Friday, April 20, 2007

Liberals sitting pretty, and not much the NDP can do

Heading toward the halfway point in the Liberal government’s second term and a new poll has some New Democrats in a lather.
The Ipsos-Reid survey is remarkably encouraging for Gordon Campbell and company. Both the premier and party have the highest approval ratings since 2001.
And the poll suggests the Liberals would win re-election with a bigger majority if the election were held today. They have the support of 49 per cent of decided voters, up three points from their actual support in the 2005 election; the NDP, at 32 per cent, is down from 42 per cent in the actual vote. (The Greens are at 15 per cent despite being invisible these days.)
The predictable result is that some New Democrats are grumbling about leader Carole James and the party’s direction.
Partly, some New Democrats just like to fight, even if it’s with each other. Others think that a tougher opposition, maybe a more traditional left-wing approach, would pay off.
The reality is that the Liberals are just doing a good job of staying popular. The conventional wisdom - that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them - is true, even in grumpy B.C.
It took the Liberals a while to learn that lesson. They spent most of their first term driving voters away.
That’s changed.
Just look at the difference in labour relations. The first-term Liberals made no secret of their contempt for public sector workers.They were so low it was even OK to break their contracts, clearing the way for mass firings so they could be replaced with cheaper labour.
The kinder, gentler Liberals came up with $1 billion in signing bonuses and a conciliatory approach to get labour peace. And it worked.
The first-term Liberals could never admit a mistake. The new Liberals can walk away from unpopular legislation with a shrug and a smile.
The old Liberals didn’t really believe in treaties with First Nations. The new Liberals are keen on a new relationship and champions of a national effort to improve life for natives.
And, in a blink, Campbell has discovered climate change — long after the public did — and gone from doubter to champion faster than you can say Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It hardly seems like a revolutionary political strategy - listen to the public and try to do things they think make sense.
The strategy is working particularly well because for most British Columbians things are looking good. The economy is strong and - except for people in traditional resource communities - jobs are secure.
Frustrating for the New Democrats, for sure. Oppositions thrive when governments ignore public concerns that they can then champion.
So the concern about the growing gap between rich and poor in B.C. and the number of people left behind is a good issue for the New Democrats, even if the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 in one jump is too radical.
But if the NDP gains much ground, then the new Liberals are likely to introduce their own minimum wage hike. Issue defused.
It make for trying times for an opposition. But lurching toward the party’s traditional base - left or right - makes no sense. Two-party elections are won in the middle.
There is value in patience, waiting to see if the government can actually deliver on its promises. For all the enthusiastic talk, the government hasn’t actually done anything meaningful on climate change, for example. It’s risky to argue that an issue is critically important and then be found wanting.
And there is the reality that things can go bad for government at any time — a health care crisis, a few scandals, another series of stumbles in children and families. It’s hard governing.
But if people do it competently, there isn’t much enthusiasm for booting them out, no matter who is in opposition or what they promise.
And the polls suggest Campbell and the Liberals have learned a lot about keeping the public onside since 2005.
Footnote: The grumbling about James isn’t likely to amount too much. Voters are still, overall, slightly more positive about her performance than they are about Campbell’s. (Both are at slightly over 50-per-cent approval; James has fewer detractors.) There are no apparent heirs in sight. And thoughtful New Democrats recognize that James approach worked very well in the 2005 election.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Liberals defend their own fast ferries

The out-of-control Vancouver convention centre project is looking a lot like the Liberals' own version of the fast ferries.
The convention centre expansion was supposed to cost $495 million, a number that probably should have aroused suspicion from the start.
It sounds like those price points the late-night TV infomercials use to make things sound cheaper - now only three easy payments of $49.95.
The rock-solid budget was apparently written in pencil, to make it easier to rewrite the numbers as costs kept rising.
The $495-million cost was the number back in 2003, when the government was enthusiastic about the importance of the expanded convention centre for the Vancouver Olympics.
That commitment didn't even last until the official start of construction, when Premier Gordon Campbell hyped up the usual sod-turning ceremony by substituting a backhoe for the traditional gold-plated shovel.
By then the budget had already been revised. The project was now to cost $550 million.
But that was it, said Campbell. No more taxpayers' money was going to be needed.
"This will be on time and on budget," he said. "Count on it." (Evoking former premier Glen Clark's promise that the total cost of the fast ferries would be $210 million, "right down to the toilet paper." The actual cost was more than $450 million.)
By 2005, the centre costs had jumped again, to $615 million. But that, the government promised, was absolutely, positively it. The minister then responsible, Olga Ilich, noted she had a development background and had nailed down the numbers.
Wrong again. After more than a year of silence, the government revealed in the February budget that the centre costs were now through the $800-million barrier.
Worse, no one could say how high the project overruns would go. Tourism Minister Stan Hagen said then that he was still trying to get a handle on the latest version of the final cost.
And this week in the legislature he said he's still trying to figure out how much the bill will be.
The NDP jumped on the issue in the first two question periods this week, focusing on the apparent lack of accountability for the soaring overruns.
Last Friday the government announced a shuffling of the board overseeing the project, which has been chaired by top Campbell advisor Ken Dobell. But no one was dumped or called on to explain the financial crisis.
The New Democrats were quick to trot out Campbell's comments from the fast ferry days.
"There is no one in the private sector who could possibly maintain their job when one of their projects has doubled in price and is overdue," he said then. "They should be fired."
The whole deal is damaging for the Liberals on several levels. Provincial taxpayers are on the hook for all the extra costs. The centre was supposed to be paid for with $223 million each from the federal and provincial governments plus $90 million from a Lower Mainland hotel room tax.
Ottawa's contribution was fixed and the feds have rebuffed requests for more money. The tourism industry won't pony up more.
Which leaves you as the big spender. The provincial share will now be at least $460 million, more than twice as much as promised by Campbell.
Every time the government says no to some request from a community, the NDP can muse that the money isn't available because it was dumped into Vancouver's mismanaged convention centre project.
And the convention centre mismanagement, like the fast ferries, raises the question of competence.
There, the Liberals have an advantage. The fast ferries came after the NDP had established a reputation for bungling. The Liberals, although they have mismanaged major files like long-term care and children and families, don't yet carry the same baggage.
But the convention centre - a year late and twice as expensive for taxpayers as promised - is looking like mighty clunky suitcase for the Liberals to drag along for the next few years.
Footnote: Tourism Minister Stan Hagen got stuck with defending the overruns. His basic point was that it's a great project even with the runaway spending and the NDP should be more cheerful. That too echoes the NDP's early attempts to defend the fast ferry project.