Crossposted from dKos

So at the Seattle Kossack meet last weekend a number of folks – SeattleLiberal especially – talked up the Booman Tribune. So I thought I’d have a look, and the quality of discussion seems extremely high here. Plus there’s a lot of you who I know from dKos.

What that means is I think a recent diary I wrote on today’s elections in British Columbia might contribute to the discussion here.

Today the Canadian province of British Columbia goes to the polls to elect a new government.
At the last election in May 2001, the BC “Liberals” (I’ll explain why I put that name in quotes later) mopped the floor with the incumbent New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP, which had been in government for 10 years, was thrown out of office ignominiously – the scale of their defeat was so large that they were left with only 2 seats in the Legislative Assembly, out of 76 total seats.

Below I’ll explain the issues at stake in the election, who will probably win and what that victory means – and, most importantly, why this election is of major significance to all of us, whether or not we live in Canada.

Additionally, BC is putting to voters the question of whether or not they want to change their electoral system to one of “single transferable vote” or STV. This is itself an interesting issue, and I’ll address it separately, toward the end.
First, a disclaimer. My knowledge of BC politics is not expert. My information comes second-hand, from what I’ve seen from Seattle on CBC news and in our local papers. As such this analysis will be at times shallow, and may flub or ignore main points. If any of you have more info, by all means, add it in the comments section. If anything I write here is wrong, I’ll correct it. Having made my apologies in advance, let’s get to it.

THE PARTIES

BC “Liberals”

The current BC government is made up of the BC “Liberals,” led by Premier (the provincial equivalent of a US state governor but with much more power) Gordon Campbell. This party is not at all liberal in the American or even Canadian sense – they are made up of free market ideologues who are vehemently anti-union, anti-environment, anti-education, anti-public sector and just as virulently pro-business.

When the BC “Liberals” took power in 2001, they immediately began governing as radicals. They ripped up collective bargaining agreements with public employees and rammed through legislation curtailing workers’ rights and organizing abilities. For this the UN International Labour Organization condemned the BC government. Despite having promised not to do so they privatized BC Rail, resulting in the catastrophic loss of service to many interior cities. BC is a vast, wild province, and for many areas rail, not roads, provides the main transportation system. So this was a serious problem.

Although they promised not to privatize BC Hydro, the public corporation that operates BC’s hydroelectric dams, the BC “Liberals” privatized 1/3 of the corporation’s jobs, and it seems clear that they plan to finish the job in their second term. Their record on the environment has been criminal – massive amounts of pristine forests have been opened to logging, and the lumber industry is in fact the largest contributor to the BC “Liberals”.

The BC “Liberals” under Campbell also pushed through major increases on premiums for health care, raising these costs to the highest levels in all of Canada. Many are convinced that the BC “Liberals” under Campbell are interested in privatizing health care in BC. Their record on education has been similarly disgusting – under Campbell thousands of teachers have been laid off, hundreds of schools have closed, tuition has doubled.

The BC “Liberals” are then best understood as “neo-liberals,” in the global economic sense. Neo-liberalism is the name for the policies implemented globally since the late 1970s that emphasize the destruction of the public sector to benefit the private sector, declining services and increased costs, and policies that benefit businesses and the rich at the expense of everyone else.

So in the face of this, why is it that Campbell and the BC “Liberals” are headed for re-election? Campbell and the BC “Liberals” aren’t terribly popular, and one would think he’d be ripe for losing his job. There are three reasons. The first reason is that the provincial economy has by and large done better in this decade than in the ’90s. The second – related to the first – is that the NDP left a bitter taste in many British Columbians’ mouths the last time around. The third is that the opposition is divided. We should now turn to the NDP.

NDP

The NDP is the Canadian equivalent of the British Labour Party. The Federal NDP has never won an election, although they have at times shared power with the Liberals. But in many provinces, which have more power in Canada than US states have, the NDP has governed. They governed Saskatchewan and Manitoba for decades, and still do.

And in the 1990s the NDP governed British Columbia. But the NDP’s reign was troubled. Their first Premier in the ’90s, Mike Harcourt, was forced to resign amidst conflict-of-interest allegations. In 1996 the NDP won re-election, but lost the popular vote. They got 39 seats with 39.5% of the vote, and the BC “Liberals” got 33 seats with 41.8% of the vote. Glen Clark, the NDP Premier, was also forced to resign in 1999, also due to a conflict-of-interest scandal. He was replaced by Ujjal Dosanjh, who is now Canada’s Minister of Health (and a member of the national Liberal Party).

In addition to these matters, the NDP government had other problems. The province notoriously sank millions of dollars into “fast ferries” to link the mainland to Vancouver Island – but the ferries were problematic, and became something of a boondoggle.

But the biggest issue seemed to be the economy. BC in the 1990s had a fair amount of labor unrest, and taxes had gone up. Right-wingers argued that taxes and unions were making BC the weakest economy in all of Canada and that free market ideas were needed to return economic health to the province. In the end, a combination of all these factors led voters to throw out the NDP.

