COLUMN: The long adolescence of B.C. politics

May’s flowers finally arrive this week, a reminder that just one year from now B.C. will once again be in the thick of an election campaign.

The introduction of fixed four-year terms and a re-elected majority government have brought a strange new stability to B.C. politics, the ultimate fighting arena that saw the previous three (elected) premiers fall to their knees and offer a bloody signal of submission before they could make it through a first term.

That’s not to imply that the last B.C. election was calm or reasonable. A visitor from a nearby planet might easily have concluded that the May 2005 vote was merely a prelude to a much more important one involving the BCTF (B.C. Teachers’ Federation) party.

Teachers’ union signs and ads outnumbered those of some actual political parties. Viewers of the Oscars were greeted with images of depressed-looking kids in crowded classrooms. At the peak of the campaign, B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell alleged teacher bosses had already decided to strike in the fall. The union sued him for defamation.

Election day brought a surge of NDP support that surprised even rookie leader Carole James. Campbell imposed a contract extension on teachers, who did strike, then defied a court order and earned a record fine. The B.C. Federation of Labour organized rotating general strikes of public services, and thousands marched on the legislature.

It was chaos as usual, and suddenly it all seems so long ago.

Now public sector unions all have long-term deals, and the B.C. Liberals are sprinkling dollars and daffodils around to attract more public service workers. Classrooms are emptying, not overflowing.

What will be the epic clash of the 2009 election? Could a measured discussion of major issues possibly break out? Don’t get your hopes up.

The parties filed their annual financial disclosures a month ago, and as expected the B.C. Liberals enjoyed a cash lead as comfortable as their edge in recent opinion polls. The ruling party collected $5.8 million in 2007, not bad for a non-election year, about three quarters of it from corporations and businesses.

Small businesses, and lots of individuals too, said party spokesman Chad Pederson, putting the ritual spin on numbers that show corporate cheques accounting for more than half the total.

The NDP raised just over $3 million, a mere $219,000 of it coming from unions. Party president Jeff Fox was able to make a far more credible claim of grassroots support, noting that individual donors put up 92 per cent of NDP donations, compared to 23 per cent for the B.C. Liberals. Campbell has ignored James’ repeated call to ban both corporate and union donations, “and you can sure see why,” Fox said.

When these disclosures came out last year, the B.C. Liberals detailed the latest third-party campaigns by the teachers, the B.C. Government Employees’ Union, the B.C. Fed and the B.C. Health Coalition. “The NDP’s plan to ban corporate and union donations would still allow special interests and third-party groups to continue their partisan attacks,” Pederson said.

Well, that’s true. And if big coal, private power and other corporate donors couldn’t enrich the B.C. Liberals any more, they could always run their own third-party campaigns to push their viewpoint, at election time and in between. In fact business groups started to do that before the 2005 election.

Would such a cacophony of special interest campaigns turn voters off? I can’t see things getting much worse. In the 2005 election, only 55 per cent of eligible B.C. voters made the effort. That’s down from 70 per cent in 1983.


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