Friday, April 29, 2005

Poll should push NDP, Libs to change campaigns

VICTORIA - If the political parties' polls are showing the same trends as the latest Ipsos-Reid survey, expect some changes in the final two weeks of this campaign.
The Liberals had much to celebrate in the poll, conducted at the end of the campaign's first week. They stood at 46 per cent across the province, compared with 39 per cent for the NDP and 13 per cent for the Greens. In the Lower Mainland, with it's chunk of seats, the Liberals outpaced the NDP 51 per cent to 36 per cent.
It's a commanding lead, the kind of support that would translate into about 50 of 79 seats.
The standings are also basically unchanged from the last three major polls, which found similar leads for the Liberals. Those kinds of results have encouraged Gordon Campbell and the Liberals to run an ultra-conservative, tightly controlled campaign, with no real public events. Only Liberal supporters know where the premier will be next. If others find out - like Don Fornwald, who runs the Williams Lake food bank - they're turned away. The aim is to avoid mistakes or unscripted moments, and preserve the support the party already has.
The Ipsos-Reid results indicate the tactic worked for the first week. But they also signal that there could be trouble ahead for the Liberals.
The pollster asked people how their views and attitudes had been affected by the opening days of the campaign. About 30 per cent said their opinion of Campbell and the Liberals had worsened; 10 per cent said they felt better about him and the party.
For James and the NDP, the numbers were reversed. About 30 per cent had raised their opinion; only 13 per cent had been turned off.
The risk for the Liberals is that if the trend continues, it will at some point translate into support, and seats, for the NDP.
The poll also laid out another problem for the Liberals.
The Campbell party's strong performance in the Lower Mainland is offset by its problems in the rest of the province. The NDP has a six-point lead on Vancouver Island, enough for up to 10 of the 13 seats. Across the North, and Interior, the parties are effectively tied. Take the Okanagan and northeast out of the mix, and there are a lot of Interior and Northern seats that could go NDP.
Sticking with the low-key campaign concedes the loss of many of those ridings. That's not good for a government, which functions best with strong members from across the province. And it would also not be real popular with the Liberal candidates in those ridings, who may begin to wonder if a stronger, more direct and less cautious campaign would be enough to help them to Victoria.
None of these problems compare with the challenges faced by Carole James and the NDP.
The party has some momentum, perhaps, but so far that hasn't translated into actual support.
And the NDP campaign - the campaign period, really - hasn't grabbed people, perhaps because they are not all that dissatisfied with the way things are going. Just over half the people in the Lower Mainland think things have improved in B.C. under the Liberals, the poll found, while 28 per cent think they've got worse. For the Interior and North, it's a statistical draw - 40 per cent think things have got better, 36 per cent worse. Campbell, despite his low approval ratings, is seen as a better potential premier than James.
What it all means is that both parties have to think about doing things differently. The Liberals' strategy of avoiding the public and working to keep their existing support is looking risky, and certainly means writing off seats. And the NDP so far hasn't raised any issues that will define the campaign, or result in a swing in votes.
The pressure is on both parties to do better.
Footnote: Not much will change until after the televised leaders' debate, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Expect a stilted affair, since the format is rigid. But the parties are still working hard at preparation, and will adjust their plans for the last two weeks of the campaign based on what happens on television Tuesday.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

New children's ministry cuts an election issue

VICTORIA - It's time to ask Liberal candidates how many more cuts are ahead for the ministry of children and families.
Issues come and go quickly in an election campaign, all parties claiming the high ground.
But the news that the children's ministry faces still more staff cuts deserves your attention. The ministry provides critical support for thousands of kids and families who desperately need help, and acts in the role of guardian for some 9,000 children.
And despite wonderful words in opposition, the Liberals have badly mismanaged the ministry.
The NDP released leaked minutes from a ministry regional meeting on Vancouver Island to show that still more front-line staff cuts are ahead.
The region was trying to deal with a budget letter ordering it to cut $1.3 million in spending. That means, according to the minutes, 18 job cuts in the groups that deal with child protection, fostering, adoption, child and youth mental health and youth probation. "The budget letter was clear about the numbers to be reduced over the next three years," the minutes record. "There are more FTEs than salary dollars."
So one in 10 of the people who work with children in the region will vanish.
That might be tolerable in some organizations. But the ministry has already been cut to the bone. The region has lost 25 per cent of its staff working in these areas since the Liberals started cutting.
The ministry says the job cuts aren't certain. But the spending cut is, and that leaves no real alternative but fewer services.
Anyway, the ministry argues, there are fewer children in care, so it's OK to cut staff.
Independent observers dismiss that argument. The ministry provides a range of services, and demand isn't determined by the number of children actually in government care. They work to protect children before they are in peril, on adoptions and other issues. The demand for all those services is rising, not falling.
In fact, keeping children out of care can require more staff. It takes more work and time to help a troubled family, while ensuring child safety, than it does to apprehend a youngster, says the BC Association of Social Workers.
Do other regions similar cuts? The budget letters are secret, so we don't know.
The Liberals' handling of the ministry has been one of its biggest broken promises, and biggest failures. In opposition Gordon Campbell argued passionately for more money for the ministry, which simply didn't have the resources to meet the needs of children and families. He promised to fund it properly, and to restore stability after years of re-orgs.
Once elected, the Liberals said they had a plan to cut the ministry budget by 23 per cent. The plan fell apart, but they pressed ahead with an 11-per-cent spending cut on services for children, families and disabled adults through the ministry.
And instead of stability, they launched yet another major restructuring - and mismanaged it badly that the process created confusion, and disillusionment, wasted money, and languishes years behind schedule.
At the same time, the Liberals eliminated the Children's Commissioner and the Child and Youth Advocate, independent government agencies that reported publicly on the ministry's successes and problems. A new Child and Youth Officer has not provided meaningful public reporting since then.
The NDP's past record in managing the ministry is as bad.
But the party's platform calls for a $30-million boost to the ministry budget - enough to head off the cuts revealed in the leaked minutes. And the NDP would restore both the Children's Commissioner and the Child Advocate to ensure effective public reporting.
We entrust the ministry with some of the most critical functions in government, including looking after children in serious trouble, and providing care for them when families fall apart.
It deserves the money to do the job. And it demands out attention to make sure that it is an election issue.
Footnote: The ministry responded to the leaked minutes not by providing information on budget issues in other regions, but by launching an investigation of the leak and telling employees to keep quiet. Meanwhile, staff and social service agencies are still waiting on any reports from a February consultation by the Child and Youth Officer, at which staffing and service concerns were repeatedly raised.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Wrapping up week one: Notes from the campaign trail

