Friday, April 22, 2005

Weak Martin bad news for Gordon Campbell

VICTORIA - Poor old Paul Martin, reduced to asking us all to cut him some slack in an sad and uninspired TV sort-of address to the nation.
And poor Gordon Campbell, wondering how the fallout from all this will affect his campaign for a new mandate.
Martin's speech was a touch pathetic, the unkindest description of all. It will appear to many voters that he was either inattentive as finance minister and senior Quebec politico while the sponsorship scandal was unfolding, or willfully blind to events around him. Neither interpretion is appealing, or inspiring, or what he likely hoped for when he planned his TV chat.
The official provincial Liberal position is that voters know that the federal and provincial parties - despite the same name - are chalk and cheese.
The public perception is different. The Strategic Counsel poll released this week found that 37 per cent of voters said the sordid reports from the Gomery inquiry are causing them to question the wisdom of voting for the Campbell Liberals on May 17. That is a large block of potentially disaffected voters, in a volatile campaign.
Martin took to television Thursday night, but not that convincingly. He promised an election within 30 days of the report from the Gomery inquiry, a move intended to head of an election within the next two months.
But neither opposiiton parties nor Canadians will likely be prepared to wait until December, when the report is due, to force an election. Parliament does not appear to be accomplishing anything now. Why wait?
It is all bad news for the provincial Liberals.
Partly, there is simply the risk that voters get grumpy at all governing parties, and punish them without regard for their sins.
That would be unfair. There are lots of criticisms you can make about the Campbell team, but these are not people interested in feathering their own nests or rewarding supporters. They, like almost all the candidates I've met from other parties, ran for office to make life in B.C. better. But angry voters may not be so reasonable in their judgments.
Pragmatically, Martin's failure to rally support makes an early federal election more likely.
And that is a problem for the provincial Liberals. Campbell has pulled together a coalition, including pale pinkish federal Liberals and blood red Conservatives.
They are frequently political enemies federally. The supporters of Stephen Harper and Paul Martin share one belief in common, that the other guys represent the forces of darkness.
But they manage to bury those differences, mostly, when it comes to provincial politics in B.C..
That truce will now be tested. The people who have been working shoulder to shoulder to elect provincial Liberal candidates have already begun looking to a June - or earlier - federal election. And their provincial allies will be their federal rivals within weeks.
It is not a reality that fosters teamwork or commitment. In a couple of weeks these people will be competitors, slagging each other's candidates and competing for everything from big donations to campaign workers to media attention. (In fact, some are already drifting away from the realities of the provincial campaign, wondering where they can stick those federal lawn signs.) It will be hard for them to put those considerations aside as the likelihood of a federal election increases.
Meanwhile the New Democrats, and Greens, will be smiling. Two elections, one NDP worker observed, just means we can drop off federal and provincial party leaflets with one trip.
It is too early to figure out what it all means.
But the provincial Liberals have been running a massively controlled campaign - even the events a few hours ahead are a secret. The Martin TV speech, the likely federal election, they were never part of the plan.
And now it looks much like a June federal election, and a whole new batch of headaches for the Campbell team.
Footnote: It was striking just how remote Martin's TV pitch seemed from life in B.C. Our ad agencies didn't get the money, our concerns and grievances weren't at the heart of the issue. We are just here, the patient audience for the drama. The next step will be decided by Stephen Harper, who has to decid how Canadians would feel about a June vote.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Campbell sets out on a carefully dull campaign

