By Adrian Dix, Column in Victoria Times Colonist, 21 November 2002
Last Saturday, many voters sent a direct wake-up call to Premier Gordon Campbell. This happened most dramatically in Vancouver, where Larry Campbell and his COPE team swept out the premier’s own municipal party, the NPA.
Local party politics are directly present in only a few urban communities such as Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and Victoria. In all of these areas, local candidates opposed to the provincial government did very well. Voters who felt dispirited and disfranchised two years ago were mobilized by strong campaigns and the chance to rebuke the government.
Indeed, left-wing municipal parties may have themselves underestimated the extent of popular discontent and missed an opportunity to mount strong challenges to Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and Victoria Mayor Alan Lowe. Consider, for example, the third of the vote received by Ben Isitt, Lowe’s unknown and under-financed young opponent in Victoria.
However, as dramatic as these results were, particularly the COPE sweep in Vancouver, the government is perhaps facing its most significant political challenge in the Interior and in rural communities.
In most communities, service to the community and name recognition are key elements of success. Rarely can a clear provincial lesson be seen in the results.
Nevertheless, the defeat of mayors in Penticton, Nelson, Prince Rupert, Quesnel and several other communities indicates that voters in the Interior also took the opportunity, when offered, to send their own message to Victoria.
In the last provincial election, the Liberals scored overwhelming victories across the Interior, racking up some enormous margins of victory. Since coming to office, the premier has disproportionately slashed services in those very communities on Vancouver Island and in the Interior where his support was highest.
The commitment to cuts in health, education and public services to pay for large tax cuts is not in itself unusual. However, Campbell and his advisers have combined this economic radicalism with a remarkable degree of bureaucratic centralism.
For decades, senior public servants, when called upon to reduce government spending, have recommended cuts to regional services in B.C. They argue that centralized services are more efficient, that maintaining a presence in regional offices is too expensive and unnecessary to the management of government. In short, “centralized government was rational government.”
The government has taken to this view with a vengeance, closing hospital and health-care centres, regional forest offices, imposing tolls on inland ferries and centralizing services.
In K-12 education, the government re-wrote the funding formula to the detriment of school districts such as Prince George and Coast Mountain when those districts were reeling from the effects of declining enrolment. The result has been school closures and program cuts and what has become, in effect, a two-tier education system in our province — one level of choice for the cities, no choice for the towns and rural communities.
Politicians from all political stripes, Social Credit or New Democrat, have historically fought this approach to decision- making. Coming from all over the province, elected MLAs understand the critical role that public services play in their local economies.
Thus, politicians have consistently rejected the centralizing designs of senior managers, and protected decentralized services and established funding mechanisms (in education in particular) that benefited rural communities.
Some argue that this represents political interference in public administration. In fact, it is about politicians simply doing their jobs.
Last week, the finance committee headed by Peace River South MLA Blair Lekstrom took the government directly to task for contributing to the crisis in the rural economy: “The situation has become critical for resource dependent communities hit hard by the combined impact of the government’s restraint program and the current economic uncertainty in the forest and mining sectors.”
In short, these MLAs were telling the premier and his advisers to stop giving the shaft to communities from Campbell River to Dawson Creek.
Last Saturday, Vancouver voters demanded change and got it, at least at the local level. Voters in the Interior may have to wait until the next provincial election to send their full message of rejection to Campbell.
If the government does not alter its centralizing, narrow vision of the province soon, the May 2005 electoral result in rural B.C. could be even more dramatic than Saturday’s political earthquake in Vancouver.