Q & A: Gordon Campbell

The B.C. premier on right and wrong politics, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his worst day in office

On right and wrong politics, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his worst day in office
Photographs by Brian Howell

Later this month, three-term B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell—a three-term Vancouver mayor before that—will retire from public life. In 2010, he introduced the widely despised Harmonized Sales Tax. In November, after months of vicious public debate over the new tax, Canada’s longest-serving premier announced that he was stepping down.

Q: When you were first elected premier back in 2001, your peers included Mike Harris in Ontario and Bernard Landry in Quebec. Those seem like names from a bygone era. Does it feel like a long time to you?

A: Things change a lot less in 10 years than you’d think. It seems like a long time ago when I think about the things that were taking place. We came in with a major personal income tax cut, then we were confronted with a tech meltdown; 9/11; Afghanistan in October; SARS in November; there was a war in Iraq the next year; floods. All that stuff really grabs you right at the time you’re trying to work through a whole bunch of other things—we’d said we were going to balance our budget by 2003. So, it’s a very intense experience. But does it seem like a long time ago? Not really.

Q: What was the low point?

A: For me, personally, it was the DUI in Hawaii. That wasn’t great for me, obviously—it was a horrible mistake. And I think it shows the generosity of people in British Columbia that they got past that—but I’m always going to remember letting people down. One thing we’re going to regret in years to come is that we weren’t able to pass the Recognition and Reconciliation Act in spring 2009. It would have made a huge difference to First Nations people and the province, and would have laid the groundwork for future reconciliation and economic development.

Q: What happened?

A: Everyone got a little freaked out—both First Nations and non-First Nations alike. It was too big a step. It would have identified, in law, Aboriginal rights as an important part of what we do in the province, moving forward. We have a similar act with the Haida—a groundbreaking framework for social and economic development. This would have provided the framework for the entire province. But you sorta kill yourself by going back and saying you could do this or that better. What you really have to do is say: “Where was I trying to go?” I was trying to encourage an economy that was strong, that encouraged job creation; we balanced our budget; we paid down substantial amounts of our debt; we created hundreds of thousands of new jobs. We’re probably one of the primary places in North America to invest right now.

Q: After Maui, British Columbians saw a stoic face emerge in you. What didn’t we see? What was going on behind the scenes?

A: Personally, I’m sitting there, spending a lot of time beating myself up.

Q: Who was your greatest support?

A: My wife, Nancy, and the boys were great—they couldn’t have been better. My colleagues were incredible. I came back and said, “Look, this is up to you guys. Do you want me to stick with this, or not?” And they said, “Yep, we want you to stick with it.” Lots of people said: “How could you be so stupid?” But they also said: “Let’s get on with it.” That was eight years ago. I don’t dwell on it. I just wish it hadn’t happened.

Q: A lot of premiers have built their political personas around fighting Ottawa. You never went that route. Did it hurt you politically?

A: It may not be what we think of as good politics, but it’s really bad public policy. And frankly, it’s not very bright—it’s very short-term. I guess it all depends on why you run for office. I never ran because I wanted to be popular. My theory with dealing with the federal governments was really straightforward: they have a job to do for Canada, and I have a job to do for B.C. If I was going to say something critical, I’d say: “This is what I’m going to say, and why I’m going to say it, and this is what the response will be.” I didn’t try to surprise them. At one point, after the auto bailout had taken place—it’s not, frankly, something I would be jumping for joy about—I said: “I understand why you did it, but I don’t understand why, if you do it for auto workers, you don’t do it for forestry workers in British Columbia.” That’s totally legitimate. I wasn’t trying to score a point. I’m a Canadian first. We don’t have enough resources to deal with all the important things we need to do, so we have to pool our resources to make the most out of them. If people don’t get partnerships, and the need to do things together, we’re not going to be very successful.

Q: You came to represent a sort of middle-way politician—you like tax cuts and fiscal restraint, but have also championed files like education, and Aboriginal rights, that we associate with the left. Elsewhere in Canadian politics, ideologically driven partisanship is still the name of the game. How do you see that dynamic?