VICTORIA - Get ready for an impressively boring campaign from Gordon Campbell and the Liberals.
Campbell made the obligatory trip to Government House, the swell residence of lieutenant governors in B.C., to ask Iona Campagnolo to dissolve the legislature and allow an election.
Fortunately for all concerned, she agreed, allowing Campbell to make his way to a red-carpeted room on a lower floor and briefly face the assembled press.
Nothing he said was surprising, which is pretty much what you can expect for the next four weeks. The Liberals have a significant lead, and - for better and worse - most voters have formed their opinions of Campbell and the party. If the Liberals can maintain their current support, then they'll win another large majority. So their focus will be on avoiding mistakes and surprises, and keeping the NDP on the defensive.
Campbell sounded four themes.
First, the Liberals' plan has worked, and a stronger economy is benefiting people across the province and allowing more spending on health care and education.
Second, despite some broken promises - like the BC Rail sale, and gambling expansion, and the missing long-term care beds - the Liberals can be trusted. "We're building trust by actually delivering on 90 per cent of the commitments we made in 2001," he said.
Third, that the New Democrats can't be trusted, despite any claims that the Carole James might make about a new direction for the party. "They've tried to run a very low-key, under-the-radar campaign," Campbell said. "They're running an attack campaign and they're trying to keep it under the radar." The NDP hopes to sneak into office, and then would take B.C. back to the bad old days of the '90s, he said - and will say again and again over the next four weeks.
And fourth, that given another term the Liberals will make big progress in areas that are important to British Columbians.
It's a pretty simple set of messages, and the Liberals will stick to them. The campaign is tightly scripted, and being managed to avoid all chance of disruption or surprise. (Reporters climbing on the campaign bus after a rally in Victoria Tuesday weren't being told where the tour was heading the next day, the better to make sure no troublesome unscripted moments occur.)
At the same time, the LIberal staff will be working hard to bump the NDP campaign off track. Campbell took a shot at James for reshuffling some of the financial numbers in the party platform, which had included a pledge to take some of the money from the LIberals' election slush fund and re-allocate it to health care.
Aha, the Liberals quickly said, that money is going for rinks and arenas and other good things. The New Democrats reversed their plan.
Same old New Democrats, said Campbell. "It has taken the NDP less than a week to start eating into their fiscal forecasts."
Except no one knew where the slush fund was being spent, because the government wouldn't say - until the NDP platform came out, and openness became politically expedient.
Expect the Liberals to pounce on real or imagined gaffes, contradictions or blunders by NDP candidates over the next four weeks, both to raise concerns about James and bump the New Democrats off their own plan.
Trust, for most swing voters, is probably the most important issue. They aren't going to have the time, or inclination, to delve deeply into the parties' positions on a bunch of issues. A large part of their final decision will be based on an assessment of who will make the best decisions over the next four years as issue arise. On who they can trust.
The NDP needs, and probably has the opportunity, to make gains over the next four weeks. The Liberals just have to hang on to the support they have.
And that should make for a cautious, guarded campaign from Campbell.
Footnote: The Liberal effort to avoid mistakes is already taking at least one risky form, as the party's representatives avoid debates or discussions that include New Democrats. It's safe, but the Liberals risk looking afraid to defend their policies or plans in front of the public.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Liberals in command, James has the upside potential

VICTORIA - Here's the starting point. If the election campaign doesn't produce any surprises, or change anyone's mind, figure a little over 50 seats for the Liberals, and something over 25 for the NDP.
A lot can happen, of course. And both leaders, and all the strategists labouring away on wedge issues and daily talking points, will be judged on whether they can improve their parties' standings over the next four weeks.
But today, that's where things stand.
I'm basing that largely on last week's Mustel poll, which showed the Liberals at 46 per cent support among decided voters, and the NDP at 38 per cent. That's a statiscally significant lead. It's also slightly larger than Gordon Campbell and company had two months ago, indicating a relatively stable situation. Those results suggest about 50 seats for the Liberals.
That seat forecast is also not far off the results so far from the UBC Election Stock Market, a forecasting exercise that requires those involved to risk money on the accuracy of their predictions.
And it's consistent with an informal survey I did with 27 people from around the province, all political watchers, none involved directly in campaign. Their average forecast was 53 seats for the Liberals, 26 for the NDP. (I have been reading The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. which argues convincingly for the power of group decision-making over experts in producing accurate forecasts and sound judgments.)
It's all good news for the Liberals, who have been tied with the NDP for much of the last 18 months. The party has managed to move far enough to the middle to win over some disaffected voters. That's been especially helpful, the Mustel poll suggests, in sharply reducing the gender gap which saw women much less likely to support the Liberals. Gordon Campbell remains unpopular - 53 per cent of those surveyed disapprove of the job he's doing, 40 per cent approve. But that's stabilized too.
The Liberal job for the campaign is to execute. They've handed out the pre-election cash and got the headlines, and can't really expect to gain much ground over the nextfour weeks. Their challenge is to hold their support, avoid mistakes, and keep the NDP on the defensive.
But the poll isn't bad news for the NDP either. There's an advantage to them in being the underdog. Many people who say they plan to vote NDP are aiming to elect a much stronger opposition, after four years of a virtual single-party state. Some of them will change their vote if they think the NDP stands a chance of being re-elected.
And the New Democrats do have a chance to improve their position. Wisely or not, Carole James put off releasing the party's platform until last week. It makes an effort to shift the NDP to the middle in the same way the Liberal's election budget eased them toward the centre. If it works, if the move seems real, that will attract voters.
Much also rests on James. Right now she's got a 70-per-cent approval rating among people who have formed an opinion of her job performance. (Campbell is at 43 per cent.)
But more than 40 per cent of the public still haven't formed an opinion. That includes a large group of people who so far plan to vote Liberal.
That's a potential upside for the NDP. James handled the party platform launch well. (I know, it doesn't sound hard. But fire up the TV lights, and bring in a roomful of faintly crabby reporters waiting for you to make a mistake, and it all gets difficult.) James needs to do the same in the debate, and every day on the campaign.
Both leaders also have to convince voters that they will actually do what they say. Campbell has the burden of broken promises; James the NDP's record.
The campaign is on, with a sizable advantage for the Liberals.
Footnote: One surprise is how little impact the Green Party now has. Party support stands at 10 per cent, below the share of the popular vote the Greens got in 2001. Despite the vacuum created by the NDP's near-death experience, the Greens have failed to convince voters they offer a serious alternative approach.