Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The voters' best defence is to throw out the bums

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VANCOUVER -- I remember Wilkinson. He was one of those square-cut diamond-in-the-rough Midlanders, smoothed by hard experience, who left Britain for Canada in post-war flight from the disaster of victory.

An election approached. Wilkinson gave me, a green reporter, a durable political lesson. Wilkinson's advice was simple, unoriginal: Throw the rascals out. Not an infallible premise but always a good starting point.

Governments become arrogant, mendacious, crony-stuffed, as mentally lazy as hounds on a sunny porch. Pitch them out. Bring in the next lot. They too will become arrogant etc. Never mind. Allow this brief pleasure to roll over you.

Today, I'd put it a bit differently. It is fit and right that voters be motivated by unprincipled fickleness. It is our best shield and almost only sword against governments plundering our personal wealth, their easy wastefulness and distributive favouritism.

Such permanently non-partisan voters should be two-term Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell's greatest fear when British Columbians vote May 12.

Campbell's greatest ally is the alternative. The perceived record of the New Democrat Party government, ejected in 2001, is not pretty. Breasts do not appear to be bursting with fervour for them, though led by a woman of decent impulses and some political courage, Carole James, a Metis raised in North Battleford and in Victoria.

At this point it's a -- deceptive -- cinch. The Liberals outnumber the NDP 45-34 in the legislature and have a 17-percentage point lead in a recent poll. But a dozen-odd Liberal MLAs aren't running, including a disaffected probable future leader, Carole Taylor, who was both very able and the world's most beautiful finance minister.

The Greens, at 12 per cent, and the Conservatives, who hadn't a detectable pulse for ages, are potential spoilers for the NDP and Liberals respectively.

In early days, it's a yawner.

Issues? As everywhere, the economy. Campbell has swallowed his political principle, possibly an oxymoron, and embraced deficits.

In March, B.C. lost 22,000 jobs, highest among provinces. The forest industry at large is foundering. In smaller mill-towns it's crashed. The only healthy harvester is the ruinous pine beetle. All politics being local, rural Liberal MLAs have a punishing slog.

The film industry is a bright spot. But Vancouver is losing the lucrative Alaska cruise business to Seattle. Next year, Carnival will shift southward nine cruises that bring in 23,000 tourists and $18 million annually. Seattle has far cheaper, more convenient air connections. Another factor is dodged: Unwary tourists stumble into appalling beggary and drug use in the Downtown Eastside. It tends to spoil a holiday.

Vancouver's drug war murders are so common that arithmetic, not reporting, is required. There have been 33 this year. The latest, Tuesday, brought jungle justice to a woman loan shark with links to Asian gangs.

The 2010 Winter Olympics are prayed for as a godsend. High-end ticket sales have been terrific. Olympics-tied construction is a Campbell love-in industry, which expresses its gratitude by funding attack ads on the NDP. But the Olympics are far from universally popular -- the unwashed belatedly were told they'll face closed-off routes and nightmare commutes for the extravaganza's brief weeks.

Costs, repeatedly ratcheted up from the phony initial figures, are bizarre.

Security alone is vaguely $900 million, five times the first estimate, so expect $1 billion. A Vancouver Sun columnist's back-of-an-envelope estimate in January of the all-in Olympics bill was $6 billion, an "incomplete tally with another year to go."

Official book-cooking is possibly no worse here than elsewhere, but snake-oil salesmen can only admire the bill for a gorgeous convention centre upgrade, tied to the Olympics, rocketing from $495 million to $900 million.

A fine touch is that the centre looks directly on the three "fast ferries" whose scandal helped torpedo the last NDP government. They are tied up unsailed and unsalable on Vancouver's North Shore, under suspicion of being positioned as an enduring witness to NDP blundering. They cost $450 million and were sold in 2003 to a private company for a paltry $19 million.

Here a reverent pause for the Liberals' accomplishments like transit expansion, trying to make the air more fragrant with its carbon tax, lowering a range of taxes, and the instant elevation of seven community colleges and institutions to a dubious university status.

What is more likely to do in the Liberals is how voters feel. Many feel there is an aroma of backroom deals in Victoria that crosses the threshold from slightly gamey business-as-usual to room-clearing flatulence.

A car-repair racket and cover-up in the public car insurance system generated less indignation than, say, if it had been an NDP scandal. Surely not media/business bias, hmmm?

More: Solicitor-general Jon Les resigned when he learned he was under police investigation. Lottery retailers cashed a suspiciously high percentage of winning tickets. One of Campbell's long-time (and highly competent) aides was accused of influence peddling. But nothing approaches the Byzantine murk around the December 2003 police raid on the legislature. Believed to be unprecedented in modern times in any parliamentary system, it is still inching its way through the courts more than five years later. Three former government aides face corruption charges.

The raid was connected to the $1 billion sale of publicly owned BC Rail to CN Rail. The government refuses to answer questions on the ground that the case is before the courts. The NDP hotly disagrees. As does the frustrated, albeit self-interested, media.

All concerned may be as innocent as lambs. But B.C.'s court of public opinion -- derisive of elites generally and currently mocking authority as evidence unfolds at the inquiry into the sickening death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport -- looks too impatient to wait for the mighty wheels of judgment to turn.

It's voters' turn on May 12. What would Wilkinson advise?

 

Trevor Lautens was an opinion page editor, editorial writer and columnist for The Vancouver Sun.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 18, 2009 A19

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