It should have been Gordon Campbell’s victory lap. In nine years, the three-term premier has led B.C. from “have-not” federal laughingstock to top of the national class. His province, humming along in the Olympic afterglow, added some 13,000 jobs in April and, last week, declared the recession over. The mining sector is reporting near-record profits, and the province is leading the country in housing starts—up 37 per cent so far this year. Even sawmills are opening again after prolonged shutdowns.
The fate of B.C.’s premier has not, however, gone the way of those band saws. Campbell is facing the fight of his political life: a grassroots revolt over the harmonized sales tax, which takes effect July 1. At last count, opposition in B.C. topped a staggering 85 per cent. Far from enjoying a post-Olympics polling bounce, Campbell has snatched the worst disapproval rating among premiers: 61 per cent, higher than any of B.C.’s nine previous premiers. And these aren’t even the numbers keeping provincial Liberals up at night. A petition to repeal the 12 per cent tax—led by a curious alliance of small-business, small-government and low-income groups—has hit the minimum 10 per cent threshold in all but two of B.C.’s 85 ridings. With six weeks to go in a 13-week campaign, success, which could trigger a referendum over the HST, seems likely. A half-million British Columbians have already signed up—a third as many who voted last May.
By and large, Liberal wounds are self-inflicted, says University of British Columbia political scientist Allan Tupper. The HST wasn’t up for consideration, the government had always said. Days after the last election, however, it announced the blended tax, and later shut down legislative debate. Campbell’s surprise reversal erased any hope of justifying a $2-billion tax shift from business to recession-weary consumers, unleashing public backlash and a blast from B.C.’s political past: former Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm—who held the provincial reins for a single, disastrous term. Nelson Wiseman, who teaches politics at the University of Toronto, pins the rest on B.C.’s “dramatic, often surrealistic and frankly loopy” political culture. Beyond its populist strain and disdain for elites, B.C. is also the only province with workable recall and referendum laws on the books, adds Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the Mowat Centre, a Toronto think tank.
So what next? For the Liberals, the time for easy outs has passed. Wherever the chips may fall, the petition will go down as the biggest direct action in B.C. history, says polling expert Richard Johnston, who teaches at UBC. Government, he adds, ignores the people’s will at its peril. Campbell could stall the question in committee or the courts but if he doesn’t reverse course, Vander Zalm’s anti-HST movement is planning a recall initiative targeting the premier and his most vulnerable deputies—MLAs like Richard Lee, who won Burnaby North by a mere 500 votes. Turfing a sitting MLA is a lot harder than succeeding in a petition initiative. Canvassers would need to collect 40 per cent of the names on the voters roll and would only have two months in which to do it. They will, however, have a head start: 6,000 battle-tested petition canvassers. And right now, another lightning rod for Liberal resentment is the last thing Campbell can balance.
“In all my time in public life,” Campbell, who was also a three-term Vancouver mayor, recently admitted, “I’ve never had as difficult a year as this.” Adding to his woes, solicitor general Kash Heed resigned amid scandal and his chief of staff and top political adviser spent last week being hammered on the witness stand in the B.C. Rail corruption trial, involving allegations of fraud and breach of trust against three former Liberal staffers. The grim spectacle will continue for at least six weeks.
For the premier, the accumulated baggage of nine years in power may prove too much, says pollster Mario Canseco, vice-president of Angus Reid Strategies. Polling data puts the NDP at 47 per cent, and Campbell’s Liberals at 29 per cent, a 17 per cent slide since the last election. And a core of voters will never vote for Campbell again, adds Simon Fraser University political scientist Marjorie Cohen. To Canseco, new leadership may be the only way for Liberals to escape their plunging fortunes. It wouldn’t be the ending anyone would have ever imagined for Campbell, one of the province’s most successful premiers. Then again, as Wiseman might say, this is B.C.