Wednesday, April 13, 2005

James' platform aims to move NDP to middle

VICTORIA - The NDP's platform launch got the party's campaign off to a pretty good start this week, despite one major goof.
The broad thrust was clear. NDP leader Carole James wants to persuade people that she's moved the party to the middle. No more deficits, no tax increases and no turning back the clock to undo Liberal changes.
"My platform is pragmatic and achievable," James said. "It promises what can be done within our ability to pay." It's kind of an 'NDP lite,' compared with the government that ran the province through much of the '90s.
So James pledged to hire 1,500 more teachers, but she also ruled out any new taxes on business. She promised 1,000 new long-term care beds this year, but said an NDP government would still make sure to end the year with a surplus. Teachers would get the right to bargain class size, and to strike, but hospital workers shouldn't expect to get back their jobs, or pay cuts.
And perhaps most importantly, the platform includes a clear explanation of how the NDP will pay for any new spending it does plan.
An NDP government, the platform says, would come up with $32 million for the children and families ministry, and to restore the Children's Commissioner. It would find $40 million more for aid for communities hit with the pine beetle disaster. And it would come up with $103 million to open long-term care beds and cut surgical waiting lists.
The money would be found by reducing the contingency fund, and trimming bits and pieces from government.
But - and politically this is a stumble - most of the money would come from "deferring or cancelling" money for projects the Liberals are funding from their election slush fund.
That probably sounded reasonable in a planning session. The Liberals set aside a $250-million election fund this year - the same budget category was $18 million last year, and will be less than $50 million next year. Surely the public shouldn't be keen on blatant vote-buying?
But $100 million of the money has gone to create two locally directed $50-million economic development funds, one for the Southern Interior and one Vancouver Island and the mid-Coast. The NDP supports those, and has pledged not to touch them.
So far the Liberals have promised another $73 million from the fund. Smithers gets $1.7 million for a rink, Kelowna $6.5 million for a pool, Victoria $19 million for a sports complex, and so on. And another $70 million worth of announcements are planned for the next few days.
Crass vote-buying, perhaps. But the people in Nanaimo probably like the idea of an $8-million contribution to a better arena. They won't be keen on James taking the money away.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen was the designated government guy to dump on the platform. (He is effective.)
He naturally jumped on the threat to promised projects.
And Hansen raised a couple of other themes you can expect to hear from the Liberals through the campaign.
The NDP may promise no new taxes, Hansen reminded, but in government they raised tax rates in B.C. above our neighbours.
And an NDP government would give too much to organized labour, Hansen suggested, tipping the Labour Code in favour of unions and allowing teachers' strikes. (James has promised teachers the right to strike, a strange and empty commitment. No government will allow more than the briefest disruption to schools. It's a sham, and the Liberal proposal to reform bargaining makes sense.)
Still, a good start for James. There are credibility issues, a terrible party record and candidates who may have an entirely different policy view.
But James, after 17 months on the job, got the party to produce a platform that made sense, added up and could attract support from the voters who matter - the people in the middle.
It's not a bad beginning.
Footnote: The Greens got stomped on by the NDP. Adriane Carr had scheduled the party's platform launch, but the NDP put out a release saying their platform would be unveiled at the same time. An accident, said James. The Greens are not convinced.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Timing political, but Cariboo highway a good project

VICTORIA - It's election time. Break out the highway construction equipment.
Gordon Campbell's pre-election road show rolled into Prince George this week, and out of pretty much nowhere the Liberals unveiled a $200-million plan to begin a big upgrade of Hwy 97, the critical route from Cache Creek through the heart of the province.
Just part of the plan, the premier said. That came as a big surprise to people in Prince George, expecting a $33-million commitment to twin a highway bridge. Instead they got the downpayment on a $2-billion highway megaproject, albeit one that will unfold over decades. The first phases - $200 million over five years - barely starts the job of turning the highway into the promised 'Cariboo Connector,' a 460-km four-lane route through the Interior. About 37 kms are currently four-lane. By 2010 the government hopes to have added another 45 kms, with most of the initial work near Prince George, Quesnel, Williams Lake, 100 Mile House and Cache Creek, where congestion is a problem.
The announcement - eight days before the official election campaign starts, and the big spending stops - is obviously political.
But improving the highway, and branding it, is a good investment in the region's future. That would be valuable in any case. It's critical given the coming economic crisis, when the pine beetle wood is harvested and allowable cuts are slashed across much of the region. Economic diversification will be part of any potential solution, and improved transportation is a critical part of the puzzle.
A Progress Board report last year urged governments to make transportation improvements a priority. Communities across the province can already be brought together electronically, removing one barrier to economic development. Better transportation networks can make a large difference in removing the physical barriers, effectively moving cities hours closer to each other.
 "A key strategic consideration should be establishing a workable timeframe for improving - to the greatest extent possible - key segments of east-west and north-south highways to 'shrink the distance' between major centres and to enhance external market connectivity," said the report, written by UBC prof Michael Goldberg. Goldberg said improving the Trans-Canada Highway in the Rockies, removing Lower Mainland bottlenecks and four-laning parts of Hwy 97 should be top of the project list.
The report released by the Progress Board also suggested more tolls to pay for the roadwork, and get the projects moving more quickly.
And four years ago, that might have been in the Liberals' plans. Remember the effort to sell the Coquihalla, letting a private company collect the tolls and take over the maintenance? The cash from the deal was supposed to pay for more road improvements. The principle was that users should pay for better highways.
But people hated the idea. Their response seems to have finished off not only that privatization scheme, but also plans for other private, toll projects in the Interior.
That might be a mistake. If a toll road, or private partner, allowed much faster progress on the project the benefits might outweigh the obvious public dislike for paying directly to use highways.
There are other options for moving more quickly. Campbell said federal money could help advance the work schedule. That should include money from Ottawa intended to help deal with the pine beetle crisis. The improvements should help the region. Highway travel issues are critical across much of the province, where large distances and sometimes difficult conditions cause delays and safety issues. Travel problems cost individuals and companies money, hurt the prospects for economic growth and create conflicts between users.
And highway issues are a critical barrier to tourism development, keeping travellers away from the Cariboo and locked into the southern quarter of the province.
Sure, the timing is obviously linked to the election, and to winning seats for the Liberals.
But the Cariboo Connector makes economic sense. On with the work.
Footnote: The project makes sense; the Cariboo Connector name doesn't. The highway’s new name should be aimed at persuading tourists that a trip to Prince George - and then to Prince Rupert - should be part of their plans. The route's name should sell the region's history and beauty, and lure tourists down the road.

