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Whistler in the mood for political change

With less than 12 days left until British Columbians decide who will form the next provincial government, you might expect to see the flutter of election bunting from every corner and the sound of pontificating politicians everywhere.

With less than 12 days left until British Columbians decide who will form the next provincial government, you might expect to see the flutter of election bunting from every corner and the sound of pontificating politicians everywhere.

Yet as Whistler Mayor Hugh O’Reilly points out, there is a considerable lack of election evidence around town. West Vancouver-Garibaldi incumbent MLA Ted Nebbeling of the Liberals has his signs up and Peter Tatroff’s B.C Green Party posters are dotted around the place, but the party in power appears to have given up before the battle has even begun. The NDP’s candidate for the riding, Barrie MacLeod, is nowhere to be seen.

"It’s like everyone has just assumed it’s a foregone conclusion and that Ted Nebbeling will just slam-dunk his way in," O’Reilly says.

Not that O’Reilly or anyone else in town interviewed by Pique believes that is a bad thing. In fact, the overriding message from locals is that the NDP had their chance and they blew it. Twice.

"It would be an embarrassment to elect an NDP candidate after going through two terms of absolutely tough times in B.C," says Michael D’Artois, broker-owner of Re/Max of Whistler. "Alberta and Ontario have prospered while we have stagnated due to the mismanagement of government and I would be happy to see them (NDP) wiped out completely in B.C."

D’Artois reflects the view of many in the business community. The president of the Whistler Food and Beverage Association, Dale Schweighardt, says the NDP has made it difficult for both "big business and the little guys" to survive. "Restrictive policies have basically handcuffed what businesses can do," Schweighardt says. "We need an open-face, free enterprise (government)."

Schweighardt believes business confidence will improve under the more "hands-off" Liberal approach, but says: "Whether the party has moved too far across remains to be seen." He adds that the current process of easing the province’s restrictive liquor laws would be unlikely to speed up under a different leadership. "These things move slowly regardless of who is in power."

Pat Kelly, the president of the Whistler Real Estate Company, predicts Nebbeling will win by a landslide, as will his Liberal party.

"The only real issue in this election is to get rid of the NDP because they have been bad guys for too long." Asked in what way, Kelly said: "Bad for the economy and business, the environment and the health sector, because why else would all the doctors and nurses be upset? The NDP has been financially irresponsible and dishonest in trying to hide that fact – it’s time for a change."

Whistler doctor Dan Wallman describes the current state of the provincial health system as "a shambles" and he believes the Liberals won’t be prepared for how bad it is.

"The mismanagement of the tax system has been ridiculous," Wallman says. "The NDP has taken the economic boom and squandered it on unknown areas and the fast ferries fiasco, and therefore hurt both the healthcare and school systems." Wallman suggests that the Liberals take a good look around before proposing any changes that could worsen the situation.

"BC Hydro and ICBC may not be better off privatized, for example, if you look at how badly privatization has been handled in Ontario. If it’s run well, it doesn’t matter who manages it."

Wallman believes people with a medical background who have worked at "the frontline" need to be brought into top level healthcare management if the current situation is to be turned around. He says the benefits of this would be felt throughout the province, although perhaps somewhat less in the Sea to Sky Corridor.

"Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton have been spared a lot (from the problems) through the maintenance of an efficient health staff team and the cushioning financial effect of out-of-country money from foreign visitor patients," he says. However, staffing levels are still too low and as a whole, the province is "still practising 1990-style medicine, especially in terms of technical and electronic equipment."

Likewise D’Artois says it is the wider province, including areas like Kamloops, Kimberley, Fernie, Squamish and the Okanagan, rather than Whistler per se, that will benefit directly from a new Liberal government.

"Whistler has been the bright light in the B.C. economy throughout the NDP’s two terms and the same opportunities that we have enjoyed should be extended throughout the province," D’Artois says. He adds Squamish in particular has tremendous development potential in terms of tourism, recreation and if plans to establish a private university go ahead.

Nebbeling’s position as a former mayor of Whistler is also seen as a bonus by many.

"Ted has a pretty good understanding of the issues important to small communities and the financial tools required to maintain the success of the resort, for both the community and the province," O’Reilly says.

Kelly believes Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish stand to benefit directly if Nebbeling gains a ministerial post, such as Municipal Affairs.

