Thursday, May 05, 2005

Debate helps James within the NDP too - but what happened to First Nations

VICTORIA - Some footnotes from the debate, starting with another reason Carole James' strong performance is significant..
It was assumed some NDP leadership candidates sat out the last race, reluctant to take on the job so soon after the 2001 debacle and confident that James would face some sort of leadership challenge after this election. In the same way, most voters doubted James would deliver on her promise of a more moderate NDP, in part because they doubted she could control the party.
The debate, and what looks like a reasonably good election result, give James a much firmer footing in the sometimes snakepit world of NDP politics, and makes any moves against her politically reckless. That bolsters her clout over the next four years, and may reassure some voters about the NDP's course.
Meanwhile, the post-debate official Liberal spin was that Gordon Campbell, rather than being defensive, was polite, and the unofficial spin was that he didn't want to be seen as the overbearing middle-aged guy lecturing two nice women.
It's the first leaders' debate I can recall where women were in the majority, and that did create a problem for Campbell. That's not necessarily because he's male, but because he's male, widely seen as uncaring, and already unpopular with women voters. It would be tough for him to get into a noisy clash without looking bad.
That shouldn't have ruled out a better performance. Quiet and polite can still be highly effective.
But if gender was a factor in the way the debate went, then we should be working harder to see more women in the legislature. The relative civility - think back to the federal leaders' debate for an alternative - was a tribute to all three leaders.
One of the most surprising aspects of the debate were the number of topics that didn't get a mention.
No leader really talked about First Nations and treaties, despite the importance of the issue to the province's future and the continued difficulty in moving to final agreements.
No leader talked about forestry, beyond the hot button issue of raw log exports. Parts of the industry are booming, Campbell could have noted. And all three leaders could have offered their plan to deal with the coming drastic timber shortage as a result of the pine beetle infestation, or their approach to the never-ending softwood trade battle.
No leader really talked specifically about economic development for B.C.'s regions, and a plan to reverse a steady exodus of young families and resource sector jobs.
The time was short, and six topics were preselected. But the lack of focus on the rest of B.C., the parts of the province outside Vancouver and its sprawl, was surprising.
It was also a little surprising to see that James chose not to raise the Liberals' dubious fund-raising methods that have been in the news for the past week. The approach helped her avoid being seen as too negative, but it meant a missed chance to highlight the NDP pledge to ban corporate and union donations.
Voters did get a first look at a new theme from Campbell, one that will play a role over the next two weeks. "On May the 17th, you'll choose B.C.'s future," he said is his generally flat closing speech. "You're not going to choose an opposition. You're going to elect a government."
The Liberal fear is that voters who simply want a stronger opposition, or to punish the Liberals over specific grievances, will end up accidentally electing an NDP government. They also recognize the value of planting that thought in voters' minds when there are so many close races.
It will take the next set of polls before we know how the debate really affected the race.
But it's already a win for James personally, and a boost for NDP workers. That's important. The party that has the best organization on the ground will win some close races.
Footnote: The TV ratings remind us that most voters will get their information about the debate secondhand. About 37 per cent of the people watching TV tuned in the debate at some point, almost four time as many as watched the runner-up, Jeopardy. But that still means most voters will rely on the media or friends in forming their opinion.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

No big winner, but good night for James

VICTORIA - Here's the debate in a three paragraphs.
Gordon Campbell didn't do well, but he didn't do terribly, which is generally the goal for the front-runner. Nobody who watched the debate would have left saying 'wow, I feel a lot better about that guy.' Nobody would have been plunged into horror at some newly revealed weakness.
Carole James did well, though not enough to make any huge changes in the party's fortunes. There wasn't the Gordon Wilson-Brian Mulroney kind of defining moment that would transform the campaign.
And B.C.'s regions should be steamed at how little attention was given to any issues that matter to them. Forestry never even came up, except in terms of a brief reference to raw log exports. Nothing on mining, or regional economic development, or of ways to provide better services outside the Lower Mainland.
My reaction to the debate doesn't much matter. (For one thing, I'm taking notes, which means I'm not watching the way a typical voter would, and miss some of the gestures and expressions.)
More importantly, the target audience for all three parties is really swing voters, people who will probably vote but are not yet committed to a party.
The pitches were about what you would expect.
James tried to raise questions about weak areas of the Liberals' record. The debate's six topics included health care and education. In both cases James was effective in raising doubts about the Liberals' performance, raising the broken long-term care promise and rising waiting lists, and cuts to school services.
She reminded people of the Liberals' broken promises, on gambling and long-term care beds and BC Rail. (Campbell strangely tried to maintain, again, that BC Rail hadn't been sold.) And she promised balanced budgets and no new taxes.
It was a good effort. James had the most to gain in the debate, as many British Columbians have yet to form an opinion of her leadership, according to polls. The latest Ipsos-Reid poll indicates that James and the NDP gained approval durin the first days of the campaign, while the Liberals slide. It points to an opportunity.
It wasn't a great performance from Campbell, who seemed the most stiff and nervous of the three. But it wasn't bad, and he met the main goal of the Liberal campaign by avoiding any mistakes that would help the NDP.
The Liberals have been running a cautious, guarded campaign, protecting their lead in the polls. Campbell kept on that track Tuesday.
He did challenge James effectively on her promise to restore the right to strike to teachers. And Campbell raised the NDP's record in the '90s. "British Columbia went from being the best economy in the country to the worst," he said.
Still, Campbell didn't do much to advance the party's cause. James did.
Green Party leader Adriane Carr can probably count it as an adequate night. The Greens' objective is to get Carr elected in Powell River-Sunshine Coast. She stressed the importance of having an alternative to the "old parties" of vested interests, and made point of linking the NDP and the Liberals in her criticisms. Carr didn't score any big wins, but she probably helped her personal campaign.
The debate's impact will be carefully measured by the parties' pollsters over the next 24 hours. My guess is that there will be enough of a shift to alter the last two weeks of the campaign.
James took a major step Tuesday, campaigning to form the next government, not just a strong opposition. Campbell raised the possibility of an NDP government as well, in a cautionary way.
The Liberals were on their way to a comfortable majority, with perhaps 50 of the 79 seats. But if the polls show the debate produced even a small shift in party support, the race will be much closer.
And both New Democrats and Liberals will be looking at changing their approaches to the final days of this campaign.
Footnote: The debate format worked well, and all three leaders deserve full marks for allowing the others to speak, generally without interruption. The debate was courteous, and not unreasonably negative. Voters would likely welcome more of the same - especially the debate on regional issues proposed by James.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Liberals show need to ban old-style fundraising

