon, would lose about $60 million a year in sales.
That’s not much. But it would be enough to get their attention. And if B.C. effectively explained the reasons for the decision, U.S. producers would be on the phone to their lobbyists and politicians to get this fixed.
This dispute is ultimately about political pressure. The U.S. lumber industry has a big incentive to pressure politicians to keep the duties in place. There’s no pressure coming from Americans who want them lifted.
Replacing some of that Washington State chardonnay on liquor store shelves with a nice Chilean white would be a small step towards creating that pressure.

The legislature is a mysterious place. The NDP used Question Period to ask Sustainable Respurces Minister George Abbott about a report to cabinet from the BC Cattlemen’s Association. The report, dated Feb. 24, complained the cattle industry has lost ground in terms of acccess to Crown land. It blamed the government for putting the forest industry ahead of other users, said staff cuts and poor communication have meant issues aren’t addressed and complained that the government has shut down consultation with the industry on critical issues.
Abbott responded, sort of, slagging the NDP record and offering up some general lines about the importance of the catle industry, tossing in a puzzling reference to the pine beetle. Outside the legislature, his answers also seemed a little off the mark.
Finally, light shone. Have you seen the report to cabinet, the minister was asked? Well, no, he said.
Then why not say that in the house, and promise to get an answer?
“I think there’s a reason why it’s called Question Period, and I wanted to give a very good answer to the question that they provided,” Abbott said. With or without any idea of the ranchers’ concerns.

Things got a bit rude, but Montana Senator Max ‘Blame Canada’ Baucus earned his rough ride when he showed up in Fernie as part of his campaign against a potential coal mine near the U.S. border. MLA Bill Bennett led the charge; New Democrats quickly said they don’t like Baucus either.
Dialogue is always welcome. But Baucus has led the fight to close the border to softwood and Canadian cattle, and never found it necessary to come up here to get any information until it suited him to grandstand on the coal issue. He deserved to hear how angry many British Columbians are with his position.
Footnote: De Jong was enthusiastic about his meeting with new ambassador Frank McKenna, in the former New Brunswick premier’s first day on the job. McKenna understands the issue, and politics. He has already cleverly - though dubiously - linked Canada’s rejection of the U.S. missile defence plan to anger over the softwood dispute.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Nothing wrong with teachers' union ads, but they may backfire

VICTORIA - It’s hard to share Liberal outrage that the BC Teachers’ Federation dared to use children in an television ad slagging the Liberals’ education record.
Backbencher Lorne Mayencourt leapt to his feet in Question Period this week, voice raised in indignation at the ads (which he hadn’t seen).
"Carole James and the BCTF have weaseled their way into our school system and are shamelessly exploiting nine-year-old children in their efforts to launch an American-style negative campaign," Mayencourt raged.
The union kicked off their current ad campaign with a commercial during the Oscars that gave Gordon Campbell an award for most devastating performance for closing schools and doubling post-secondary tuition.
The new ad, which had Mayencourt so worked up, uses real students and highlights their concerns about the school system under the Liberals. There’s a kindergarten student who rides the bus because a local school closed, a Langley student who says he no longer has special needs support, a Nanaimo student who says learning is difficult in a class of 35 children You get the idea.
The claim that the BCTF is exploiting children is a bit rich. The premier and education minister - like politicians everywhere - are always popping into schools when they need a good photo op for a new announcement. Nothing says caring like a photo showing you reading to a class of fresh-faced eight-year-olds.
And there’s nothing wrong with the visits, despite what Mayencourt says about politicians weasling their way into schools.
On one level, the Liberals likely welcome the BCTF ads. One of the Campbell party’s early election campaign themes is that James and the New Democrats are captives of the big public sector unions. If elected, an NDP government would put their interests first, the claim goes. Money going into the education system, for example, would improve the lot of teachers. not students.
The BCTF’s active support of the NDP campaign is going to reinforce that message with some voters. (The federation is reported to have $5 million set aside for poltiical advocacy.)
And the fact is that the union’s first obligation is to advance the interest of its members. That’s the reason it exists.
But at the same time the ads will raise legitimate questions about what has happened in the school system under the Liberals.
Education Minister Tom Christensen answered Mayencourt’s question by noting the education budget was being increased this year by $150 million, the largest jump in history.
But even with the increase, the money going to school districts will have increased by a total of 8.2 per cent since the Liberals were elected. The consumer price index, the basic measure of inflationary pressures, will have risen by almost 14 per cent through the same period.
Yes, the Liberals say, but the number of students has gone down, so school districts should expect less money.
That's only partly true. A drop in students doesn't translate into an equal drop in costs - if there are 10 fewer children in a school the heating bill and maintenance costs stay the same.
The real increase in per pupil funding - after the $150 million increase - will be about 3.5 per cent over four years. The reality is that has meant tough decisions on where to cut spending in school districts across the province.
Teachers have a right to be angry at the government. The Liberals promised to honour contracts, then used legislation to gut the teachers’ agreement of clauses governing maximum class sizes and other clauses that set staffing level. The union had bargained those provisions, and presumably given in other areas to get them.
And the government has been consistently confrontational, treating the BCTF as an enemy.
But sympathetic or not, most parents are going to believe that issues like class size are best decided by elected officials - MLAs and school trustees - not set in union contracts.
The ads’ effectiveness remains to be seen. The notion that they are in some way offensive is bogus.
Footnote: The impact of third party ads of all kinds during this long unofficial campaign should get a through review after the election. Business groups plan to support the Liberals; unions the NDP. My guess is that the campaigns could do more harm than good for both sides in reaching undecided voters.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Liberals fare best in poll, but worries for both parties

