Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Some thoughts about our recent provincial election and the net zero pay policy for political staff


I

In the spring of 1996, when I decided to seek the BC Liberal nomination in my constituency of Richmond-Steveston, the party was ahead in the polls and the conventional wisdom was that Gordon Campbell was well on the way to becoming BC’s new premier.  I thought I might become a part of the new government.  Well, I got elected.  But in a surprising turnaround, the NDP won the election and Glen Clark became premier.  So I know something of the taste of defeat the NDP are experiencing in the aftermath of Christy Clark’s stunning election win on May 14.  I got over it, and decided to see if I could become a good Opposition MLA.  So, too, probably sooner rather than later, will the NDP.

II

All elections are an occasion to test old theories and wonder about the emergence of new ones.

In the months before the May 14 election I argued here that BC electoral politics since the early 1950s could expressed in a single formula: when the centre and right are united under a single party, that party wins; when they are divided, the NDP win.  (I don’t claim pride of invention for that theory, which has long been a staple of BC political analysis.)  There was a point in the months before the May 14 election when pollsters were reporting the BC Conservative Party enjoyed the support of more than 20% of decided voters.   That, it seemed to me, represented exactly the recipe for an NDP election win.  Over the succeeding months, the BC Conservatives managed to mis-manage their way into near-insignificance, such that by election night, their support fell to below 5% of actual votes cast.  No threat, in the end, to the centre-right coalition under the BC Liberal banner.  Perhaps the old theory still holds. 

I probably need to point out that any attempt to explain BC politics solely on the basis of a single “left-right” axis is woefully inadequate.  There are always other dynamic tensions at play: urban-rural; insider-outsider; blue collar-white collar; and there is a strong streak of just plain protest voting that needs to be taken into account if you want to understand BC politics.  So the terminology which sees the “united centre-right” in opposition to the “left” is only partly descriptive.  But it’s still pretty handy, in my view.  It was very powerfully and persuasively called into service by Christy Clark in this spring’s campaign every time she expressed the choice for voters as between the BC Liberals, who want to “grow the economy”, and the NDP, who want to “grow government”.

So it seems to me that the centre-right coalition survives, indeed thrives, under Christy Clark’s leadership.  The first woman elected premier in the history of BC.   With her own electoral mandate. And a caucus half of whose members are new and were recruited by her, and the other half most certainly aware – or at least they ought to be – that the only reason they have been returned to government is because Christy Clark got them there. 

This is not just a question of where loyalty lies.  It’s also about how decisions will be made, especially the tough decisions, where there are good arguments on any side.  In my view, the best political decisions are made at the intersection between policy and politics.  Doing the right thing just because it is the right thing is rarely if ever good enough; you also have to discern what the electorate will and will not support; whether this is a good time to create political capital or spend it; and what the chances are of creating the coalitions of support that will overwhelm the inevitable voices of opposition. That fusion of policy and politics, when it works, is the magic of good government.  In the end, all tough decisions are matters of judgement. People can and will disagree.  Someone, somehow, has to decide.  What’s particularly interesting to me about this newly-elected caucus and government is that the election result really represents – as much as anything else - a profound vindication of Christy Clark’s capacity for political judgment.  Against the odds, and in the face of all those who thought they knew better and said she was nuts to believe it, she believed she had a message that would resonate with the voters whose support she needed to win.  She played a game to win when many people thought the game was long since over.  And she won.  What that means to me is this: at the end of every caucus and Cabinet discussion, at whatever late hour, when it’s time to make the decision, she has earned the right to the last word, and to impose her political judgment.  You could call it the moral authority to govern.  You might say that must be true of all premiers and all times, but it’s not.  It’s not something that flows automatically from holding the office. It’s earned.  And boy has Christy Clark earned it.  

III

The news yesterday was about the government’s decision to increase salary ranges for political staff.  Predictably, the NDP slammed the decision.  It’s a measure of the banality of our political discourse that people can generate any feeling at all about a set of salary adjustments which – as has been clearly stated by government - will not increase overall public expenditure.  The suggestion that in some respect the government was turning its back on its promises of fiscal prudence is completely unfounded. Some people will be paid more.  And no doubt some positions will not be filled. The result is: no increase in expenditure. Or to put it another way, net zero.  That’s news?

But I don’t mention this issue just to wonder why it’s even an issue.  I’m more interested in NDP MLA John Horgan’s reported statement that, “The public doesn’t like this stuff.”

Well, I wonder about that.  There are two kinds of political conversations.  One is a conversation between and among, as Bob Rennie once semi-facetiously said to me, the “800 people who send emails to each other about politics”.  The other conversation is what happens inside people’s heads when they finally enter the ballot box.  The people engaged in that first conversation are, in US political parlance, “inside the Beltway”. They pay attention to every bit of gossip, every political staff hiring and firing, every instance of carelessness or malfeasance, and every mis-spoken word or indiscreet Tweet.  For them, every slip is a scandal, a new “something-or-other-gate”, another nail in the coffin of a government’s political fortunes.  And because they pay such close attention, they think everyone else does, and they think it all matters.  (I should know; I’m one of them!)

Folks inside the Beltway thought, for example, that the so-called ethnic outreach scandal – which took life from some leaked BC Liberal emails released by the NDP on the first days of the brief pre-election spring legislative session - would be the death knell of BC Liberal re-election chances.  Ethnic-gate!

Were folks outside the Beltway paying attention?  Well, the voters of Richmond-Steveston handily re-elected John Yap, who was the only elected official implicated in that scandal.  Maybe they were paying attention, but it doesn't seem to have mattered much.

And as Vaughn Palmer pointed out in his Vancouver Sun column today, the voters of the constituencies along the BC Rail line have consistently re-elected BC Liberal MLAs in three elections subsequent to the BC Rail sale, notwithstanding the vigorous efforts of some determined people to keep the BC Rail “scandal” in or near the news. 

In short, if this election result is any guide – and here’s the question about the emergence of a new theory – the people engaged in the second conversation – inside the ballot box, with pencil in  hand – are perhaps not, in the end, actually moved by all that first conversation stuff. They may “care”, but it's not going to decide elections.  

In John Horgan’s mind, the public doesn’t like the fact that some political staffers are getting a raise.  Which public?  The folks he talks to on the NDP caucus staff?  Columnists, bloggers, open-line radio callers? No doubt.  But what about the larger public?  I wonder not just if they care, but how much they care.  I am mindful of something a friend of mine said the other day, that for all our attempts to generalize, there are 1.8 million different constellations of reasons why people cast their ballot a certain way.  But even so, we generalize.  And maybe what we learned from the last election is that what really matters to the public are not the so-called scandals that are the noise of day-to-day life inside the Beltway, but rather the big questions. Questions like, which party and which leader will do a better job, in the long run, and allowing for the ups and downs, the all-too-human strengths and weaknesses that are as much a part of politics as they are of the rest of our lives, of leading my province in a direction I want to go?  On this point, the point of what it is that really matters, I am quite sure, for British Columbia in the spring of 2013, Christy Clark has a better answer than the rest of us.