Optimism abounds

"Every four years candidates strive to out-Pollyanna one another, laboring to maintain their smiles, never allowing a sobering thought to cloud their gaze. All this reflects the curious but widely held conviction among those who practice and cover American politics that optimism is a prerequisite for any Oval Office aspirant – almost a matter of patriotism. Americans are thought to be an optimistic people, drawn to soaring ideas and lofty goals. Thus we demand that our Presidents reflect this spirit. As Time recently declared, "The more optimistic candidate nearly always wins."

— Jonathan Chait writing in the May, 2004 issue of The Atlantic

We’re not quite as optimistic in Canada, and we’re more suspicious of soaring ideas and lofty goals. But perhaps Time magazine’s declaration explains Paul Martin’s victory – tenuous as it is – over Stephen Harper in the recent federal election as well as any. For all the mistakes, tactical errors and dire warnings about the Conservatives Martin and his team made in the election, the Liberal leader still came across as more optimistic than Harper.

And Martin remains optimistic that his minority government can govern, even though most pundits feel Canadians will be voting in another federal election in the next 18 months.

Meanwhile optimism is going to be tested – or perhaps interpreted – in a provincial election in B.C. next May. British Columbia elections are traditionally pitched battles between the NDP and the Liberals or, previously, the Socreds. Accusations are hurled back and forth, fears are raised and the province’s blood pressure reaches a dangerous level before the vote is in and everyone settles down to four more years of one party rule.

B.C.’s premiers – we have had seven, by my count, in the last 15 years – are never particularly popular at election time, but given the above rate of turnover they must, by definition, be optimists in order to pursue the job. Just like Murphy was.

But it may be voters’ optimism that is tested next May, rather than the politicians’. After three years of restraint, cutbacks and various crises there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic in B.C. To start with, there has been word in recent days from Statistics Canada, RBC Financial Group, the Canada West Foundation and others that the province’s economy is on the upswing, with more momentum than most other provinces’ economies.

As well, by next spring construction crews will be breaking ground on several major projects across the province, not all of them Olympic-related. This is an area where optimism and cynicism may be in competition.

Building the $7 billion in capital projects planned for B.C. over the next decade is going to require a lot of labour, skilled labour. And with an aging population the construction industry is already starting to feel the pinch. Finding more skilled workers is going to be key.

Meanwhile, organized construction workers have offered to sign a sort of peace agreement with the province and/or VANOC to ensure the Olympic projects are built with no disruptions. John Furlong, CEO of VANOC, is open to the idea. The provincial Liberals have said thanks but no thanks.

The landscape for organized labour has changed under the Liberals, which of course is why various unions are building war chests in preparation for next May’s election. But it’s not just the political landscape that has changed for labour. Changes in construction techniques and technology require new skills that aren’t part of traditional apprenticeship programs. Unions want to ensure that they are still part of these new skills programs, and are maintaining union membership, whereas some in the construction industry see colleges, technology institutes and the industries themselves more involved in training than the unions.

The lead-up to May’s election should begin in September, as provincial politicians and labour leaders start to pitch their version of optimism. And by that time the U.S. presidential election will be in full swing.

The optimism should be thick enough to cut with a knife, providing nobody gets stabbed with it first.


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