Friday, January 16, 2009

Four months to go, and the Liberals should be worried

British bookies take bets on election results and post odds years in advance.
Perhaps it's the next bit of gambling expansion the B.C. Liberals will look at, now that people are getting less keen on scratch and lose tickets.
But the oddsmakers would be having a tough time right about now.
Even a year ago, Gordon Campbell and company would have been heavy favorites.
The economy was good, Olympic plans were allegedly on track and voters in the Lower Mainland could see big infrastructure projects all over the place.
There were problems - homelessness and street disorder, health care waits and gaps in seniors' care. The forest industry, especially the coastal industry, was a mess.
But problems are part of governing. It's only when they become really serious, or when the party in power doesn't seem to have any plans to deal with them - or worse, doesn't acknowledge them - that voters get really riled
And Carole James and the New Democrats hadn't convinced voters that they could do any better.
The polls suggest that's changing. A year ago, the Mustel Group had the Liberals with the support of 48 per cent of decided voters and the NDP with 36 per cent. (In the 2005 election, the Liberals captured 46 per cent of the vote and the New Democrats 42 per cent.) That kind of lead translates into a comfortable majority.
But the last Mustel poll, done in late November, found the two parties tied.
Since then, the Liberals have run into more problems. Some are definitely of their own making; others are just the kind of bumps - like the global economic collapse - that would jar any government.
MLAs gathered in Victoria for an emergency legislative session to pass a law letting Vancouver borrow almost $500 million. The city needs the money to rescue the botched athletes' village project.
The mess was created by terrible decisions made by Vancouver's former council, not the province. (The new council, now dominated by provincial New Democrats, is unlikely to make things easy for the government.)
But it's bad news for Campbell. The price tag for next February's Games is already an issue, especially as the economy slumps. The $500-million overrun on the Vancouver Convention Centre raised doubts about the government's competence and it has been criticized for secrecy on the real cost of the Games. The security bill is still secret, but will likely be five times the $175 million the province maintained would be adequate.
At a time when the government is looking for programs to cut next year to save money, it will likely be asked to spend some $350 million in extra security costs for a 16-day event.
The global economic woes have nothing directly to do with Campbell and the Liberals.
But he will be judged on two fronts as a result - on the effectiveness of efforts to respond to the crisis and, much more subjectively, on whether he "gets it."
So far, there isn't much sign of a response, although next month's budget will be the real test.
Campbell's real problem might come when voters decide whether he actually understands and cares about their concerns. An Angus Reid Strategies poll last fall found 59 per cent of those surveyed didn't believe Campbell understood the problems of British Columbians.
Campbell did outpoll James on management competence, an important factor in peoples' voting decisions.
That's why the Olympic cost problems are so critical. The Liberal campaign is pushing the themes that the New Democrats can't be trusted and aren't competent. The risks are especially high at such a turbulent time, they will argue.
But the distinction blurs if voters are wondering about the Liberals on the same two qualities.
Campbell and the Liberals are still the favorites. But a year ago, it looked like they were cruising to an easy victory; today, it's a real contest.
Footnote: The Liberals' problems are compounded by the perception that this is a one-man government, with Campbell's enthusiasms - like climate change - setting the agenda. A bigger effort to demonstrate a larger role for ministers and MLAs would have insulated the party from some of these problems.


Anonymous said...

A bigger effort to demonstrate a larger role for ministers and MLAs would have insulated the party from some of these problems.

Well there wasn't such an effort, and that probably explains why so many cabinet ministers in this parliament have chosen not to run in the election.

Anonymous said...

PW, you recently wrote that the media - including yourself - had not given the Olympic budget the scrutiny it deserved. The Campbell Convention Centre is grossly over budget... looks like a good place to start making amends.

Anonymous said...

Seven Ministers have bailed? And who's next? This is a dieing gvernment.

Anonymous said...

And another bites the dust and down, down they go. At first I was confident Carol James was going to be the next leader of BC but now I'm certain. And I do believe it will be a good thing as many look for someone they just trust.

DPL said...

A local radio station in Vancouver today is showing a Mustel poll of the Liberals being ahead by 14 points. believe that and you will believe anything

Anonymous said...

The Jan. 8-15/09 Mustel poll [.PDF] is here: