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Don't Count Out NDP

Campbell provides issues to attack this year.

Rafe Mair 19 May 2008TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. Read previous columns by Rafe Mair here.

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NDP's James: Watch your green flank.

We are now less than a year from the next provincial election and if the polls are right, the NDP might just as well pack it in now. But elections don't work that way and it's often been said that when governments fall, the reason has much less to do with a strong opposition than on the government screwing up.

Back in 1983 when I was doing a talk show, it seemed obvious to me that in any election to come soon the NDP under Dave Barrett would whomp the Bill Bennett-led Socreds. I phoned the man closest to the premier, Bud Smith (who'd been my campaign manager in 1975 and 1979), and asked him if Bennett and he had lost their minds? Barrett and the NDP were shoo-ins!

Bud chuckled and told me of polling they had done and in question after question the public favoured Barrett over Bennett by a wide margin. Except on two points -- the need for financial restraint and employment. On both these points, the voters favoured Bennett and the Socreds. "If we call an election (which they did a few days later), what happens if the issues become 'restraint' and 'employment'?" Needless to say those were the issues and the much loved Barrett lost a near landslide to the unpopular Bill Bennett.

The lesson to be learned was well summed up by the late Nikita Khrushchev who said "never divide the bear skin until you have shot the bear."

NDP to do list

To become competitive, Carole James must do a number of things.

First she must concentrate ALL her resources on the winnable ridings. Which ones are those? Well, while past history will help, there are new constituencies for which there's no track record. There are old constituencies -- Kamloops, for example -- where popular MLAs are retiring, and safe seats that aren't so safe anymore. Another example is Delta, formerly safely Liberal, which has been assaulted by such things as the Deltaport scheme, the South Fraser Perimeter Road, potential damage to Burns Bog, loss of agricultural land and the "hot" transmission lines in Tsawwassen -- all this and a Liberal MLA who usually won't shut up but avoids constituency protests like the plague. Moreover, every election has its surprises and the NDP must make good guesses as to where they might be.

Secondly, James must have a single, coherent policy on contentious matters -- not one for one area with the same policy watered down in another. A good example is the Atlantic salmon fish farm issue. She wants support for a tough stand against fish farms in many constituencies but doesn't want to be too tough in areas where there are fish processing plants employing many natives. There can be an articulate common message that combines a policy condemning new farms, incentives for old farms to move, and offering help for shore workers who might be adversely affected.

Thirdly, James must develop an understandable and doable policy for what will probably be a full blown recession a year from now. Strangely, bad times often don't help the left because the right is often grudgingly seen by voters as better at managing unemployment crises. The left is best off when times are good and there is money to spare for social programs.

Environment, a local issue

Fourthly, the NDP leader must exploit the "environment" issue which, if done properly, can pay handsome electoral dividends. Gordon Campbell is getting great kudos from national writers like Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail; the invariable rule is that if anyone east of the Lakehead thinks the B.C. government is doing something right, they're probably not. When Campbell boasts of his statesmanship, it's reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson's line: "The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons." In short, when the obeisant student of Milton Friedman and the Fraser Institute talks of his devotion to the environment and moves arm-in-arm with Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's spoon counting time.

I believe that the present public mood with respect to the environment has less to do with global warming than local projects. All over the province voters have seen how the Environmental Assessment Act is simply a complicated exercise of waiting until after the deal is done to do assessments, and this by a government process headed by an appointment of the premier. All who were affected by the Sea-To-Sky project, especially those opposed to the Eagleridge desecration, saw the Orwellian nature of the environmental "process" where solemn bureaucrats fulminating "newspeak," pencil in hand with deeply furrowed brows, went through the motions of assessing a done deal.

The Run of Rivers program, which gives private companies the ability to make buckets of money from messing up hundreds of rivers and streams, should be manna from heaven for the NDP. Scarcely a constituency outside the Lower Mainland and Greater Victoria will avoid this policy and the program is so obviously a travesty of environmental commitment that it provides a multi riding issue just waiting to be politically exploited.

The Green party factor

What about the Green Party? It lost a glorious opportunity five years ago when then-leader Adrian Carr dissed the report of the Electoral Reform Commission. Instead of saying, "It's not what we wanted but it's a hell of a lot better than the system we have and we'll support it," she had a fit and pledged her party would support the "no" side in the referendum. Because the vote was so close, had the Greens supported STV the issue almost certainly would have won the referendum. That would have meant that we'd now have STV and the Greens would be a shoo-in for half a dozen seats or more.

As it is, the Greens will help the Liberals by taking votes from the NDP. Jane Sterk, elected leader of the party at its 2007 annual meeting last October, promises to run candidates in every riding and to ensure that only the highest quality candidates are put forward. James will have to deal with this, how I don't know.

Damon Runyan famously said "the race is not always to the swift nor the contest to the strong -- but that's the way to bet." A betting person would want very long odds to bet on the NDP. But Gordon Campbell himself has provided a dimly lit route. The premier has become so arrogant, so dictatorial, so unpopular that if Carole James can offer a better, gentler way and if she properly exploits the feelings so many citizens have for environmental issues close to home, anything goes when the whistle blows, including exceptions to Mr. Runyan's betting axiom.

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