Thursday, December 01, 2005

Why the federal campaign started off so dumb

VICTORIA - Day one of the federal campaign, and already the love that dare not speak its name had made the headlines.
Or loves, since as well as same sex marriage the media got all tangled up in whether politicians love their country.
It was all a warning that this campaign will be consistently weird, thanks in part to the hyperactive Blackberry-wielding operatives on both sides.
Stephen Harper raised the same sex issue right out of the gate, promising a free vote in Parliament on ending gay marriage.
It was a curious start, unless Harper just wanted to get the issue over with before the serious campaigning started. Polls show that a majority of Canadians want the law recognizing same sex marriage to stand.
They recognize that the change has no practical impact, since same sex couples already had the same legal and economic rights as other couples. Churches aren't compelled to recognize same sex marriages. (As we saw in the BC Human Rights Tribunal ruling, the Knights of Columbus can even legally deny same sex couples the rental of their hall for a reception.)
The whole debate is only about whether people can get a piece of paper from the state that says they're married. But it is the kind of issue that spooks voters looking for a moderate alternative to the Liberals. Eliminating same sex marriage means using the notwithstanding clause to remove Charter of Rights protections for some Canadians. That rightly scares people.
It wasn't just the love between people that made the news on day one.
Two questions into Harper's first scrum, and a reporter noted Paul Martin had already been talking about his values and affection for Canada. "Do you love this country," the reporter asked the Conservative leader.
It strikes me as a stupid question, but I'm sure other reporters have thought the same thing about some of the things I've asked.
"I think Canada is a great country," Harper said, and then talked about his travels across the land.
But, like some nervous guy hovering at the critical point in a new relationship, he didn't use the ''L" word.
Then things got really weird, thanks to the gaggle of spinners hovering around the candidates and lurking in their campaign war rooms. (A name that should offend people who fought in real wars.) Technology has meant campaigns are increasingly about instant responses to real and imagined missteps by the other side. Printing press releases was too slow; now email messages fly through space into handlers and reporter's Blackberries.
So within an hour the Liberals were zipping off emails to reporters saying Harper doesn’t love Canada. Within two hours, some commentators were speculating that the Conservatives had planted the question to make Harper look good, while others suggested the Liberals planted it to make Harper look bad.
By mid-afternoon, Martin had incorporated the issue into his speech, mocking Harper's reticence and yelling out his love for Canada like a giddy schoolboy.
Within another hour Harper's handlers had rewritten his speech, so at the next campaign stop he complained that Martin was suggesting only Liberals could really love Canada.
It was all wildly foolish, manufactured and irrelevant, and you can expect a lot more of the same over the next seven weeks.
Desperate for some fresh angle to make the news, political operatives in all campaigns have moved into instant response mode. The bulletins and fact checks and gloating comments fly back and forth so quickly that it sometimes seems the candidates' camps are having a conversation largely with each other. The relevance to voters is certainly dubious. (A fact forgotten by reporters trapped in the strange world of the leaders' campaigns, desperately seeking something new to write about the same speeches.)
They all love Canada, or like it a lot, or have warm feelings toward it, even Gilles Duceppe probably. It was a stupid issue. And it won't be the last.
Footnote: The campaign in B.C. is off to a slow start, with the Liberals and the Conservatives rushing to get a full slate of candidates nominated. All three main parties hope to gain ground in the province, with Liberals buoyed by improved poll standings and New Democrats hoping the party's provincial resurgence is a good sign.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Taylor woos the unions with a tempting cash offer