The NDP has been chastened, and in this lies the crucial importance of this election for all of us. The NDP has moved toward the political center since their 2001 defeat. Their new leader, Carole James, has promised that the BC “Liberals” corporate tax cuts, privatization of BC Rail, privatization of 8,000 health care jobs, will all be maintained. She is clearly anxious to show voters that electing her and her party won’t necessarily mean a return to the 1990s…although given Campbell’s record, that doesn’t strike this outside observer as such a bad idea. One result of this is that not everyone who opposes the BC “Liberals” sees the socially democratic NDP as the answer.

The Greens

Indeed, there was more to the 2001 election than just a popular rejection of the NDP in favor of the “BC Liberals.” The Green Party, led by Adrienne Carr, ran a well-organized campaign that brought them 12.4% of the vote. Many in the NDP complained, and still do, that the Greens cost them the 2001 election – an echo of the US claim by some Democrats that the Greens and Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 election. In both cases, though, the Green vote was clearly a product of disaffection with the liberal/left, much moreso in BC, where many felt the NDP was insufficently strong on the environment.

After 2001 there was some effort made to see if the Greens and the NDP couldn’t join forces to take out the right-wing lunatics of the BC “Liberals.” But the gap remains wide between the two. The Greens are adamant that the NDP is insufficiently pro-environment and resents the NDP’s preference that the Greens join the NDP rather than a hybridization be created.

Clearly something is going to have to be done to put these two parties – the Greens and the NDP – together. But it might take another 4 years in the wilderness for this to occur. A merged party could in fact be a truly unique and progressive political force in North America, a model for other states and provinces. The devil remains in the details, and it’s not clear how much of the vote the Greens will get today – or if they’ll even win any seats.

THE ELECTION

Polls show that the BC “Liberals” will win. But the size of their victory remains uncertain. A Globe and Mail poll gave them a 13 point lead, but 2 other polls gave them only a 5-8 point lead. Some have prognosticated that the BC “Liberals” will win 51 seats and the NDP 28, and that the NDP could win as much as 40% of the vote. This would be a vast improvement over 2001, but not enough to stop the plundering of BC in its tracks.

It seems that Campbell has alienated a lot of British Columbians, but memories of the NDP’s ’90s governments linger, and the Green-NDP divide continues to prevent the expulsion of the BC “Liberals.” Polls suggest that the Greens and the NDP combined would get 52-56% of the vote, but it is far from clear if all the Green voters would actually vote NDP or would vote at all.

Social issues seem to not be playing much of a role in this election. I may well be wrong, but the BC “Liberals” are not social conservatives (the Social Credit Party, a right-wing party that governed BC for much of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s was socially conservative, but that party is basically dead).

A BC “Liberal” victory may or may not hasten a Green-NDP reconciliation. The NDP will be tempted to conclude that their road to recovery is doing just fine without the Greens and that the Greens might go away if ignored. The Greens will probably not see their vote increase in this election over their 2001 breakthrough, but will probably remain unwilling to compromise with the NDP, especially if the NDP continues to resist a full reversal of Campbell’s policies.

THE STAKES

The main reason we should all care about this election is what it says about the possibilities of stopping in its tracks the neo-liberal despoilation of our economy, our politics, and our society. The BC “Liberals” are a nightmare of a government, and they are gutting the province in pursuit of political gain and the enrichment of their corporate allies.

But how are they to be stopped? How are forces of the left – which, I hope, all of us who are reading this identify with and wish success – to counter this nightmare? BC shows the very real problems that stand in the way of a united front. The NDP is very much tempted to become Clintonians, who espouse a progressive vision but are too scared to challenge right-wing political economies. The Greens have a powerful point about the environment, and draw a lot of voters angry with the NDP for not doing more for the environment, but environmentalism alone doesn’t seem to be able to address economic questions. Environmentalism in both the US and Canada badly needs to develop a serious economics.

But perhaps the biggest stakes are in the other element of today’s election north of the border.

ELECTORAL REFORM

BC’s election today is significant also because of the proposed “single transferable vote” reform. When the BC “Liberals” took power in 2001 they promised to call a Citizens’ Assembly to consider the question of electoral reform. Last year they came back with their recommendation: STV.

I wish I could explain STV to you. I can’t. If I lived in BC I might better understand it. I believe it is very similar to instant runoff voting, such as is used by the city of San Francisco. STV is used in Australia, Ireland, and some lower-level elections in New Zealand and Scotland. See this wikipedia article for an explanation of STV.

If STV passes – and I’m not sure what the polling says – then it would be very much worth watching to see how it plays out in later elections. STV might itself solve the Green-NDP dilemma, which would be pretty damn nice.

There’s also the little matter of Canadian politics at the national level, and the imminence of a new election. THAT is something we would all have to watch extremely closely. We have to keep the Conservatives out of power in Ottawa. Have to.

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