VICTORIA - The Liberals should be happiest with the latest poll results.
The Mustel Group poll found the Liberals had the support of 46 per cent of decided voters, with the NDP standing at 40 per cent.
It's not a big lead, and pollster Evi Mustel noted that a six-point gap can close very quickly in B.C. politics.
But with less than three months until the election, any lead is good news for the governing party. It is the one getting the closest scrutiny at this stage of the race, and the party in power is most likely to have made voters angry in some way.
That's not the only comfort the Liberals can take. Barely half those surveyed thought Gordon Campbell was doing a poor job as premier.
That may not sound like a great performance rating, but for the last three years Campbell's disapproval rating has been consistently higher. He's still getting failing grades from 51 per cent of British Columbians, but in relative terms that's not so bad.
Which is helpful for the Liberals, who are intent on making Campbell the centrepiece of their campaign despite his personal popularity problems.
The New Democrats can find some comfort in the poll as well. Forty per cent is a solid base for them to build on, and a remarkable comeback when you consider how desperately eager voters were to kick them out four years ago.
And the New Democrats are pleased to see the Green Party stalled at 10 per cent, a level low enough to convince most voters that the Greens won't be a viable alternative in May. (Just as the Liberals are delighted that no right-wing alternative has been able to attract more than token support.)
There's worrying details for both parties in the poll.
NDP leader Carole James continues to be an unknown quantity for most British Columbians. Among people with an opinion, 61 per cent approved of the job James as doing as leader, while 39 per cent disapprove.
But almost half of those surveyed haven't formed an opinion of James' work.
That hasn't been a big problem so far; it may have even helped the New Democrat cause. People weren't in a position to compare the two leaders, so instead they simply judged Campbell. Their views may change when it becomes a choice between two known candidates.
James' fuzzy image, after almost a year, also gives the Liberals a chance to define her in their terms. The Liberals are working hard to paint James as the daughter of the last NDP government, and a captive of the big public sector unions. The longer people go without having formed their own opinion of her competence, the more chance the attacks have of working.
Based on the poll results, an election held today would probably produce a legislature with about 45 Liberals, and 35 New Democrats. (That forecast is confirmed by the UBC Election Stock Market, the only election prediction project that requires participants to stake money on their opinions.)
The election isn't being held today, of course. The poll was taken just before the budget was introduced, to generally positive response. That should produce a boost for the Liberals in the next survey.
But it was also taken before problems in the health system once again became a major issue. The Liberals were criticized for their failure to add any long-term care beds for seniors - they had promised 5,000 by 2006 - and were forced to intervene in the Fraser Health Authority in the face of mounting problems at Surrey Memorial Hospital.
Health is the kind of issue that can produce a big swing in poll results. It is consistently - usually by a three-to-one margin - the most important issue for British Columbians. And it's one that is generally seen as a Liberal weakness.
All of which means that the poll is interesting, but the race is still to be run, and the outcome uncertain.
Footnote: Most of the Liberal gains in this poll came from male voters outside the Lower Mainland, likely because they have seen an improving economy. One-third of Liberal supporters said they favored the party because they prefer its economic policies. One-quarter of NDP supporters said they were onside because they don't like the Liberals.