Thursday, May 11, 2006

Liberals move to centre and rise in polls

VICTORIA -  It's time to start thinking about a B.C. Liberal dynasty.
The Mustel poll released this week confirms the success of the Campbell government's effort to move towards the centre. And it suggests that the Liberals have the chance to become a multi-term government, like their Socred predecessors.
It's just one poll, with the usual margin of error, but it has Liberals smiling. The poll showed the Campbell party has the support of 54 per cent of decided voters, up from 45 per cent in November. NDP support fell to 37 per cent from 41 per cent.
It's a great showing for the Liberals. The party only had the support of 46 per cent of voters in last May's election. In fact they haven't done as well in a Mustel poll since the fall of 2001, when the post-election honeymoon ended badly.
The poll doesn't reflect poorly on the New Democrats. Their support is down from the 42 per cent they attracted in the election, but within the range of results from the last few years. Green support is at five per cent, the lowest in a Mustel poll in five years.
The NDP hasn't made any big mistakes. The New Democrats may not have been quite as effective in Question Periond this session, but they've pressed the government effectively on emergency room problems. They’re still getting good coverage in regional newspapers on a range of local issues.
But the poll - and remember, it's just one snapshot - suggests that it's hard for even an effective opposition to gain ground if the government doesn't give people a reason to be angry at them.
After four years in which the Liberals didn't seem to care what voters thought about them,  they've got smarter.
Sure, the Liberals still refuse to admit obvious problems for far too long. They denied problems in the children and families ministry for years, looking increasingly ridiculous. But finally they acknowledged reality and appointed Ted Hughes to investigate. They now have a window to show that they learned from their blunders.
The biggest evidence of the changed approach change came in public sector labour relations. The Liberals stomped on their employees for much of the first term, ripping up contracts, conducting mass firings and rolling back wages for the lowest-paid employees.
The approach changed after the teachers’ strike. The Liberals were shocked to find that the public solidly supported the teachers even after the strike was declared illegal.
So when contract talks started they reacted with a fair wage mandate, the clever idea of a signing bonus linked to early agreements and and a determination to reach negotiated deals.
It worked. And I'd wager that the poll results would be much different if the government was at war with health care support staff right now.
The Liberals have learned some lessons. This week they pulled the plug on three controversial bills in the face of NDP opposition and public concern. They had defended a new law that would have allowed government to keep details of public-private partnerships secret, even in the face of sharp criticism from Information Commissioner David Loukidelis.
But when the pressure mounted, they bailed instead of stubbornly pressing on and alienating voters.
It's been a big change for the Liberals. And it looks like it's working.
Given a strong economy, a tolerable leader, no disasters and a government that doesn't poke people in the eye, a centrist party can stay in power for a long time in B.C. The Socreds went 20 years, were out of power for three, and back for 16 years.
Gordon Campbell has become a more tolerable leader. His approval rating, at 46 per cent, is higher than he has ever received in a  Mustel poll. Carole James received the same approval rating.
The Liberals looked much like a potential two-term government through their first four years.
They’ve changed. And so have their chances of a longer run in government.
Footnote: Mustel tracks British Columbians’ views on top issues affecting them. The latest numbers show unsurprisingly that health is the main issue. But the number of people identifying it as their main concern has fallen to 40 per cent, the lowest in 2 1/2 years, despite the current ER problems.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Straight answers could have headed off Olympic cost concerns