Liberals’ star candidates bring big changes

VICTORIA - It’s tricky bringing star candidates like Wally Oppal and Carole Taylor into the Liberal ranks.
Take one issue. All those new stars shining so brightly - Oppal, and Taylor and Virginia Greene and even Daniel Igali - are from the Lower Mainland. If they end up in cabinet, as they all expect, then the government focus inevitably shifts further towards Vancouver and its sprawl. It’s not something anyone intended, but it’s the reality. After all, Gordon Campbell hasn’t shown up to welcome new high-profile Liberal candidates in the North, or the Kootenays so far.
Star candidates can add value. Oppal’s decision to run for the Liberals in Vancouver-Fairview generated a week’s worth of speculative news stories, and drew a pack of reporters and TV crews to the big announcement. He’s seen as bright and fair and the kind of person who can make things better - and he can get on the evening news.
Star candidates can also bring needed freshness and independence. It is easy for any group of people who work together - a union executive, or corporate management group, a cabinet or even journalists - to slide into ‘groupthink,’ a shared vision of the world and the way it works. (And it is especially easy when power is concentrated in the hands of a strong leader.)
But a new person, with stature conveyed by recruitment as a star candidate, can safely challenge the common view, and propose new responses or solutions. They bring fresh ideas, a different background and independence. Those are critical elements if groups are to reach the best decisions.
For the Liberals, the benefits are even greater. The party needs to look a little more moderate, not mean, or too far right. Oppal is a socially progressive judge; Taylor the ex-chair of the CBC; Igali an Olympian who cares about kids. They are made-to-order.
Still, the arrival of the chosen has to rankle, and brings some problems for the leader who has done the recruiting. Chilliwack MLA Barry Penner, a lawyer and hard-worker, had been mentioned in reports as a potential attorney general. Oppal is now on track for that job. Taylor, Green and Igali may all dash someone’s hopes for a cabinet post.
A lot of MLAs have worked hard for the last four years, and believe they deserve a chance to be in cabinet. The odds are still good - if some 50 Liberals are elected, more than half will get cabinet positions - but some of the best jobs are going to the new stars.
The arrival of ambitious people who have not been part of the long Liberal march to power also changes the group dynamic. This government has been noteworthy for its unity. Only two MLAs out of 77 - Paul Nettleton and Elayne Brenzinger - have walked away, and there’s been no public bickering. One factor is a shared history. These people saw Campbell build the party, and lead it to a huge victory, and remain grateful.
But the newcomers don’t have that experience. Instead, they have a vague sense that perhaps they could do a better job of leading the party. Given the chance, they may be quick to offer their ideas for the government.
And suddenly things get much more complicated. Because then the people already in cabinet who think they might be good leaders decide that maybe they should be working a bit harder to get into the right place to challenge - just in case. The willingness to stay in the message box begins to slide.
All of which are good things for the public. The best cabinet, or caucus, would be one with a wide range of experience and expertise, with each person prepared to speak their mind. Bringing in independent newcomers helps any government move closer to that ideal.
But for the party, and the leader, things can get bumpier along the way.
Footnote: The prospect of Oppal as attorney general, working alongside Solicitor General Rich Coleman, is intriguing. Oppal is seen as more interested in the social roots of crime; Coleman in enforcement and punishment. The two - an ex-Mountie and ex-judge - may well be be sharing responsibility for law and order in B.C.