Thursday, May 19, 2005

Non-confidence defeat should end the Ottawa sideshow

VICTORIA - The bizarre soap opera in Ottawa isn't just embarrassing, it's hurting Canadians.
The Liberal government survived a non-confidence motion Thursday by the narrowest margin in Canadian history. MPs were split evenly on whether the government should fall, and the deciding vote to keep it alive was cast by Speaker Peter Milliken, a Liberal MP.
The spectacle has been dismaying.
The Liberals, facing defeat, stalled desperately to avoid facing this test. They lined up NDP support by promising to add $4.6 billion in social spending and to cancel promised corporate tax cuts. This week they persuaded Belinda Stronach to abandon the Conservatives - and jilt lover Peter Mackay, the deputy Conservative leader - and take a senior cabinet post in the Liberal government.
If she hadn't jumped, British Columbians would be heading into another election campaign today.
Meanwhile, sick MPs - including Independent Chuck Cadman of Surrey, weak from cancer treatment - were dragging themselves into the House of Commons for the vote. (Cadman cast a critical vote to save the government. His constituents
don't want another election right now, he said.)
What's striking is the desperation on all sides. Conservative leader Stephen Harper has made bringing down the Liberals his over-riding priority, sacrificing any attempt at making Parliament work in the meantime.
Prime Minister Paul Martin has been busy buying the support of MPs, promising Stronach her cabinet post, the NDP billions of new spending and courting Independent MP David Kilgour with promises of increased aid for dying refugees in the Sudan. Think about that for a second. People are dying in a war zone, but Canada's help depends on how badly the governing party needs to stay in power.
And all this is playing out as the Gomery Inquiry hears evidence that taxpayers were routinely ripped off in the sponsorship scandal, and that some of the money ended up in the hands of Liberal operatives.
The last month has seen just about every desperate, discouraging political moves that you could imagine.
What Canadians haven't seen is a working Parliament, or one that is focused on their interests. The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois have made toppling the government their over-arching goal; the Liberals have placed clinging to power
above all else. (Only the New Democrats have demonstrably worked towards practical goals, by shaking down Martin for more spending in the budget.)
Provinces have been lining up to extract promises of cash from an obliging Martin, who figures that opposition MPs from those regions will be reluctant to topple the government before the spending legislation has passed. B.C. will likely add its demands now that the election campaign is over.
It's a mess, and there are only two ways out.
Martin could give up, and call an election. Instead he wants to wait until Gomery reports - and the Liberals have a chance to improve their standing in the polls. As prime minister, if he can get the votes in Parliament, that's his right.
Or Harper could accept the verdict, give up on forcing a non-confidence motion until it would clearly be successful and get back to the normal work of the House.
The second option makes the most sense. The Martin government is wounded, and fragile, and clinging to power. But it has demonstrated the support of Parliament - thanks to some dubious dealing - so it can survive.
And at this point, forcing an election seems politically reckless. Canadians are angry and disillusioned, and any election would be wildly unpredictable. Harper is as likely to be punished as rewarded.
Martin has promised an election within 30 days of receiving the Gomery report. Unless new outrages emerge, or the situation in Parliament changes, Harper and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe should settle for that. It doesn't really matter who
is to blame. What Canadians are looking for now is an end to destructive squabbling.
It's time for Parliament to get back to work.
Footnote: The Stronach defection added the crowning touch to this soap opera. She apparently dumped the Conservative party and Mackay at the same time, sending him back to his family home for a few days to mend a broken heart. His
interviews from there were sad and touching, and added a weird twist to the whole affair.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Next steps for STV, Greens and a look at the rural-urban divide