A: I don’t actually believe in left and right politics. I believe in right and wrong politics. There is not a Canadian who does not want to make sure our education system is providing the best possible education to our kids, who doesn’t want a health care system that meets the needs of every Canadian. The challenge is, how do you do that? It’s easy to identify a goal of balancing your budget. It’s hard to get there.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about tone in politics. You yourself have been the target of pretty harsh words in the past 12 months. Have you seen the tone shift over the past 10 years?

A: When the tone is referring in some ways to you, it’s too easy to say: “Oh, yeah, it’s changed.” But I can tell you this: we’d better change the tone. We will all lose if we don’t. Public life is not about gossip. It’s about dealing with serious issues. I disagree with what the NDP believe. It’s not that I don’t like the people, or that I don’t think they’re trying to do something. I think they have bad ideas; or, at least I think ours are better. That’s what public life should be about. You don’t raise the level of debate by attacking people.

Q: Environmental politics are probably more potent in B.C. than in any other province. Will green issues shape politics in the future?

A: Whether or not it’s part of a political agenda right now, it will force one in the future. We should get over this debate about whether climate change is or isn’t happening; obviously it is happening in British Columbia. Just visit Interior communities devastated by the pine beetle, which took place because the winters were warm for a long, long time, and they’re not going cold again—we’ve lost 80 per cent of our pine forest. That doesn’t just impact the forest industry, it impacts the watersheds, the amount of flooding we have, the number of forest fires—it’s no accident we’ve had some of the worst forest fires in our history since 2002. It’s a critical issue. And Canada can lead the world in it: we’ve got enormous alternative energy resources, we have enormous clean energy resources, we have enormous carbon neutral energy resources. One of the things we’re up against is exceptional resistance in the U.S.

Q: You’re seen as a cagey interview; you keep your cards close to your chest. Was that strategy?

A: [Laughs] C’mon—get over it. People can get to know me as well as they want. I’ve heard people from our gallery say: “Oh, he’s great, he’s got a great sense of humour, but the public doesn’t know it.” Well, why don’t they tell the public that? One of the biggest challenges of public life is: you gotta be yourself.

Q: Who was the most interesting political figure you met in office?

A: Bernard Landry. He came to our premiers meetings, and was always very clear that he wasn’t agreeing with anything, but he made us think about some things we may not have otherwise.

Q: Who surprised you?

A: Governor Schwarzenegger. He got it: climate has nothing to do with borders or left-right politics—it has to do with all of us. He took his celebrity and made it work.

Q: What led to your decision to resign?

A: It was a weekend in L.A. I was visiting Geoff, Kristin and Bowen, my son, daughter-in-law and grandson; it was Hallowe’en. We took Bowen out for his first trek around the neighbourhood, seven or eight houses, in his little trick-or-treat outfit. My BlackBerry was buzzing, my phone was ringing, and I thought to myself: Geoff was eight years old when I started running for office. He’s 34 now. I don’t want to miss this. I don’t want to watch those years go by with Bowen, Jimmy and Sydney [his grandsons, all under two], and not be part of it. My family is pleased as punch. I’ve got a great family—I feel very lucky.

Q: What do you think your legacy will be?

A: I don’t think you can ever say yourself.

Q: Then what do you think your greatest accomplishment in office was?

A: Before he died, Jack Poole, who was chair of the Olympics, said to me: “Gord, you should always remember: you gave B.C. its swagger back.” If I go to Prince George, it’s a totally different city than it was 10 years ago. Kamloops, Kelowna, Nanaimo—as I leave the province as premier, those cities are totally different places. The province is a completely different place. There is a sense of possibility that people have again, that they didn’t have at the end of the 1990s. I actually am pleased that British Columbia is now seen as an active, positive player in the Confederation.

Q: You’re not really retiring, are you?

A: Nope. I’m not dead yet. I’ve got lots of stuff left to do.