In the end, he couldn’t ignore the numbers and the growing chorus of dissenters, many in his own caucus, who understood the irrevocable truth that they represented. As much as B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell may have wanted to fight another day, he finally had no choice – his time was up.
And so on Wednesday one of the least popular but most successful premiers in British Columbia’s history announced he is stepping down. And in the few minutes that it took for him to make his decision public, the province’s political landscape changed dramatically.
And while it may be tempting to include Mr. Campbell as another victim of the anti-incumbent fervour sweeping North American politics at the moment, it may not be apt. It is only the Premier himself who has been forced out of office by public sentiment, not his government. While low in the polls now, the Liberals could easily come back to win election again in two years time.
Second, in Mr. Campbell’s case you are talking about a political leader who has been in office a long time. His best-before date had likely expired. The best comparison to his situation is Ralph Klein in Alberta, who stepped down as leader of the Progressive Conservatives because he had become a political liability for his party, not because of some anti-incumbent backlash.
Mr. Campbell did not take questions after his surprise statement, so we can only surmise about what led to his change of heart. Last week, he announced a 15-per-cent tax cut in an attempt to nullify anger in the province over the HST. In media interviews afterward, he was defiant when asked whether he was going to remain as leader despite opinion polls that put his approval rating at 9 per cent.
“I don’t think anyone would ever call me a quitter,” the Premier said on radio last week. He vowed to fight the next election in 2013.
But behind the scenes, all was not well. There was a burgeoning consensus that he had to go, even among his most loyal supporters. Donations to the party had dried up. Those who assumed he would have the good sense to resign before the next election now worried that the longer he stayed on the more entrenched public antipathy toward the party would become, making it more difficult for his successor to turn things around before the next election.
Mr. Campbell undoubtedly hoped that his tax cut gambit would give him a bounce in the polls, something he could build on and sustain through to some kind of miraculous turnaround. But both public and internal party polling done after the tax cut announcement showed just the opposite: People saw it as a crass and expensive attempt to buy back their affections.
There was not going to be any Lazarus-like resurrection of his political fortunes. He was permanently damaged goods, someone whose tattered public image now cast a sinister shadow over any policy announcement he made. The public fundamentally distrusted the man. Mr. Campbell had said during the last election he had no plans to introduce the HST and then did just that a few months later.
His reasons for the about-face, however valid, never washed with British Columbians. They didn’t want to hear his excuses.
Why? Part of it was an unpopular tax and the grassroots revolt led by a once-reviled but charismatic former premier who made Mr. Campbell the focus of the movement’s wrath. But I suspect it had more to do with the public’s fatigue with this particular leader.
By the time he leaves office, Mr. Campbell will have been premier of B.C. for almost a decade. It is the third-longest stint of any premier in the province’s history. That is a long time and in the modern media era, which scrutinizes public officials in ways their predecessors couldn’t imagine, it’s even more amazing.
But a politician, a premier in particular, accumulates political baggage over a certain length of time. And Mr. Campbell certainly did. He never came across as the warmest, most charming of people – at least in public. So he never had the kind of winning personality that can sometimes paper over unpopular decisions.
But he did know to govern in CEO-like fashion. He understood how to stimulate an economy and create jobs, which is why he and the Liberals were elected in three straight elections even though his personal popularity always trailed that of his party.
There will be another time to more thoroughly examine Gordon Campbell’s legacy. There is little question, however, that he presided over a period of spectacular growth on many different fronts. His 26 years in public life, which included three terms as mayor of Vancouver, should be recognized and appreciated and honoured, regardless of what you think of the man.
While most of his four-minutes-plus announcement was matter-of-fact and to the point, there was a part near the end that stood out for me. It was when he thanked his wife, Nancy, and two sons, Geoff and Nicholas.
“Politics can be a very nasty business,” he said. “At times that nastiness spills over into their own personal lives and for that I am truly sorry and I want to say thanks for their love and support.”
It was the only time during his press conference that he got emotional, his voice getting quite thin for a few seconds. And it was the only time you got any sense of the terrific toll politics can sometimes take on those who choose to serve.
As much as there were many British Columbians cheering the Premier’s decision, there was likely no one happier than those in his own family.