It was just over a decade ago that New Democrat Dan Miller, who served a six-month blip as interim premier of British Columbia, described the lofty office as the most dangerous job in the province. It was fair comment back in an era when a tub of cottage cheese had a longer shelf life than most premiers; a time when the main prerequisites were a thick skin, an exit strategy, and a good lawyer.
Miller succeeded Glen Clark, who succeeded Mike Harcourt, who succeeded Rita Johnston, who took over the smoking ruin that was Bill Vander Zalm’s Social Credit government. Miller, in turn, handed the job to Ujjal Dosanjh, who lost it to Gordon Campbell and his Liberals. All this between 1991 and 2001, and don’t let the revolving door smack you on the way out.
Now it’s Gordon Campbell’s turn to declare moral victory, paste on a smile and walk the plank. There’s a certain symmetry to his decision—made, more or less, on Halloween eve as he took his grandson trick or treating. By then even the stubborn Campbell knew he was the walking dead, and that a chief architect of his demise was the eerily ageless Vander Zalm, a political ghost, reborn as the province’s most effective crusader against Campbell’s harmonized sales tax (HST).
The surprise is not that the 62-year-old Campbell is leaving, as he announced last Wednesday in a hastily called news conference, but that he lasted so long: 17 years as Liberal leader, and almost 9½ so far as premier. He intends to stay on as premier, steering the ship from the gangplank, until a new leader is chosen, likely next spring.
By any measure, it has been an exceptional run. “There’s something to be said, I suppose, for nine years of relatively boring leadership, after the kind of stuff we’ve been used to,” says University of British Columbia political scientist Richard Johnston.
Well, not that boring. There was the savaging he took as a first-term premier in January 2003, when he was jailed in Maui for attempting to drive back to the family condo with almost twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system. It may have proved politically fatal in any other province, save B.C., where three ex-premiers in recent memory had to lawyer up to fight allegations of insider trading (Bill Bennett), and breach of trust (Vander Zalm and Clark). Bennett, then out of politics, was convicted of violating securities law. Vander Zalm and Clark were found not guilty, though their political careers were in ruins. Campbell, clearly appalled by his own actions, pleaded guilty, gave up the bottle and begged forgiveness. It was a rare show of humility, and it won him a second chance.
Still, boring isn’t a bad assessment. More CEO than politico, he’s been castigated for his pro-business bias, for having the lowest minimum wage in the country and the highest child poverty rate. Yet, for all that, Campbell leaves a stronger, more economically diverse province than he inherited. “He will be viewed as one of B.C.’s most successful premiers, if not the most successful,” says professor James Brander at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. “I think you can make the case that B.C. has performed as well as any jurisdiction in North America since 2001.”
Yet even the afterglow of the Olympics couldn’t save him. The anti-tax crusader was done in by the HST, sprung on the electorate, without warning and with minimal explanation, just weeks after his last election win. It spawned the kind of populist uprising and venomous backlash that hasn’t been seen in B.C. since, well, all the premiers who went before him.
The usually amiable Mike Harcourt wrote a caustic 223-page book, A Measure of Defiance, to purge the bitterness of his experience. Political commentary degenerated into “a cruel and stupid blood sport,” he lamented. He called the lack of civility a threat to democracy. “When the idealists quit trying to make this a better place for all of us to live in, they will inevitably be replaced by opportunists.” Vander Zalm, too, wrote a book, For the People, berating Ted Hughes, the conflict-of-interest commissioner who investigated his business dealings. Hughes has returned the favour by suing Vander Zalm.
Bill Bennett, the Socred premier who preceded Vander Zalm, was under death threats for his restraint program in 1983. His son Brad’s wedding that year was conducted under police guard. That and other memories soured Brad Bennett from entering politics as a potential successor to Campbell, to the great sorrow of Liberal insiders. He has the pedigree, as the son of Bill and the grandson of W.A.C. Bennett, who together led B.C. for some 31 years. He has the business savvy and connections, a slew of directorships, a term as chair of the UBC board of governors—and zero interest in political office. “I see the other side of politics,” he recently told an interviewer. “It’s a strain on family, and a strain on one’s private life, and I like my private life.”
Campbell, at least publicly, wears his unpopularity like a badge of honour. “It’s not always popular to do what you believe in your heart is right,” he said. Yet last week, he reflected on the incivility of it all, its toll on family, and its impact on qualified candidates. “We all lose when people do say, there is no way I would ever put myself forward for public office because of the commentary that takes place. The things the people say. It’s reckless and it’s irresponsible.”
The lineup of candidates for Campbell’s job will build in the coming weeks. “There’s no shortage of people who want to be politicians, no shortage of people who’d like to be premier,” says UBC’s Brander. “Trouble is, most of the people who want it, you don’t want them in the job.”