Friday, September 04, 2009

Branding deficits and a tolerance for corruption

British Columbia (BC) and Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) are both special places to me, but what a political heartbreak they both present. In both, for simplicity let’s call them electorates, the incumbent governments present a major branding headache for their federal counterparts.

The BC Liberals have ruled that province now since 2001 where they made an all but clean sweep of seats, leaving the opposition with just two MLAs. In 2005 that majority was pared back to just seven seats, and despite a string of scandals held on to government again in May this year.

If Campbell’s BC Liberals were a sovereign economy the province would very likely be a ‘corporate state’ run largely by and for the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. The problem for the Federal Liberals in BC is that the BC Liberals are actually aligned with the federally governing Conservative Party.

In NSW the Labor government has been in control much longer, and was returned again last year. Again despite serious concerns over corruption and ethics issues. With the Rudd government facing election again in the next six months they have to contend with their NSW Labor counterparts dragging them into the political gutter.

Both BC and NSW have well developed and entrenched systems of pay-offs, many both blatant and obvious. One of the few who seemed determined to correct this in NSW, former Liberal Premier Greiner, was very quickly removed. In BC the memory of former Premier, ‘Wacky’ Bennett, still lives with something akin to hero worship, despite his blatant corruption.

In our federal systems there are major differences in the roles of central government and the subservient states/provinces. For a start the Feds manage the economy and disperse funds to the states/provinces to deliver services like health and education. However the states/provinces also have control over development and land use as well as a wide range of other lucrative areas with corruption potential.

I know BC and NSW legislators are not alone when it comes to scooping the choice bits out the swill bucket, just they are the ones I know best. In both those places, and elsewhere, I’ve be caught on the bumpy end of the corruption club. The only remedy in each case was possibly to pay more; a lot more because it meant beating regular ‘customers’.

The real concern must be, surely, the constant dishing of democratic principle and representative government. Well at least the question should be asked up front: Representing who? While key services like health and education languish our elected representatives are still not only allowed to continue on this track, but are seemingly encouraged to do so by voter support.

Given the history perhaps federal and subservient government branding issues aren’t so important. We do seem to have a remarkable tolerance for, and it seems appreciation of blatant bad behaviour. My involvement in a federal election in BC led me to ask constantly about the federal/provincial difference; and I was constantly assured people understood the dynamics.

Shoot the black duck

Perhaps Kevin Rudd and Michael Ignatieff, in Canada, should have no real concern over the bad behaviour of their namesake party organisations. Both will face the electorate in the coming months, Ignatieff as opposition leader. Each have ready solutions to the branding dilemma.

For Ignatieff it could be a simple as a public request for the BC Liberals to change their name. They won’t of course, but their MLAs and members will continue, in their support of the Conservatives, to undermine their federal namesake, thus clearly drawing the distinction. The fact is, these people are not particularly smooth and sophisticated.

For Rudd to attack the NSW Labor government is problematic; but I expect the ‘RUDD’ brand is sufficiently entrenched to override any tarnished Labor brand. Federal Labor, under Rudd, should be able to pick up lower house seats elsewhere to offset any NSW losses, and perhaps need to just concentrate on picking up much needed Senate seats.

Despite party nomenclature both Rudd and Ignatieff have many similarities. Both would seek to create an environment where their respective economies allow the growth of well run enterprise, both would direct support to where it will best serve economic growth. On the other hand, I suspect both are ‘belt and braces’ sort of guys. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I suspect while each are lining up their ducks they dream about shooting that annoying black duck!

But how do the crooked guys get away with it?
Which brings us back to how these obviously dubious governments retain electoral acceptance. The NSW Labor government was on the nose almost as soon as it was returned at the last election. Infighting, scandal and faltering service deliveries seemed to miraculously surface after the fact – well for most at least. Partly the opposition managed the first parts of the equation, the infighting and scandal, no doubt helping Labor to succeed.

Recent news suggests that Campbell simply found it advisable not to know his province was sinking deeply into the red. This amazing news has jut surfaced, months after the election in BC. Finance Minister Colin Hansen warned this week that the economic recovery is so rickety that the province could be plunged back into recession in coming months.

NSW remains on the edge of the economic precipice, relying a great deal on spin to fill the gaps in real policy; that is provision of adequate, not even functional, health and transport delivery services. Little wonder the last health minister resigned this week, having been caught out spending his time bedding a young woman rather than attending to urgent needs. It is not hard to see why he sought the distraction.

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