Friday, June 29, 2007

Polls show election Liberals to lose

We've crossed the divide, more than halfway to the next provincial election on May 12, 2009.
It doesn't seem that long since the last vote in 2005. The Liberals lost their stranglehold on the legislature, but still won a solid majority. Premier Gordon Campbell seemed to take the lesson to heart. The Liberals have been more moderate since, and that's translated into better poll standings. Good enough, in fact, that there's been some sniping at NDP leader Carole James. Partly, that's because some New Democrats live for internal battles. Partly it's based on the dubious argument that James hasn't been tough enough on the government.
But mostly, it's because of the polls, which have shown the NDP well behind the Liberals and making no progress through the last two years. There's a little bit of good news for New Democrats in the latest Ipsos Reid poll. The NDP was up four points from an April poll, to 36 per cent of decided voters.
But the Liberals, while down by the same amount, had the support of 45 per cent of decided voters. That's basically the same support they had in the 2005 election, good enough for 46 of 79 seats. And why not? The economy, through most of the province, is strong. The benefits haven't flowed equally to all British Columbians, but still this is a good time for a lot of people.
And the Liberal government has mostly avoided doing things that people don't like, something that couldn't be said of their first term. There's not much an opposition can do to win support from a competent, error-free government in good times.
But that doesn't mean the 2009 election is already decided. I referred to "error-free" government. That's tough to manage. The Ipsos poll that found the gap narrowing between Liberals and NDP also asked about peoples' responses to the 30-per-cent pay raise and generous pension plan that MLAs awarded themselves. Half those surveyed said their opinion of Gordon Campbell and the Liberals had worsened because of the rich deal; only 26 per cent thought worse of the NDP. James' decision to vote against the raise, donate the money to charities and take the pension seemed to work. Count the whole deal an error.
The pay raise was particularly outrageous. But it's easy for governments to make mistakes, and after a time even the little ones can start to pile up. Like bungling the supervision of lotteries or protection of workers in farm fields or forests. A lot can go wrong for any party in power.
But that doesn't necessarily mean the opposition can start deciding how to pass out the cabinet offices. It's not enough for the governing party to mess up. Voters have to be convinced that opposition could do better. (Unless, of course, the party in power messes up so totally - like the Clark NDP government - that voters would choose anyone other than the old gang.) A lot can go wrong for the Liberals. The Basi-Virk corruption trial, with allegations of political dirty tricks, is hanging over their heads. The health authorities have proved a bad idea and public concern about care problems is mounting. (Though the conversation on health might allow a fresh start.) The children and families ministry appears to be drifting again, raising the risk of new scandals. And government gets blamed for everything from the street problems plaguing cities to forest industry problems. And then there's the areas where the government has raised expectations without delivering - climate change, health reform, progress for First Nations. People are waiting for action that matches the promises. The Liberals have been adroit since 2005. But there are a lot of things that can go wrong.
And that's the NDP's challenge. It won't be enough to crab about the Liberals, the usual opposition role. They have to convince voters that they're capable of doing a better job - competent, with a plan. Which mostly falls to James. The New Democrats have some strong MLAs to carry the load - Mike Farnworth is the law-and-order guy, Adrian Dix in health, Bob Simpson in forestry.
But ultimately, the next election is the Liberals to lose. Unless they mess up and James convinces the public her party can do better, Campbell will be front and centre at the 2010 Olympics.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Signs point to end to Afghan mission

Until last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has talked as if a Conservative government would automatically extend the military mission in Afghanistan when the current commitment ends in February 2009. Canadians don't cut and run, maintained Harper, and we'll be there until the job - whatever that might be - is done.
But last week, Harper changed his position. The troops will only stay if Canadians support military action against Afghan insurgents, he said. "I don't want to send people into a mission if the opposition at home is going to undercut the dangerous work that they're doing in the field," he said. So unless Canadians say that they support a continuation of the current mission, our front-line combat role will end in about 20 months. (Harper might have meant opposition political parties, but their positions are shaped by the public's views.)
Most opinion polls suggest that Harper should tell NATO now that Canada won't be fighting after 2009. We might be willing to offer humanitarian aid, but Canadians don't want to see our troops to continue to take a combat role. A national Decima Research poll conducted at the beginning of June found two out of three Canadians want the troops out of the fighting when this commitment ends. The main reason appears to be that the public has decided lives are being lost for no reason; 75 per cent of those surveyed did not believe our effort will produce real change in Afghanistan. Canadians aren't a huge part of the NATO commitment - 2,500 out of some 31,000 troops. But we've taken on a tough combat role, one shunned by many of the other participating nations.
So what do we tell Harper about extending the mission? There's no doubt that Canada's efforts have made a positive difference in the lives of some Afghanis. Women point to freedoms that would never have been imaginable under the Taliban. And the mission's goals - supporting the government, preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan as a safe haven, helping improve the lives of citizens - are all laudable.
But that's not enough to justify sacrificing more lives. There has to be not just a noble cause, but also a realistic chance of success. Increasingly, that appears unlikely.
The NATO forces have stepped in to the middle of a civil war. The Taliban are the bad guys - violent, repressive, tyrannical and supporters of terrorism outside Afghanistan's borders.
But the government has a shaky claim to legitimacy. The police and army are at best inefficient and poorly equipped. At worst they are corrupt and criminal. The gap between our ideal of bringing democracy to Afghanistan and the reality of life on the ground are enormous.
And the country remains so desperately poor - comparable to the most struggling countries in Africa - that it is difficult to see how, even with significant aid, it can provide the basic services and institutions needed. At the same time, it appears there is no end to the military struggle in sight. The Taliban is waging a classic insurgency campaign. It attacks when conditions are in its favour and fades away when the NATO forces are strong, only to return once attention shifts elsewhere. The three most recent Canadian deaths came in an area our forces thought they had won control. There is no quick victory over that kind of enemy.
And any hope of success relies on winning the support of the civilian population and demonstrating that the government and the foreign forces can ensure their security.
That's increasingly difficult. Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week complained that NATO forces' reliance on air strikes and artillery to fight the guerrillas is resulting in too many civilian deaths. The best estimate is that NATO forces have killed 203 civilians so far this year; the Taliban 178. It doesn't matter whether the Taliban are using innocents as shields; they are still dead.
Harper says the future of the military mission is up to Canadians. Given the terrible costs and the slim chance of success, the choice is clear. NATO should be told now that while Canada might help with aid, training and other support, our military role won't continue. Footnote: Why did Harper change his position? The war has become a larger political issue, particularly in Quebec; the death toll is rising; and there is no good news to offset the concerns. The Conservatives risk facing an election in which their support for the war is a significant issue.