Gordon Campbell’s soup

The HST bungle crushed his ratings, and now he faces a leadership review


Campbell's soup

Ian Smith/PNG/ Andy Clark/Reuters/ Darryl Dyck/CP


He swept into office with the biggest majority in the country’s history, having united the traditionally fractious right flank. But after he rammed through a new, “value-added” tax in the middle of a recession—a move loved by economists but despised by the public—his approval rating sank to just 11 per cent, making him the most unpopular leader in Canada’s history. In fact, Brian Mulroney’s goods and services tax was widely seen as a major factor in the once-mighty Tories’ wipeout in the subsequent election. Canadians eventually came to accept, if not love, his GST. But the Tories languished in the political wilderness for well over a decade.

Premier Gordon Campbell, too, steamrolled into office. In 2001, with B.C.’s unruly right united under his free-enterprise banner, he won the biggest landslide in B.C. history: his Liberals took all but two of the province’s 79 seats. But after ramming through his “value-added” harmonized sales tax in the dark days of the downturn last year, his approval rating has sunk to just 12 per cent—within a point of Mulroney’s record-setting low. It is the lowest approval rating ever recorded for a sitting premier, pollsters Angus Reid told Maclean’s. Campbell is now less liked than Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate and Lyndon Johnson in the worst days of Vietnam, and distrusted by a stunning 83 per cent of British Columbians, according to Angus Reid.

Even those closest to Campbell are quietly saying it is “time to go,” a Liberal party insider, and close friend of the premier, told Maclean’s. Public fury over the controversial tax has sunk the Liberals to well behind the opposition NDP; some caucus members are now facing recall; and Campbell has already lost a popular minister who, spooked by public fury this summer, not only quit cabinet, but left the caucus entirely. The party is privately gnawing at its fingers: will history repeat itself? Will Campbell be chased from office? Will the HST break apart the party’s unholy alliance of federal Liberals, Conservatives, former Reformers and Socreds?

Campbell’s dramatic call, two weeks ago, for a province-wide referendum on the HST next fall has bought him time. But it has done little to quell the anger, even among supporters. “I am so pissed I cannot put my thoughts into words,” says influential Vancouver condo marketer Bob Rennie. The referendum announcement cast a sudden pall on the local real estate market, still shakier than a bowl of Jell-O. Buyers have to consider whether to buy now, or wait a year; few believe the tax will survive the referendum. Same goes for anyone considering a $100,000 home renovation: act now, or wait it out, for possible tax savings worth $7,000? The “uncertainty” is worse than the tax itself, says Rennie. And Campbell, he adds, is the “weakest salesperson on the planet. Seriously.”

Campbell is a fighter. When backed into a corner, he shines. And with a drunk driving conviction under his belt, which he incurred as premier, he has arguably survived worse odds. Friends insist he’s dukes up, raring to go—“full of piss and vinegar,” according to one. If true, it would mark a remarkable change in tone. Almost as baffling as Campbell’s clumsy rollout of the HST has been watching him let his opponents run the fight, virtually unopposed. A promised province-wide tour to sell British Columbians on the merits of the tax was quietly shelved. Instead, Campbell sat it out, watching from the sidelines as grassroots anger hit a boil. Spring, then summer, arrived without Campbell going on the offence. When, in July, the tax came into effect and British Columbians began cutting back on such luxuries as haircuts, newly subject to the tax, Campbell decamped for Europe, a holiday beyond the reach of his furious constituents.

Days after his return, it was announced that a $780,000 pro-HST mail-out paid for by B.C. taxpayers was being shredded and pulped. Finance Minister Colin Hansen admitted the pamphlets, intended to reach every B.C. household, could only fuel public anger. Top bureaucrats in Victoria, it was also revealed this fall, were discussing a possible move to the tax back before the March 2009 election, far earlier than the Liberal government has acknowledged. (Campbell and Hansen insist the tax was not on their radar until after the election.) He behaved like a “low-down liar,” says veteran political observer Nelson Wiseman. Two weeks ago, Hansen actually felt the need to apologize for the way the tax was sprung on unsuspecting British Columbians.