VICTORIA - Random notes from the confused day after the election.
First, there's a big political opportunity waiting for the party that acknowledges the public will and backs a switch to the single transferable vote system.
A majority of voters in 77 of the 79 ridings said 'yes' to STV, far beyond the required 60 per cent of ridings. Overall, 57 per cent of voters backed the change, just short of the 60-per-cent support threshold set by the government.
The threshold is not unreasonable.
But the referendum result is a clear indication of the public's desire to move to the new system, and the collective belief that it would deliver better, more democratic governments.
And it represents much more popular support than any political party has been able to win in B.C. for decades.
Both the NDP and the Liberals might like to ignore the referendum. Neither is keen on a change which reduces the power of parties and increases the chance that more independents and small party candidates would be elected.
But it would be wrong for them to ignore the will of the people, and foolish to ignore a great political opportunity to back something that has been proven popular with a majority of voters.
The leaders may recognize that. Gordon Campbell said STV isn't dead. "I think we should bring that to the legislature, to all members of the legislature and review where we may go from there, because there is clearly some hunger to see an improvement," he said. Carole James said she voted against STV, but backs an alternate form of proportional representation.
Campbell is on the right track. A caller to radio talk show suggested a simple, clean solution - bring the issue to the legislature, and allow a true free vote by MLAs. If they chose to represent their constituents, than 77 of them will vote yes, reflecting the referendum results. If they choose not to follow the wishes of the people who elected them, they can explain why.
Second, it is time for the Green Party to take a look at its future. Adriane Carr ran a focused, effective campaign in her riding, did well in both debates and got wide media coverage. But she still came third, with 26 per cent of the vote. (Victoria Green Ariel Lade offered himself up as a paper candidate in Peace River South halfway through the campaign, and never set foot in the riding. He got 9.4 per cent of the vote there.)
More significantly, despite four years in which to build, the Greens' share of the popular vote fell from 12 per cent to nine per cent. (Meaning they might be left out of the next leaders TV debate, as 10-per-cent support was one of the thresholds to be met.)
That still represents a lot of voters. But the Greens are mired on the fringe, farther from electing an MLA than they were four years ago. They need to make changes.
And finally, it's worth noting that the political divide between the Lower Mainland and the rest of the province is there, but less gaping than some had feared. The Liberals were strong in Vancouver and its affiliated sprawl, taking 27 seats to the NDP's 16. But they also prevailed in the rest of the province, 19 to 17.
It's a balanced outcome, one that means voters in every region can take concerns to MLAs from both sides of the house. If a government MLA is slow to act, there is an opposition representative available.
The Liberals' weaker showing in the region will likely mean new cabinet ministers. Bill Bennett, the only Liberal survivor in the Kootenays, will likely get a post. One of the MLAs from the Cariboo and the Bulkley Valley will likely replace the defeated Roger Harris as a regional cabinet representative.
Footnote: It's clear that Green voters could have delivered victory to the NDP or Liberals in 10 close races if they had changed their votes. But it's not at all clear which of the other two parties those voters might have moved to if they had opted to vote strategically. Green voters increasingly come from both sides of the political spectrum.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Campbell bruised, public well-served by election

VICTORIA - Heave a sigh of relief. You have an opposition.
Left or right or in-between, you're better served by a legislature that includes an effective opposition, with representatives from all regions.
And that's what voters delivered. Recounts in a half-dozen close races could change the outcome, but right now it looks like the Liberals won a strong majority, with about 46 seats of the 79 seats.
But they will face about 33 opposition MLAs, not just two, with an adequately funded research and support staff. It will make the legislature a very different place.
And a more difficult one for Gordon Campbell, who has had no experience in facing an opposition across the chamber's red carpet. The election campaign - when the premier chose only to meet Liberal supporters, in closed settings - reinforced the public impression that Campbell is not much interested in people with different views.
That's only one of several headaches Campbell faces.
For starters, he has to put together a new cabinet, never an easy task. There's room for new faces, since eight cabinet ministers went down to defeat. (An alarming development for the Liberals, with Graham Bruce and Roger Harris both serious losses.) But some of the best jobs are likely already committed to new stars like Wally Oppal and Carole Taylor. Some will have to be allocated based on the need for regional representation (good news for Bill Bennett, the only Liberal from the southeast). And some of the people left out of the new cabinet will be unhappy.
Campbell may face much bigger problems, depending on how Liberals assess his performance in this campaign. In some ways you can't fault the outcome. The Liberals have a comfortable majority, and Campbell is the first B.C. premier re-elected in more than two decades.
But Campbell's campaign was criticized for its slow pace and defensive approach. He was generally seen as losing the televised leaders' debate, although he did better in the radio encounter. And despite some major advantages - a strong economy, popular budget, and the machinery of government - the Liberals lost some 30 seats, the NDP surged to within a few points of its record high popular support of 46 per cent and the Liberal lead shrunk during the four-week campaign.
All of that - combined with memories of Campbell's losing 1996 campaign - will raise questions about whether he should lead the party into what could be a much closer election in 2009. Once those questions have been raised, potential leadership candidates begin thinking about their prospects and plans, a problem for any party.
Campbell has to show that he can learn from the election, moderate his approach and govern in a way that acknowledges fewer than half of the voters backed the party.
Carole James comes out of the campaign having gained important ground. She proved an effective campaigner, and convinced voters that the party has moved to the middle. Not all New Democrats think that's a good idea, but James' performance has given her greater ability to shut down internal attacks.
James - like Campbell - also saw some of key candidates elected. For the NDP, it was Gregor Robertson, Corky Evans, Rob Fleming and Nicholas Simons.
The big winners are the voters, who gain a legislature with a real opposition.
Joy MacPhail and Jenny Kwan made a valiant effort, despite being hampered by the Liberal refusal to recognize the existence of an official Opposition. But for the last four years we haven't really had an opposition.
That's especially true in terms of regional issues. Liberal MLAs didn't vigorously raise concerns from their community, so they just never made it on to the agenda. (Surrey Memorial Hospital has been under pressure for at least five years. Until Jagrup Brar was elected, the issue was not a political priority. His efforts helped get him re-elected, along with three other New Democrats in Surrey ridings.)
The public has been well-served by this election.
Footnote: STV will get a separate column, but it appears the referendum has created a problem for Campbell. Ninety- per cent of ridings voted for change, but the provincial total vote will fall just short of the 60-per-cent support required. It leaves the government open to criticism whichever course of action it chooses.

