The Political Reflections of Gordon Campbell
His era is gone, but his legacy will continue years to come. For nearly a decade he was the undisputed leader of the BC Liberals and had strong groundings for another tenure as the Premier in 2013, but luck left his side much sooner than anticipated. Starting with the scandals to his authoritative style of functioning to the HST, the popularity of the Premier continued to sink faster and faster and finally “after considerable soul searching”, the Premier decided to jump out of the bandwagon and hand over the reins of power to someone else. It was a bolt from the blue, when unexpectedly Premier Gordon Campbell announced his resignation in front of the media in Vancouver and still many loyalists are in a shock as to what prompted their strong leader to choose this path. The surprise announcement was made in the midst of constant attack over the implementation of the HST and rumours that he had lost support of a portion of his cabinet.
Just a few days before his resignation, he had spent $240,000 of taxpayers money on prime time TV to talk about recent political agenda that included moves like his personal income tax cuts, school initiatives, job creation, and the economy. He had earlier shuffled the cabinet, but all these moves seemed to have no impact on his public confidence. The HST proved to be a disaster for the Premier and his popularity dropped into the single digits for the first time in three terms.
So Campbell, who held a nine per cent approval rating, said, “After discussions with my family, I have decided to ask the BC Liberal party executive to hold a leadership convention at the earliest possible date to select a new leader of the party.” Campbell went on “It is clear to me that those initiatives have been overshadowed. And when public debate becomes focused on one person as opposed to what’s in the best interest of the province of British Columbia, we’ve lost sight of what’s important.”
In politically polarized B.C., a premier is either a devil incarnate or a saviour, depending on whom you’re talking to. Not much middle ground here. John Winter with the BC Chamber of Commerce calls Campbell a good premier and his resignation comes as a shock. “The legacy is very clear. Mr. Campbell has taken British Columbia from the dark ages in the 90s to a leadership position in a number of areas. We have amongst the strongest tax regimes in North America.”
He says the Premier’s resignation does come as a surprise, “something that we’re going to have to deal with quickly. Mr. Campbell has been a good economic manager, and he will be missed.”
But the BC Federation of Labour disagrees. President Jim Sinclair isn’t mincing words. He says November 3, 2010 will be remembered as a great day for the province.
“He has a legacy of record poverty, taking the highest minimum wage in the country and ramming it down to the lowest, bringing in a $6 minimum wage, cutting public services, and having no economic strategy except cutting taxes. It’s not a decade we can be proud of as British Columbians.”
He says inequality is greater than ever in our province and after having a look at his agenda you realize there is nothing to celebrate here, he stresses.
To take a look into the pages of history is essential to see what Campbell did for BC. In the election of 2001, Campbell’s Liberals defeated the two-term NDP incumbents, taking 77 of 79 seats in the legislature. This was the largest majority of seats, and the second-largest majority of the popular vote in BC history.
In 2001, Campbell campaigned on a promise to significantly reduce income taxes to stimulate the economy. A day after taking office, Campbell reduced personal income tax for all taxpayers by 25 per cent. The government also introduced reductions in the corporate income tax, and eliminated the Corporation Capital Tax. Again in the end of October 2010, Campbell reduced the income tax by 15 per cent for income earners up to $72,000, but the step did not have the desired impact on the public.
To finance the tax cuts and to balance the provincial budget, Campbell’s first term was also noted for several measures of fiscal austerity. This included reductions in welfare rolls and some social services, deregulation, sale of government assets, reducing the size of the civil service, and closing government offices in certain areas. BC Rail’s operations were sold to the Canadian National Railway despite contrary campaign promises (condemned as unfair by the losing bidders and triggered police raids on cabinet offices in what is known as the BC Legislature Raids).
Being a teacher himself, Campbell wanted reforms in the field of education. His government passed legislation in August 2001, declaring education as an essential service; therefore, making it illegal for educators to go on strike. The government embarked upon the largest expansion of BC’s post-secondary education system since the foundation of Simon Fraser University in 1965. In 2004, the government announced that 25,000 new post-secondary places would be established between 2004 and 2010.
The Campbell government also lifted the six-year long tuition fee freeze that was placed on BC universities and colleges by the previous NDP government. In 2005, a tuition limit policy was put in place, capping increases at the rate of inflation. On October 7, 2005, following the successive imposition of contracts on BC teachers, British Columbia’s teachers began an indefinite walk-out. Campbell having made striking illegal for teachers, educators referred to this as an act of civil disobedience. Despite fines and contempt charges, the teachers’ walk-out lasted two weeks, and threatened to culminate in a general strike across the province. He negotiated with them and was able to bring them back to the classes.
Campbell made significant changes, including new Environmental Assessment Legislation, as well as new aquaculture policies. In November 2002, Campbell’s government passed the Forest and Range Practices Act which reversed many of the regulations previously introduced by the former New Democrat government.
Various reforms were brought in the Health Care sector also. The Campbell government drew up legislation that required health authorities to contract out positions when savings could be predicted. This led to the privatization of many healthcare jobs. These changes met resistance from many health care workers and resulted in a strike by some of them. This strike was ended by court order and amendments by the government on parts of the legislation. Among the resulting problems in hospitals were higher infection rates resulting from cleaning contractors hiring improperly-trained workers.