Anyone who knows the HST knows it can take years before its benefits kick in, says Doug McArthur, a policy analyst with SFU. According to newly unearthed briefing notes, the C.D. Howe Institute warned government of five years of increased unemployment, lower wages and depressed productivity thanks to the tax. “They never revealed that,” says McArthur. There are losers, he adds. The average B.C. household will swallow a $521 hit next year, according to a Statistics Canada study published last month in the Victoria Times Colonist. New reports show that both housing and retail sales have taken a pounding since the tax came in. At this point, says one Liberal insider, “he’s lost too many people.”

And yet. Campbell has been counted out before. He snagged the Vancouver mayoralty as a 38-year-old, with just two years’ experience on council. He was considered no match for his opponent, Harry Rankin, a lefty icon. Local media, at the time, still called him “the kid.” It happened again in 1996, after he unexpectedly lost the provincial election to Glen Clark despite winning the popular vote—“snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” as former NDP premier Mike Harcourt put it. Liberal knives were out, and pundits figured he’d hightail it back to the business world. But Campbell remained, manning the inglorious opposition bench. He was never better, some of those same pundits conceded. He pounded away at the governing NDP, relentlessly attacking its credibility, its cheery disinterest in balancing the books, and B.C.’s mounting deficits. In 2001, voters gave Campbell that stunning majority.

He followed up with a radical public-sector overhaul, making himself a lightning rod for public anger: he closed schools and hospitals, slashed welfare rates and went head-to-head with teachers, nurses and B.C.’s powerful unions. He earned the nickname “Newt of the North,” but he survived. In January 2003, with his mug shot splashed on front pages across the country following his Maui arrest for drunk driving, his resignation was, in many corners, again taken as a given. But, like Lazarus of the Coast, he rose again.

“It would be a mistake to underestimate him. Quitting is not in his DNA,” says one friend, who traces the root of that obsessive drive back to his father’s death when Campbell was 13, a suicide that the family, for decades, labelled a heart attack. Dr. Charles Gordon Campbell was assistant dean of medicine at UBC, a charismatic, larger-than-life figure. His death reversed the family fortunes: the Campbells left the leafy comforts of their University Hill home for a one-bedroom apartment. Twenty years later, Gordie, the eldest, and de facto head of the family, had reversed their fortunes once more.

Campbell is again coming from behind in the fight for the harmonized tax but, as premier, has an arsenal unavailable to his opponents: a bottomless campaign travel budget, taxpayer-financed ad campaigns, scare tactics and policy options. “Dropping the HST by a point,” as one Liberal operative explains, would “go a long way with voters.” And even if he doesn’t convince consumers the $2-billion tax spanking is in their best interest, with the referendum, he is inviting them to slake their rage by casting HST, not him, to history’s dustbin. “This is not about whether people like Gordon Campbell,” he said, in announcing the referendum. “This discussion is not about me.”

But the referendum isn’t the most immediate fight on Campbell’s horizon. His leadership is up for review at the Liberals’ November convention, and there is speculation he doesn’t have the numbers. If he does not, say party insiders, he will use the convention to announce his resignation. Even those who think it is time to go believe he should be allowed to wind up his career on his own terms, dignity intact. The party is “really putting on the pressure” to ensure he survives the November review, says one insider. Voting is being held at riding meetings, where delegates are selected for the Penticton convention. The party is grouping the riding meetings together, three or four per night, to allow the premier to attend as many as possible. Turnout is low—as few as 15 at some, the operative explains. “Usually, with these meetings, when you register, they give you a ballot, and you can vote later; now, you register, he speaks, they give you your ballot, and you vote. There’s no privacy—it’s an open table, and people are standing there watching.” Whether it works for Campbell, only time will tell.

What did Mulroney in, Peter C. Newman writes in 2005’s The Secret Mulroney Tapes, “was less what he did, than the way he did it.” Some of his best-meant initiatives ended up as “one more load of buckshot in his own foot.” But in the process, Newman concludes, Mulroney “created a new country.”

Much of the same will be said of Campbell, whether he steps down this fall or some time down the road. Campbell, too, despite majority wins, has always been despised in B.C. for arrogance, perceived or real, and has taken aim at his own foot. The new tax, experts agree, is hated less for what it is than for the way it was brought in. Still, British Columbia today, with an Olympics under its belt, looks nothing like the hopeless have-not it was in the ’90s, when a series of NDP premiers, undone by scandal and mismanagement, helped scare off investment, and Central Canada’s willingness to take B.C. seriously. Campbell, too, has infuriated voters with messes purely of his own making, but in the process, you might say, he has created a new province.

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