Departure of B.C.’s forceful premier leaves province uncertain
by Peter Ladner
B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell recently resigned over backlash from a new tax. Credit: Mary McNeil/Wikimedia Commons
British Columbians are still in shock — many in relief — at Premier Gordon Campbell’s unexpected Nov. 3 announcement that he was resigning. Only a week earlier, he had gone on province-wide prime-time TV to announce a major personal income tax cut and cabinet shuffle, re-assigning ministers and completely reorganizing the big natural resource portfolios.
That announcement came across as a desperate attempt to go back to his favourite goodies to claw his way back from a 9 percent approval rating. In his nine years as premier, Campbell had slashed personal and business income taxes, and proven himself as a control-obsessed policy expert. Proof that his latest gambit was doomed to failure came within days, when one of his senior cabinet ministers publicly questioned his decision to merge several resource ministries into one without consulting any of his own ministers or his caucus.
After 26 years as an elected official, starting as a councilor in Vancouver, then mayor, then leader of the B.C. Liberal party in opposition, and finally premier, Campbell had reached the point of public mistrust where nothing he could say or do could rescue him. Even when he won 77 out of 79 seats to become premier in 2001, Campbell was more respected than loved. Now, after becoming only the fourth premier in B.C. history to win three consecutive elections, the respect has gone too.
Tied to the damning opinion polls was a massive upswelling of popular resentment over the past year, resulting in a pending referendum on the deeply divisive harmonized sales tax (HST). The successful petition-driven campaign against the HST was equally a protest against the premier and his finance minister.
No one was buying their story about why they went back on an election promise not to bring in the HST. They said they changed their mind two months after the May 2009 election because they were blindsided by new information about the deteriorating state of the province’s finances and an offer of $1.6 billion from the federal government if they would implement the tax. Few believed the Liberals hadn’t lied to the electorate to win a third consecutive election.
“It is not always popular to do what you believe in your heart is right,” Campbell said in his emotional resignation statement. Campbell’s convictions ranged from neo-conservative tax and services cuts in his first months in office to North America’s first carbon tax in 2008.
There’s no doubt he believed the HST was the right thing for the province. It combines two existing taxes, the provincial sales tax and the goods and services tax, to reduce compliance costs and stimulate investment and create jobs by shifting a tax load from businesses to consumers. Even with a net zero revenue gain and paybacks to lower-income citizens, any shift of taxes from businesses to consumers comes with built-in political explosives.
Now that Campbell’s resignation bomb has also gone off, senior cabinet ministers are scrambling to organize leadership campaigns and prepare public announcements. The Liberals’ best chance at winning the next election would probably come from having a completely new face at the helm. Polls show Surrey Mayor Diane Watts is the front-runner among those expected to run.
Meanwhile the opposition left-of-center New Democratic Party is having its own public doubts about its less-than-dynamic leader, former school trustee Carol James.
All of this adds up to an unsettling uncertainty about the province’s future at a time when deficits are soaring and the forest industry, now overtaken in economic imprtance by natural gas, is on its knees.
What is certain is that Campbell’s successor is stuck with his policies, many crafted by his own passions, powerful intellect, and backroom advisors, bucking the opinions of mere voters in the interests of what he believed was right.