Friday, August 20, 2010

The Fall of Gordon Campbell

Campbell was widely considered a capable leader. Then came the HST.

It has been a summer of discontent for British Columbia’s Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell. After winning his third straight provincial election against the B.C. NDP, Campbell surprised almost everyone by suddenly introducing a Harmonised Sales Tax (HST) with the rate set at 12 per cent.

Campbell’s initial spin – that this rate was less than that of Ontario’s – did nothing to lessen the shock and anger, especially amongst those who had up until then been his biggest supporters. The result was a plunge in the polls not seen since the collapse of the old BC Social Credit Party and a referendum initiative signed by over 700,000 voters demanding that the HST be rescinded. One B.C. cabinet minister, Blair Leckstrom, was so spooked by voter anger that in June he not only resigned from cabinet but quit the B.C. Liberal caucus.

The fate of the anti-HST petition will be decided by the Supreme Court of B.C. where a group of business organizations have challenged the legitimacy of the petition because they consider the HST to be under federal jurisdiction. The court case has created a no-win situation for the premier. If the challenge succeeds it means that essentially 700,000 voters who signed the referendum initiative will have in effect been told to get bent. If the challenge does not succeed it will force the premier to put the matter of the HST to either a binding referendum or a vote in the B.C. legislature as per the provisions of the province’s Recall and Initiative Act.

It is against this backdrop that many are expecting Campbell to announce his resignation no later than the B.C. Liberal convention, which is being held in mid-November of this year. Some cabinet ministers such as Mike DeJong and Kevin Falcon have already put together much of their leadership campaign teams. Others are soon expected to follow.

There is only one problem – Campbell has yet to announce his resignation and he has a habit of digging in his heels when people are pushing the hardest for him to go. Many thought Campbell would resign when he was busted for drunk driving in Hawaii in January of 2003. He didn’t. Still others thought he might resign when allegations of corruption involving the sale of B.C. Rail to CN began to surface and the RCMP staged a dramatic raid on the B.C. legislature in December of 2003. He didn’t, although a trial involving several of his government’s former political staffers and Liberal lobbyists is set to resume in September.

It has not only been through his tenacity that Campbell has been able to survive, but also because of the fact that, until the HST debacle, he was seen as having governed the province capably. But by imposing an HST without warning immediately after a provincial election, Campbell has earned the enmity of more than half the B.C. electorate. As such, if he doesn’t resign it is likely he and his minister of finance, Colin Hansen, will face a recall initiative.

Thus whether he wants to or not, this year will almost certainly be Campbell’s last year in office. If he resigns this November it is expected that Minister of Housing and Social Development Rich Coleman will be selected as the interim premier until a leadership convention can be held in 2011.

Whomever the B.C. Liberal’s select, that person will have to make a clean break with Campbell’s autocratic style of leadership and develop a far more populist approach if the party is to have any hope of being competitive in the next provincial election.

This article was first published at The Mark News