VICTORIA - Campaign notebook: winners, losers and good questions from the first week.

Another fascinating poll, which showed that British Columbians will likely re-elect the Liberals even though they think the province needs a change of government.
The Strategic Counsel poll fits with others recent surveys in its tally of party support, with the Liberals at 46 per cent, the NDP at 38 per cent and the Greens at 13 per cent. No surprises there.
But 58 per cent of those surveyed told the pollster it was time for a change of government. The only explanation is that voters are saying - again - that they don't really like the Liberals, but don't see an alternative.
One Liberal problem remains Gordon Campbell. Almost two out of three people said he doesn't understand the concerns of ordinary British Columbians.
The poll had bad news for the NDP too. Half those surveyed said despite the arrival of Carole James, the NDP has kept most of the people and policies from the Clark era.
Put it together, and you have a good lead for the Liberals, but a lot of dissatisfaction with both parties. That makes for a volatile electorate.

Meanwhile Campbell is being called "bubble boy" by some of his critics because of his tightly controlled campaign. The other leaders let reporters and the public know where they'll be each day, and what they'll be doing, but Campbell's schedule is top secret. Reporters only find out at the end of each day which part of the province the tour will head for in the morning, and get no advance information about specific events. Campbell is in and out of most communities before anyone except the tipped-off Liberal supporters know he's there. The strategy avoids protests and unscripted moments, but it makes Campbell look like a man not much interested in actually meeting or listening to people who aren't already onside.

Campbell's early days of campaigning included charges that the NDP would rewrite the Labour Code to favour unions. The party's platform doesn't include any reference to labour code changes, and James has said she wouldn't amend labour laws without sitting down with business and labour Campbell's criticism remains fair. The Liberals - although ruthless and dishonest with public sector unions - stayed largely in the middle when it came to labour code changes. Would James, for example, eliminate the requirement for a secret ballot on union certification? She won't say.

Why NDP candidate Rollie Keith had to drop out of the campaign because of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic? Keith is an ex-Canadian Forces officer, who was a NATO observer in Kosovo. He didn't see war crimes being committed, and testified to that at Milosevic's genocide trial at The Hague. Keith met the former Yugoslavian president then, and told the Chilliwack Progress last fall that Milosevic seemed OK.
What I've read suggests Milosevic committed war crimes. But I don't get what was so bad about Keith's comments. He testified about what he had seen. When a reporter asked him for his views, he didn't dance away, in the evasive manner of a schooled politician. He answered the questions. His assessment of Milosevic is unpopular, and may in fact be dead wrong, but it seems to be an honestly held view based on personal experience. What's the problem?
And,if the Liberals really considered this important, why didn't they raise it six months ago, when Keith's comments were published, instead of launching a last-minute attack? (Sorry, I forgot. It's politics, which apparently excuses otherwise dubious behaviour.)

Carole James call for a separate leaders' debate on B.C.'s regions got a cold-shoulder from Campbell. It's obviously a political ploy from the NDP leader, who wants a chance to highlight Heartland problems. But it's also a good idea, and a chance to address concerns that too often get lost in campaigns that inevitably tend to focus on issues important to Lower Mainland voters.

And the official score at the end of week one: all even, as Campbell and James both did the job they needed to do. Campbell avoided mistakes or missteps that would erode the Liberal lead; James pushed the party's message and herself effectively. But neither leader likely succeeded in changing many voters' minds.