Friday, September 05, 2008

Let’s make lost opportunity an election issue

I took a break from working on a look at big issues in the federal election campaign and flipped through some old newspapers sitting on a chair in the office.
They were from 1961. And they raised a question for all the political parties – how come we aren’t happier or better off than we were then?
Stephen Harper and Stephane Dion will go back and forth about crime and climate change and leadership. Those are all important. They will slag each other in quite nasty and unfair ways. That’s not so important.
But no one is going to talk about the sense that a lot of Canadians feel like things have got worse for them over the years.
The 1961 paper had a front-page story about a new contract for teachers. The top wage was to be $8,360. Today, the top teacher wage here is about $78,000.
Then I flipped to the classifieds. There was an ad for a four-bedroom house on a quiet street in Oak Bay for $10,000. I checked; it’s assessed today at $575,000. (Both prices are typical for the time.)
So an established teacher could figure on buying that home for 14 months’ salary. Mortgage payments would be one-sixth of his income.
Today, the same house, at $575,000, would cost the equivalent of more than seven year’s gross pay. The mortgage payments would consume more than 40 per cent of the income.
It’s not just teachers, of course. Forest workers, office staff, people on an assembly line or fixing cars, even journalists – they all faced a different, cheerier future in 1961. They could afford a house and new car and if not a cabin, at least a couple of weeks at one. Moms could stay home (or were forced to). Families expected things would be even better for their children. Things like the introduction of medicare were on the horizon.
Today, a lot of people see their kids facing a much tougher time than they did, or perhaps their parents did.
John Diefenbaker was prime minister in 1961; Lester Pearson led the Liberal opposition; Tommy Douglas was the leader of the truly New Democratic Party, formed that year. Not pantheonic, necessarily, but have we had three leaders who commanded similar respect in the last 20 years. Paul Martin? Brian Mulroney?
Maybe that’s what this election — and the provincial election next May, and the municipal elections in November — should be about. Which politicians understand the concerns of the average Canadian? Who among them thins things could be better, and has some ideas? Who, in Parliament or cabinet, wouldn’t disillusion or embarrass the people who voted for, and against, them?
Who would make the priority creating happier, more prosperous average Canadians?
It’s hard at this point to see which leader is going to step into that role. Stephen Harper comes off as kind of cranky and doesn’t seem to see government as responsible for bringing a better life to Canadians. There’s a sense that the Conservatives are too infatuated with the failed polices of American Republicans, from militarism to simplistic lock-em-up crime responses.
Stephane Dion seems barely in control of his own party, fuzzy on the direction his government would go and a little shell-shocked. Jack Layton, Elizabeth May, Gilles Duceppe — none are likely to captivate voters with vision and plans.
Some voters, of course, would disagree. They are passionate in their belief that one party or another has the answers.
Most voters, I’d suggest, aren’t looking really forward to casting their ballots. Many have resigned themselves to voting against someone, rather than for a politician or platform they truly support.
Maybe we should keep that in mind over this election campaign. We can assess the issues and look at hard at the local candidates.
But it would be nice to hear a candidate or a leader acknowledge that for a lot of people, things seem harder than they did a few decades ago.
And that making them better was one of their concerns.
Footnote: B.C. should be a critical battleground in a close election. Some five Conservative seats and four seats each for the Liberals and the New Democrats, are likely in play. The Island and Lower Mainland should see most of the focus from the parties.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Poll suggests big problems for Campbell, Liberals

It's not the fact that the Liberals and NDP are tied in a recent poll that raises doubts about a third term for Gordon Campbell after next May's elections.
Poll results bounce around and people often have reasons for being irked at the party in power.
But the poll - and the reaction - raises a couple of more profound issues for the B.C. Liberals.
The poll itself reveals a grim assessment of Campbell as leader, and the party's direction under his rule.
And the reaction, based on an unscientific and unrepresentative survey, suggests that a lot of the Liberals core supporters are dangerously unhappy.
The poll, by Angus Reid Strategies, found the NDP had the support of 41 per cent of British Columbians, compared with 38 per cent for the Liberals. That's within the margin of error; practically, the parties are tied. (The Green party is at 14 per cent.)
That's still good news for Carole James and the NDP. For most of her term as leader, the party has lagged at least 10 points behind the Liberals. Another defeat seemed inevitable.
The poll, conducted Aug. 21-25, was likely affected by what could-be short-term issues - the carbon tax, which took effect July 1, and the massive raises for senior government managers this month.
But the company also asked some broader questions that revealed deeper, much harder to deal with issues for the Liberals.
The biggest revelation, assuming the poll accurately reflects public opinion, is what a liability Campbell is with an election only nine months away.
The pollster asked respondents a number of questions about the leaders of the two main parties. The judgment of Campbell was harsh and involved perceptions that would be hard to turn around at this point.
Parties and leaders can always launch new policy directions to get out from under an unpopular issue. But turning things around once people have decided they just don't trust someone is harder.
And it appears they don't trust Campbell. If the poll reflects reality, they really don't trust him.
Only 18 per cent of those polled believed Campbell is honest and trustworthy; 60 per cent said he isn't to be trusted. (Almost half - 45 per cent - said James is honest and trustworthy; only 16 per cent said she isn't.)
Does Campbell inspire confidence? Sixty per cent said no. Does Campbell understand the problems of British Columbians? Again, 59 per cent said no. Agree with you on issues you care about? Sixty per said no.
Campbell scores high for having a vision, but the poll found 43 per cent of British Columbians think the province is on the wrong track. The visionary thing might not be a plus.
And he is rated significantly more highly than James in two important areas. Campbell is seen as significantly stronger and more decisive, qualities that are over-rated by voters. And he's seen as able to manage the provincial economy effectively.
But overall, James was seen as the person who would make best premier by 35 per cent of those surveyed; 31 per cent said Campbell would do the best job. (Leaving a critical 34 per cent who weren't sure.)
Sixty per said the Liberals hadn't delivered the promised "new hope and prosperity." More people though the province is on the track than supported the government's direction
And 58 per cent said it's time for a new party to govern; only 29 per cent said the Liberals should be re-elected.
Polls this far out don't necessarily reflect the way people will actually vote.
But it was a pretty damning view of the current government. And, based on a scan of blogs and comment streams, a lot of people who identify themselves as right-wing are incensed with Campbell. It's been assumed those voters had nowhere else to go, but some seemed ready to stay home next May 12.
Footnote: Campbell has been seen as a one-man government, certainly setting the agenda on big issues like climate change, which adds to the problems if people decide he's the wrong guy. Don't expect any real talk of replacing him, but the poll suggests some big challenges ahead for the Liberals.\