Campaign showed it's time for political spending controls

VICTORIA - You'll probably know the results of the election by the time you read this column.
But deadlines being what they are, I'm writing it just before heading off to vote at the local school.
Which makes it a good time to look at some of the bigger issues raised by this campaign that demand attention before the next election, including the increasing influence of big money, and the role of groups like the BC Teachers' Federation.
The mini-scandal over Liberal fund-raising practices only lasted a week. The party admitted wrongly taking money from charities and municipalities, and refunded the cash. Some defenders noted that all parties in power raise money in similar ways, including selling access to the leader, or cabinet ministers.
But that shouldn't be the end of the matter. The fact is the practice is wrong, and damaging to democracy. The underlying message of many party fund-raising efforts is that participants pay money - to go to a dinner, or a private reception, or a golf tournament - for a chance to get access to cabinet ministers and government officials.
Even if they just write a cheque, it is reasonable to believe that donors expect recognition. (Union donors, corporate donors, big individual donors - this isn't a left-right issue.)
Politicians deny that someone who donates $200,000 to a party, or $10,000 to a local campaign, is treated any differently than any other citizen.
But most people, possessed of common sense and life experience, don't believe it. "He who pays the piper, calls the tune, my grandmother always said.
So people think a big donor might get a phone call to government returned a little more quickly. Almost 90 per cent of Canadians believe "people with money have a lot of influence over the government," according to a 2000 survey. Some of the B.C. towns that paid to attend Liberal fundraisers said they wrote the cheques becuase it bought them a chance to lobby for local projects. Their assumption was that if you didn't pay the party, you didn't have as good a chance of getting even worthwhile plans approved.
It's the kind of fundamental problem that undermines democracy, convincing people that governments serve their financial supporters - union or corporate - ahead of the public.
The problem is easy to fix. Quebec, Manitoba and the federal government have all banned donations from unions, corporations and other organizations, and limited the size of individual donations.
The parties would likely have to get some sort of public subsidy to replace some of the lost revenue. But changing the system also would give us a chance to reduce the role of money in politics overall.
Spending on this campaign, when all the bills are in, will probably top $20 million. That's too much. Big money drives out volunteers, and replaces them with paid professionals, reducing community involvement. Ad budgets and campaign war rooms become more important than ideas or issues. And candidates and parties without a rich donor base are shut out.
At the same time, we should be taking another look at the role of outside interest groups - like the BC Teachers' Federation, or the BC Business Council - in election campaigns.
The groups now have to register, and report their spending. (Efforts to set spending limits have been successfully challenged on freedom of speech grounds.)
It may be that the problem will sort itself out. The BCTF's aggressive, and inept, role in this campaign has probably hurt the NDP more than it has helped the party, and there's little evidence that the outside interventions have helped either of the main parties significantly.
But it's still time to look at whether the increasing involvement of third party lobby groups is distorting the process, and more importantly to tackle the wide perception that big money matters more than the public will in our political system.
Footnote: Any action will likely take public pressure. The NDP and Greens have both called for a ban on corporate and union donations, but the Liberals support the current system. Change is unlikely over the next four years unless the public - perhaps given a little push by the Gomery Inquiry - demands action.