The eyes of Canada's political class were riveted on British Columbia on Tuesday, as voters marked their ballots in the first election since the onset of the Great Recession. Now, attention turns to whether any lessons can be drawn from Premier Gordon Campbell's victory.
Those who had mourned the crushing defeat of Stéphane Dion's Green Shift last October were particularly interested in the fate of Mr. Campbell, the carbon tax's pioneer. Indeed, even before all the votes were counted, the spin had begun.
In truth, however, Mr. Campbell had lost that particular war well before the writ was dropped. As gas prices skyrocketed above $1.50 per litre last year, NDP Leader Carole James matched the Premier's political opportunism by campaigning to "axe the tax." When the Liberals' lead in the polls eroded, Mr. Campbell threw his climate change secretariat under the bus; he also stopped touting a measure that, from the day it was introduced, was more about garnering positive headlines than about reducing emissions.
By the time British Columbia's fixed election date rolled around, pump prices had dropped, which meant that the issue had lost its salience for the NDP campaign too. Still, for a time, it appeared that Ms. James would pay a political price as environmentalists hijacked the election agenda. The media lapped up the conflict, of course, until polls showing a tightening race forced commentators to recalibrate their analyses.
In the end, it turned out that the Green Party's share of the popular vote shrank and the NDP's increased, relative to the 2005 results. This, despite the fact that Green voters had an additional incentive to turn out at the polls - a referendum on electoral reform.
In 2005, proponents of the single transferable vote came remarkably close to victory; could the resounding rejection this time be an early sign that Canadians are beginning to tire of minority governments? No doubt federal parties will be testing that proposition.
However, the bigger question concerns the political consequences of bad economic times, which normally spell trouble for incumbent governments. Here, I think, they will find few lessons in the B.C. vote.
In Ottawa, the performance of the Jean Chrétien/Paul Martin government has left the Liberals with a strong economic brand, and Michael Ignatieff is consolidating that brand by ditching Dion positions and hewing to the centre.
Mr. Campbell, on the other hand, had the good fortune of running against the NDP - a brand not known in B.C. for strong economic management. Moreover, to the extent that he was in the unenviable position of no longer being able to equate good economic times with his Liberals and bad times with the NDP, Mr. Campbell had another advantage to exploit: He was running against a woman.
From the opening bell, Mr. Campbell set the tone of the campaign: "Ms. James doesn't have a lot of business experience. She clearly doesn't understand a lot of the challenges."
Then, under fire during the leaders debate, he let slip, "Ms. James, you should understand - this is a big job and it is hard to get a handle on it."
Many in the media criticized the comment as "patronizing"; in the context of the Liberals' 2009 election campaign, "sexist" would have been a more appropriate word.
It's not clear when business experience became a qualification for the job of premier or prime minister. Mike Pearson had no business experience. Nor did Tommy Douglas nor Ralph Klein. Stephen Harper has none to speak of. And, in the recent plethora of coverage of Mr. Ignatieff, I can't think of a single mention of his business experience, or lack thereof.
Why the difference? Let's be frank: None of the gentlemen mentioned above was or is a woman.
Notably, Mr. Campbell's business experience is thin, and what there is of it is decidedly unimpressive. Notably, too, he did not run this kind of sexist campaign against Ms. James in 2005.
In essence, for the lack of a better alternative in this election, Mr. Campbell did to Ms. James what Stephen Harper did to Mr. Dion last October: He enveloped her persona within a stereotype. While it's hard to shed a tear for the geeks of the world, the B.C. election campaign should be seen for what it was: another blow to the advancement of women in Canadian politics.