"He has a good understanding of the needs within the corridor and the wider economic benefits that can spring out of Whistler," Kelly says. "For example, if Pemberton had money to invest in sewage and water systems it could help alleviate some of the housing problems here (Whistler)."

However Mitch Rhodes, president of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), says having Nebbeling in the provincial Cabinet could be a double-edged sword.

"Sure it could work well in terms of generating some dialogue and understanding with a minister who is accessible locally," he says. "But it could go against you and not go anywhere if he doesn’t agree with the issue you are putting forward."

Rhodes believes none of the mainstream political parties understand that the environment underpins the future of the province, and instead they pay lip-service to "green" election platforms.

"As we degrade the environment more and more we risk losing our social and economic bases," he says. "What is needed are progressive leaders who realize how the three intertwine, and those that don’t notice the paradigm shift in society will be left behind."

O’Reilly says important local issues such as transportation in the Sea to Sky corridor, highways, the future of the Elaho, the Olympic bid and regional growth strategies are unlikely to come to the forefront until after the election – regardless of who is in power.

"Once the new government is elected it is likely to be lobbied by the forestry industry, for example, which will want advocacy for its part in the world market, which could clash with the priorities of the sustainable tourism movement," O’Reilly explains. "The issues that need resolving in the corridor won’t change and will simply be channelled to the new group of people."

O’Reilly says the Liberals have not yet set an agenda on many of these issues because they have not dealt with all the players and it’s possible some programs could be turned on their heads.

"Like the Land Resource Management Plan process for the Sea to Sky Corridor (initiated under the current NDP leadership)," he says. "We don’t know what they want to do and they could possibly pull the plug on it."

A major concern highlighted by many Whistler voters is the possibility of an unopposed government in office, in the event of a Liberal election landslide.

"No party should operate in a vacuum," says D’Artois. "It is very important that some sort of opposition in government exists because you need representation for other opinions."

Chris Childs, a former Whistler mayoral candidate and official agent for Richmond/Steveston independent candidate Allan Warnke in this election, says he fears the passing of harmful legislation by the Liberals if there is no opposition party in office.

"If the Liberals get every seat we are doomed," Childs says. "They would take us down the right wing path, and I’m talking about loss of environmental standards, labour-force rights, anti-scab legislation and the decay of collective bargaining."

In particular, Childs draws attention to a Community Charter private member’s bill unsuccessfully introduced by B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell, that he believes will be resurrected and pass unopposed if the Liberals gain power.

Some poll pundits predict fringe parties, such as the B.C Green Party, could form the new opposition. Kelly says the Greens would bring some good new ideas to the legislature. However Childs believes it would take two to three years for the Greens to form any kind of credible opposition. "The Liberals will get a free ride because the Greens are pretty green and don’t know the ropes of how the legislature works."

Another concern is that poll predictions of a strong Liberal victory could lead to voter apathy, low voting turnouts and a subsequent marginal Liberal government in British Columbia. Or as put by Childs: "Never underestimate the Liberals’ ability to screw up an election."

On the basis of that concern, steps are being taken at a local level to ensure a high local turnout by voters. The Whistler Chamber of Commerce is hosting an All-candidates meeting Saturday, May 5 at the Delta Whistler Resort, starting at 3 p.m. John Nadeau, chamber president, says even though polls suggest that the Liberals are way ahead, everyone still needs to get out and vote.

"We need a government that supports small business and investment in this province," he says. "Barely 60 per cent of eligible voters participated in the federal election in the fall but everyone should exercise their democratic right to vote."

Ann Chiasson, the owner of Sea to Sky Real Estate Whistler, is also working with local teachers and other parents to boost the interest and participation of first-time Whistler voters, namely Grade 12 students and last year’s graduates. Youth were invited May 3 to meet with Nebbeling at a private house to discuss local issues.

"I believe Whistler has a huge problem in that we have many young people living here and working on the mountain that are not registered to vote," Chiasson explains. "Most of them don’t have a clue about politics and many don’t care."

She says the absence of traditional lobby groups, such as the Young Liberals, means many youth don’t have the opportunity to get involved in politics and therefore don’t encounter the "real world" until later in life.

Chiasson urges all unregistered eligible voters to sign up prior to the election at the booths available at either Nesters or the IGA.