The Campbell government increased health funding by $3-billion during its first term in office to help meet the demand at hand and to increase wages for some health professionals.This trend continued and the governmnet spent billions of dollars to improve the health care system, but the desired result is not to be seen. Many hospitals were closed, shortages of beds, and long queues at Emergency rooms are still a common sight.
Wage rates for doctors and nurses also increased in the Campbell government’s first term. The Campbell government launched the Conversation on Health, a province-wide consultation with British Columbians on their health care to lay the groundwork for improvements to the principles of the Canada Health Act that were presented in the Fall of 2007.
On November 1, 2001, the Campbell BC Liberals honoured the previous NDP government’s legislation to increase the minimum wage to $8.00 per hour from $7.60, while at the same time authority was given so new entrants into the labour force could be paid $6 per hour, 25% lower than the minimum wage. Campbell has not raised the minimum wage since. As of 2010, the list of minimum wages in Canada reflects British Columbia as being the lowest amongst the 13 provinces and territories. B.C. also has the highest child poverty rate in Canada.
British Columbia won the right to host the 2010 Winter Olympics on July 2, 2003. Campbell did a lot to promote the Olympics and was in attendance at the Opening ceremony and other events also.
The Asia Pacific Gateway was also a top priority for Campbell and he undertook various jaunts to promote trade between B.C. and the Asian countries.
In the May 17, 2005, election, Campbell and the BC Liberals won a second majority government with a reduced majority.
430,000 new jobs have been created in B.C. since December 2001, the best job creation record in Canada. In 2007, the economy created 70,800 more jobs, almost all full time positions. By spring 2007, unemployment had fallen to 4.0%, the lowest rate in 30 years. However, 40,300 jobs were lost in 2008, mostly in December (35,100), and unemployment rates sit at 7.4% as of October 2010. Recession did take its toll on the job numbers and still the effect is being felt here.
Campbell and the BC Liberals were re-elected in the May 12, 2009, election. Their share of total seats remained almost unchanged, as they won 49 seats in a new expanded 85-seat legislature.
Some five years after the BC Legislature Raids, controversy arose when it was revealed that e-mails among Campbell, his staff, and other cabinet ministers may not have been deleted years ago as first claimed. An affidavit filed by Rosemarie Hayes, the B.C. government’s manager in charge of information services, suggested that copies of the e-mails may have existed as recently as May 2009, but were ordered to have been destroyed at that time.
On July 20, 2009, the Supreme Court of British Columbia justice conducting the Basi-Virk trial, Madam Justice Elizabeth Bennett, ordered Campbell and other top officials to turn over their e-mail records to the court by August 17.
On July 23, 2009, Campbell announced that British Columbia would move towards a Harmonized Sales Tax. The new 12% sales tax would combine and replace the previous 5% GST and 7% PST. The announcement was met with strong opposition from political opponents, news media, and opposition from most members of the public. Much of the opposition stemmed from Campbell’s perceived dishonesty about the HST as his government had said it was not on their radar prior to the election, and the fact that it equated to a tax hike for several sectors.
The anti HST sentiments continued to rise and the Anti HST movemnet gained momentum with over 700,000 people signing the petition for its withdrawal, but Campbell continued to insist that HST was the best thing for B.C. and he would not scrap it. On June 11, Blair Lekstrom resigned as B.C.’s minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources, saying he was leaving both the cabinet and the caucus over a fundamental disagreement with the BC Liberals on the harmonized sales tax.
A freedom of information request came to light on September 1, 2010, revealing that the BC Liberals had formed HST-related plans prior to the 2009 election – contrary to their statements on the subject.
He was a man whom no storm could bend. Remember the impaired driving incident in Hawaii in 2003 and pictures of Campbell flashed on the TV screens? He later apologized and got on to his work. Though the HST proved to be his nemesis, Campbell continued to stress the HST tax makes BC more competitive, helping people keep their jobs and creating new ones. He says the decision over HST was made quickly, and there is a lot more his government could have done to better explain the tax to British Columbians. Campbell also had to cut a sorry figure when his government had to present deficit budgets and he was criticized for being a bad money manager. But he did not seem to budge from his plans and continued to do what he wanted.
Though officially he is gone, his control is still being felt in the party and there are voices coming forward who are demanding that he should immediately go and an interim leader should take over the reins of the government. Keeping him longer at the drivers seat would cost the Liberal party more in terms of popularity and the sooner he goes now would be better for the party, says Gordon Gibson, a former leader of the party. The party’s Biennial Convention has been re-scheduled to May 13-14, 2011 raising the possibility Campbell could remain as leader until then. So only time will tell whether Campbell leaves with dignity or will be forced out sooner.
Whatever may be the public opinion, Campbell will be remembered by historians as a great builder of B.C., taking into account the billions of dollars his government spent improving the province’s infrastructure and also for his determination to do what he wanted, irrespective of the party and the public demands.