VICTORIA - Finance Minister Carole Taylor has made a useful stab at improving public sector bargaining, offering some $1.3 billion worth of carrots.
She didn't need to bring out any stick; the government's willingness to whack unions around is already well-established.
Taylor needed to find a new approach. The government is heading into negotiations with unions and associations representing some 300,000 workers over the next six months, about 90 per cent of the public sector. It has lots of extra money that unions are eying, and learned from the teachers' strike that the public is tired of imposed settlements.
So Taylor tried to rejig the process.
No more standard wage mandates - a freeze, or two, two and two.
Now the government will set different mandates for groups based on market conditions. Skilled labour, much in demand, can expect bigger increases. Groups already paid ahead of their private sector counterparts, or other provinces, can expect less.
And she's hoping unions and employers will tailor individual agreements to their circumstances. Some people may want time off, or more support, more than they want money.
There's still an overall ceiling on wage and benefit cost increases. The government figures surpluses between now and 2010 will be about $14 billion. (Likely a low estimate.)
It wants to spend $2.6 billion on debt repayment, and split the rest between contract settlements and other expenses.
That leaves about $5.7 billion, or enough to increase total wage and benefit spending by 2.7 per cent a year over each of the next four years.
Not a bad starting point. Unions are going to be looking for increases that match inflation - figure two per cent a year - and provide some catch-up for the ground they lost to wage freezes and rollbacks in the last contract. The money on the table gets them close.
But Taylor went farther. Soaring natural gas prices have pushed the expected surplus for this year to almost $3 billion.
The government has offered unions and associations like the BC Medical Association have a shot at $1 billion of that money - if they can negotiate quickly enough to sign a new contract by the time the fiscal year ends March 31.
The money would have to be used for a one-time payment, but that leaves a lot of room. The cash - about $3,300 per person - could be paid out as signing bonus, or used to bail out benefit plans running into difficulty.
Practically, there are some big hurdles. Most of the unions are still preparing their bargaining positions. Getting a deal in the limited time remaining - especially given the history of mistrust - will be a huge challenge.
But the money is a strong incentive for the unions, while employers who drag their feet will face even tougher talks once the $1 billion is off the table.
The province has also tried to encourage four-year deals, taking the contracts past the Olympics and the next election. As long as there is at least a $450-million surplus in 2010, the unions that sign longer deals will share in $300 million. That means at least an extra 1.6 per cent that year, on top of the negotiated increase.
A lot can go wrong.
Unions traditionally have huge difficulty with settlements that offer different members different rewards. The government would like an electrician - much in demand - to get a bigger raise than the janitor who works the same shift. That's a tough sell.
And the different wage mandates for different sectors - although entirely appropriate - are going to spark fierce debate in the union movement.
Negotiators for the employers, who have become used to just saying no, will also have to show creativity and flexibility.
I have no idea if it's going to work.
But this a well-crafted starting point, with the potential to help both sides develop a much more mature, productive bargaining relationship.
Footnote: The new approach faces a tough test in the form of talks between the government and the BC Medical Association. Doctors have to decide early in the New Year whether to go to arbitration or continue talks. Their approach may send a message about whether the government's approach will fly.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

B.C. needs federal parties to rise above the muck

VICTORIA - Victoria-area Liberal MP Keith Martin summed up the election in a depressing way minutes after the government fell.
Who do you dislike less, he asked, Paul Martin or Stephen Harper?
OK, it wasn’t put quite that flatly, but I heard Martin offer a sorry choice. Sure, you may not like Paul Martin, he said, but jeez look at the alternative.
The interview could be a preview of the long, negative campaign ahead leading to the Jan. 23 election.
Keith Martin is right. Most Canadians are unhappy with the available choices.
Paul Martin is seen as a dithering opportunist with no principle more important than holding on to power. Martin was steadfastly silent on softwood, for example, never even calling U.S. President George Bush on the phone, until the election came closer and he turned hawkish. His party is linked to corruption and waste.
Stephen Harper strikes Canadians as an angry guy with some extremist candidates and an inability to offer a clear idea of what Canada would look like after a decade of Conservative government. (Jack Layton and the NDP may end up with an important role in a minority government; the NDP is not going to form the government.)
Polls show a majority of Canadians disapprove of the performance of both leaders.
It’s not an inspiring starting point for a campaign. With no dominant issues so far, and no positive momentum, both the main parties are looking at a largely negative campaign.
This will be an extremely close race. The polls vary, but most show the two main parties effectively tied. Unless there is a dramatic shift in support, every seat will be important.
That’s potentially good news for B.C. The province’s 36 seats are still much less significant than Ontario’s 106, but in this campaign all parties will have to focus on B.C. to capture critical seats.
The Liberals did that in the 2004 election, with some success. Paul Martins’ BC Dream Team included some weak links, but organizers claim the focus helped the Liberals move from five seats to eight, at the Conservatives’ expense.
Conservative organizers acknowledge the party fumbled in B.C. in ‘04, failing to tailor the campaign to regional concerns. The national effort - aimed at Ontario, naturally - failed to resonate. It treated the Liberals as the major opposition, even though the NDP was a serious factor in B.C.
And the Tories lost five seats, falling to 22 MPs. More critically, the party;’s share of the popular vote - despite the Alliance-Conservative merger - plummeted.
Strategists say they’ve learned their lesson, and promise a more targeted B.C. effort this time around.
But they face a big challenge. A Mustel Group poll found the Conservatives with the support of 24 per cent of decided voters, trailing the NDP, at 33 per cent, and the Liberals, at 38 per cent.
The anger at the Liberals over the sponsorship scandal is real, but Harper has not succeeded in presenting himself as a tolerable alternative. The anti-Liberal vote in B.C. is as likely to go to the NDP as it is to the Conservatives.
There is always hope for a better campaign. Perhaps by the time the real drive starts after Christmas the parties will become worried about the risks of a discouraged and alienated electorate, and begin speaking more about the issues that matter to Canadians and less about why the other leader is an ogre who can not be trusted.
British Columbians should hope so. There are a number of critical issues - softwood, the pine beetle, tourism, health care, First Nations - where federal leadership is needed.
A start has been made, with $100 million pledged for pine beetle aid and a number of commitments linked to the Kelowna summit on aboriginal issues.
But much more needs to be done. And that is what British Columbians should be demanding that all candidates talk about over the next seven weeks.
Footnote: Gordon Campbell says he’s confident that B.C.’s issues won’t be casualties of the election campaign. But even if initiatives like pine beetle aid and support for First Nations’ initiatives survive the election, action will be delayed, perhaps into next fall.