A truism of politics: The best way to determine how a candidate will do infuture election campaigns is to observe how he or she performed in pastelection campaigns. And Carole James showed herself to be ready for primetime politics this past weekend at the NDP convention in Vancouver. In the race to be NDP leader, James organized the best campaign, gave thebest speech, performed well under pressure and won a surprisingly easysecond-ballot victory. She brought strong labour, environmental and youth support to her campaign as well as the endorsement of many of the big NDP names in the province.

While political commentators have gone on about thelow profile of the NDP leadership field, Carole James is the only seriousalternative to Gordon Campbell as premier of British Columbia. By May 2005,for better or worse, British Columbians will know her well enough.

James has been involved in the areas of child care, community service, education, and social services for over 25 years. She has experience with a number of provincial initiatives including the Public Education Restructuring Consultation, the Ministry of Children and Families Secure Care Committee, and the Independent B.C. Budget Review Panel.

Her next test, leading the NDP into the 2005 election, will naturally bemuch more difficult than anything she has faced so far. The B.C. Liberals have an edge in public opinionsurveys, an inexhaustible supply of money, thanks to their corporate donors,and a huge advantage in the legislature. The premier has shown himself to bea strong, if not always likable, leader whose iron grip over his caucus andparty was not even shaken by a drunk driving conviction in Hawaii.

For all of this, the B.C. Liberals are starting to look vulnerable in 2005.In public opinion surveys, a strong majority of voters — more than 60 percent — have a negative assessment of the premier and the government’srecord.

What is sustaining the Liberals’ current edge over the NDP in votingintentions is the continuing faith of their core electorate in the eventualsuccess of the government’s economic and fiscal policies. In fact, perceived“competency” on economic issues is very much the last pillar on which thegovernment’s political support rests.

While the Liberal government’s performance on the key economic indicatorssuch as debt, deficit, unemployment and economic growth is worse than theNDP’s in the 1990s, the government’s supporters continue to give it thebenefit of the doubt. However, the premier is looking increasinglyvulnerable on economic issues as well.

The B.C. Rail issue symbolizes the Liberals’ approach and growing publicopposition. That the premier is breaking a campaign promise not to privatizeB.C. Rail is well understood by voters. However, the extent of thegovernment’s brazen pursuit of the short-term revenue was revealed inconfidential government documents published this weekend in the TimesColonist.

The cabinet has apparently chosen CN over bids by CPand Omnitrax even though, according to its own advisers, “community impactsunder CN would be the most severe of any of the options.” The advisers alsonote, “Canadian National Railway is the least attractive choice to take overCrown-owned B.C. Rail because it will close rail lines, cause massivelayoffs, lessen competition and boost freight rates for the province’sbiggest industry.”

Apparently, the Liberals don’t care about jobs, about the impact on theforest industry, about competition or economic development in the“heartland.” The only thing that mattered in this process was that CNoffered the highest short-term infusion of cash.

It is not just B.C. Rail. Under pressure from the United States, thegovernment has abandoned the concept of “appurtenancy” — the policy thatensured that companies processed timber harvested from public lands atparticular mills. The first of many victims of this change were theresidents of Louis Creek, who learned that Tolko would not rebuild theirmill, destroyed in this summer’s fires, largely because they had beenrelieved by Liberal policy of any obligation to Louis Creek.

The fires hurt Louis Creek and Barriere. But it was government policy thatdelivered the unkindest cut of all. Last week, residents could only stageroadside protests while timber and jobs were shipped out of the area.

Then, there is Western Star Trucks in Kelowna, the province’s biggestmanufacturing employer, lost to Oregon whose state government aggressivelypursued the jobs with an incentive package. Or Beaver Air which could havefilled the Western Star factory with an aircraft plant, only to say no whenthe Campbell government balked at providing training money to OkanaganUniversity College.

The government’s strategy is to offer tax cuts and unfettered access topublic resources with “no strings attached.” It seems surprised whencorporations and the wealthy take the money and invest it elsewhere. Worse,it is transforming the Crown corporations that used to be engines ofeconomic development into private sector imitators unable to ignite the B.C.economy. B.C. Hydro is giving away our energy advantage, B.C. Ferries won’tbuild ferries in B.C. shipyards and B.C. Rail is being given away to CN atenormous cost to the Interior.

Carole James can take the economic debate to the government over the next 18months. By linking access to tax cuts and public resources to specificbenefits such as job creation or environmental stewardship, she can developan appealing and modest alternative private sector strategy to thegovernment’s record of failure. Combined with a reversal of the Liberals’privatization agenda, such a plan could be an electoral winner as well.