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Clark needs to trim dead weight

Ten years after the B.C. Liberals rode to power on a promise to hold the line on taxes and spend public dollars wisely, British Columbians are expressing disapproval of the party's record on both counts.

Ten years after the B.C. Liberals rode to power on a promise to hold the line on taxes and spend public dollars wisely, British Columbians are expressing disapproval of the party's record on both counts.

The government's emerging credibility gap on taxes and spending was evident in an opinion poll released this week by Ipsos Reid.

"Do you approve or disapprove of the job the provincial government here in B.C. has been doing in terms of taxes?" asked the pollster in a survey conducted just days before the 10th anniversary of the May 16, 2001, electoral sweep.

The answer was anything but flattering to the communications skills of a government that continues to boast of having cut more than 100 taxes during its decade in office.

Two-thirds of those responding said they "disapprove" of the Liberal record on taxes, most saying they did so "strongly," the rest saying "somewhat." Only a third saw any basis for approval, most saying "somewhat," while a small minority opted for "strongly."

Results were similarly disparaging of the Liberal self-image when the Ipsos Reid team asked people how the government "has been doing in terms of spending taxpayer money wisely."

Some 40 per cent said "disapprove strongly," another 25 per cent disapproved "somewhat." Less than a third bought the government claim of being tight with a public dollar, 25 per cent venturing "approve somewhat," while a mere three per cent mustered strong approval.

Thus, a double whammy for the government on the fiscal front. On the one hand people feel they are already overtaxed; on the other they feel their dollars are being wasted.

Though the poll didn't determine chapter and verse on those resentments, one can assume they were fuelled by the harmonized sales tax, the carbon tax before it, plus the upward climb in medicare premiums, hydro rates, ferry fares and other revenue measures.

At the same time, one can readily understand why the Liberals have had little success persuading voters that all those tax grabs are necessary to shore up funding for needed public services. People believe the government could find the money elsewhere, if only it would spend more wisely.

The poll did not drill down to specific details. But in my own feedback loop, I often hear how the Liberals could make do with fewer tax dollars if they would rein in executive compensation and severance pay in the public sector, while cancelling such controversial ventures as the $500-million-plus renovation of BC Place.

After 10 years in government, the B.C. Liberals are hauling around a lot of baggage on both the taxation and the spending front, and that, in turn, is a drag on their electoral prospects under new party leader Christy Clark.

The pollster found British Columbians "are more likely to have a positive than negative impression of Clark." She was also found to have an almost two-to-one lead over Adrian Dix as "the leader that British Columbians think would make a better premier of the province."

Both ratings are tentative. Many of those responding to the poll said they didn't know enough about Dix to form a strong opinion and others said the same about Clark. Meanwhile, the B.C. Liberals were found to be in a dead heat with the NDP in terms of how people would vote in an election. Meaning, as the pollster noted, her "leadership numbers haven't yet paid dividends in boosting public opinion of the B.C. Liberals' performance in government."

Indeed, the Liberals' approval rating was poor to dismal on other fronts besides spending and taxes, including education (59 per cent disapproval), health care (65 per cent) and ethics (70 per cent). Only on the economy did the party manage a marginally favourable showing, 51 per cent approve to 43 per cent disapprove.

Those aforementioned negatives on taxation and spending probably helped account for the emerging support for the provincial Conservatives -10 per cent, says Ipsos Reid -the NDP not being the alternative that voters would necessarily look to for lower taxes and less spending.

Disappointment with the government record probably accounts for the lack of enthusiasm among Liberal supporters for the early election Clark has been touting.

Ipsos Reid found New Democrats were ready (59 per cent approve) to go to the polls under their new leader, whereas only a third of Liberal supporters were keen to bring forward the election scheduled in law for two years hence.

Hence the dilemma for Clark if she wants to call that early election. She has to keep pushing and hope she can improve the party's performance rating before her own favourable ratings begin to fade. But she's hauling a lot of dead weight on behalf of a party that, intentionally or not, cheapened its own brand.