VICTORIA - Yes, the scandal over the BC Liberals' fund-raising practices is real.
Not in the way you might at first think, that the Campbell Liberals are breaking new ground, or some sort of rogues within a generally fine system. In fact, all parties in power raise money in similar ways, and that includes selling access to the leader, or cabinet ministers.
But in this election, the Green Party and the NDP have both promised political financing reform if they form government. Corporate, union and municipal donations would be banned and individual donations limited, as they are federally and in Quebec and Manitoba.
The Liberals are opposed to reform. And that should be an important policy difference for voters.
The money involved in the Liberals' wrong-doing is small, but the specifics are serious. Municipalities, individuals and businesses in the northwest were encouraged to pay to attend an economic development conference. Taxpayers paid to fly in ministers, as well as senior bureaucrat Andrew Wilkinson, a former Liberal party president.
And then the local Liberal party treated the event as a fund-raiser, and pocketed the proceeds.
In Nelson, a similar scheme saw the party profit from what was billed as a breakfast meeting with Economic Development Minister John Les. Want to talk about the interests of your small business with the minister, or hear his ideas? Write the party a cheque.
The Liberals also took money from charities, something party rules rightly bar.
In turn, the Liberals complain the NDP took money from First Nations' governments in 1997, and that unions are skirting election finance laws with their anti-Liberal campaigns.
The Liberals have shown that the current system does not work. According to a national survey in 2000, almost 90 per cent of Canadians believe "people with money have a lot of influence over the government."
It does not take any deep study to conclude that a corporation, or union, that donates $50,000 a year to the party in power will benefit as a result. If two editors call me tomorrow with questions about B.C. politics, and one has been running the column regularly and the other rarely, I'll call the supporter first.
Certainly that's the way donors think. The Liberals are in trouble in part because they took money from municipalities. The mayors, and councillors, defend buying tickets to party fund-raisers in part because it bought them access to cabinet ministers that they could not otherwsie get. Pay the price to the party, reap the benefits.
Consider Paul Martin's leadership campaign. Long after competitors had been routed, he was receiving millions in donations.
Why? Supporters didn't have to worry about ensuring a Martin government, as that was already certain. The only explanation, is that they wanted their financial support to be noted for future reference. They expected something. (Corporations and unions both have legal obligations to spend money in ways that benefit their shareholders and members.)
Campbell says disclosure of donations is enough. You should be able to keep track of the thousands of donors, and thousands of decisions by secretive governments, and decide if improper favoritism is being shown. It was always a far-fetched argument, but the Liberal party's current claim that it couldn't even keep track of donors or fund-raising schemes elevates the argument to fantasy.
It's not a complicated problem. Ban donations from corporations, unions and organizations, and set reasonable limits for individuals. Decide how much parties - which are supposedly volunteer-based - really need to operate, and run election campaigns. If donation limits make it impossible for them to get enough money, then come up with equitable public funding.
The issue is simple. Is it likely, or possible, that parties will feel an obligation to those who give them huge amounts of money? Almost all of us - and this what matters - say yes.
That perception alone threatens democracy, and is reason enough to ban corporate and union donations.
Footnote: The Liberals raised $5 million in the first 10 months of last year. About $3.5 million came from corporations and other businesses, while individuals contributed $1.5 million, mostly from people willing to write big cheques. The NDP took in $2.5 million, with $360,000 from unions and the rest from individuals, largely writing small cheques.