VICTORIA - I probably wouldn’t even be writing about Olympic costs if the Liberals were serious about all their “most open and accountable” government talk.
But faced with the chance to be open about spending, the Liberals opted for secrecy.They ended up looking foolish and turned a small issue into a bigger one. New Democrat Harry Bains has been pushing for answers on Olympic spending during budget debates. But estimates debates, as they’re called, don’t grab much attention. So this week, Bains took the issue to Question Period, the daily 30 minutes guaranteed to get noticed.
How much, he asked Hansen, is the government spending on 2010 Legacies Now?
I don’t know, said Hansen, the minister responsible for the Olympics. Despite its name the agency doesn’t have anything to do with the Olympics, Hansen said, so don’t ask him.
Anyway if people want to know how much has been spent they can wait until June and search through hundreds of pages of Public Accounts. Don’t expect the government to answer a question about how taxpayers’ money is being spent voluntarily.
OK, said NDP leader Carole James, surely Finance Minister Carole Taylor knows how much has been spent. James asked her.
But Taylor stayed in her seat. Hansen, the man who said it had nothing to do with him, leaped up again and refused to provide the information.
So it remains a secret how much taxpayers’ money has gone to 2010 Legacies Now in the last fiscal year.
The Liberals appear to be nervous about the whole issue of Olympic costs. They maintain that the province will contribute only $600 million to staging the Games. Other expenses - like 2010 Legacies Now - are mostly on things the government would have done anyway and shouldn't be counted, they say.
Bains has been making a good case that the tab is really higher.
Most obviously, the government has chosen not to count the Olympic Seretariat as a Games' cost. That would strike most people as illogical; without the Olympics surely we wouldn't need an agency to oversee the province's role. So far the Secretariat has spent $26 million, with the biggest costs still ahead. (The original forecast put the total cost of Games' oversight at $15 million.) The government can make a better argument for keeping 2010 Legacies Now out of the tally. The agency is obviously linked to the Olympics - its website says the agency "creates sustainable legacies that will benefit all British Columbians as a result of hosting the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games." It was launched, with fanfare, as an example of the kind of great benefits that would flow from the Games.
But the activities are varied, from literacy funding to supporting minor sports to paying for big video screens for communities to watch the Games. We would have spent some of that money anyway, says Hansen. Other agency projects are aimed at taking full advantage of the opportunities the Olympics provide to inspire people.
Maybe. But Legacies Now has also been doing activities that are clearly linked to the Games.
In any case the obvious solution is simply to come clean on how much is being spent by Legacies Now and where the money is going. People can decide whether the spending is Olympic-related or not. (And the public can decide if it was worth setting up a new agency to handle the money. Legacy Now adminstration costs ate up $3 million last year; the agency only handed out $17 million.)
Tell the public what you're spending their money on, and how much. Don't refuse to answer, or tell people it's a secret unless they're prepared to wait and search through hundreds of pages of spending information.
It's the right thing to do. And it seems the politically sensible thing to do.
By stonewalling, the government just increased suspicions that it has something to hide on 20101 Legacies Now and Games' costs.
Footnote: For the record, B.C.'s auditor general estimated B.C. taxpayers will be spending $1.25 billion to host the Games, including costs like the Sea-to-Sky Highway improvements and the Olympic Secretariat. The government turned down the auditor general's request for additional funds to allow his office to monitor Olympic spending.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Campbell strong on Kelowna Accord, but Harper not listening

VICTORIA - Gordon Campbell gave a great speech on the need to honour the Kelowna Accord.
But it doesn't look much like anyone outside the province noticed, or that Stephen Harper even cares much about B.C.'s views on the agreement.
Campbell spoke two days after Harper's first budget effectively repudiated the accord, which allocated $5.1 billion over five years to try and address the economic and social problems that afflict First Nations.
The Conservative government's decision was a blow to First Nations and an unintentional slap in the face for Campbell, who had championed the agreement.
And it created a special problem for the B.C. government, which has taken great care to work positively with Ottawa since 2001.
Campbell's carefully crafted response, delivered in a special statement to the legislature, worked hard at keeping a positive tone. He welcomed the budget commitment of money to address First Nations' housing problems and acknowledged that the Conservative government might have its own ideas on addressing First Nations' problems. (The budget commitment was between 25 per cent and 70 per cent of the money promised under the Kelowna Accord, depending on who is doing the counting.)
But the speech made it clear that the B.C. government believed that abandoning the accord would be a betrayal and a tragic mistake, calling it "Canada's moment of truth."
"It was chance to do something that had eluded our grasp as a nation for 138 years - to end the disparities in health, education, housing and economic opportunity," Campbell said. "First ministers from all the provinces, all the territories and the federal government came together. They lit a torch, and that was a torch of hope. It was a beacon that we should hold high." The honour of the Crown is at stake, he said. Ottawa should not abandon a unanimous agreement between all provinces, the federal government and First Nations.
The speech was tremendously well-received. First Nations leaders, on hand for the speech, and the NDP joined in a standing ovation.
But it caused barely a ripple outside the province's borders - almost no national media coverage, no real response - positive or negative - from the Conservative government.
The reaction was a reminder that B.C. remains a peripheral province. If a premier from Ontario or Quebec had made a similar speech, it would have been a major national story.
And it shows that First Nations' poverty and despair have not yet become a national issue.
The Kelowna Accord matters a great deal in B.C. Campbell rightly calls the poverty, illness and despair among natives across Canada a national disgrace.
And the accord is linked to the province's New Relationship initiative, which is intended to replace confrontation and conflict with co-operation. That's a key element of future economic development.
But the issue isn't a priority for the Harper government, which has stayed tightly focused on five priorities ( Accountability Act, child care payments, GST cut, crime and health care wait times).
The accord is also tainted in Conservative eyes because it was signed by Paul Martin days before the last election. "Something crafted on the back of a napkin," Conservative MP Monte Solberg said last January.
But the agreement was reached only after 18 months of negotiations and work by provinces, Ottawa and First Nations.
It's tough to see a way to salvage the deal at this point. Campbell's speech was applauded in B.C., but went unnoticed on the national stage. It's possible that the agreement could be saved if other premiers joined the effort, but there is no sign of that happening.
Worse, the Conservatives have shown no evidence of having a replacement  plan of their own.
The Kelowna Accord was an important commitment. It was part of a new relationship that is important for B.C.'s progress and propserity.
And it was an effort to end the suffering and despair of Canada's First Nations, a situation that is a true national disgrace.
Footnote: There is a certain irony here. Five years ago Campbell was heading his own new government and insisting on a destructive treaty referendum despite warnings that it would seriously harm relations with First Nations. Now he is the champion of reconciliation, sending similar warnings over the death of the Kelowna Accord.