In the same week that a disgraced former B.C. premier suffered one more blow to his reputation, another who made an ignominious departure from office emerged from a self-imposed exile of sorts to make his first major public appearance since leaving the job.
And the venue Gordon Campbell chose to re-emerge on the provincial scene was no accident.
Over the years, the pro-business crowd that gathers at Vancouver Board of Trade luncheons was always generous with its applause for the one-time B.C. premier. And so it wasn’t surprising that the former Liberal leader was greeted like a conquering hero on Friday instead of like someone who charted unprecedented depths of unpopularity in his final days as a politician.
“It’s good to be home,” said Mr. Campbell, who last year was appointed Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
It was no coincidence that Mr. Campbell appeared on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, the glorious Olympic fortnight that established a high-water mark during his time in office. In many ways, it was all downhill after that.
Of course, the country knows what happened to Mr. Campbell in the months that followed. His ham-fisted handling of an unpopular tax ended up costing him his job. When British Columbians revolted against the harmonized sales tax, they were revolting against a politician who had used up the last drop of goodwill he had left. Every attempt he made to make up for his great public policy blunder failed.
On Nov. 3, 2010, he resigned.
Although he stayed on as premier until his successor, Christy Clark, was chosen and sworn in, Mr. Campbell has mostly remained out of sight since. Even after he was named to his post in London he said little.
As fate would have it, Mr. Campbell returned to B.C. the same week that another former premier – Bill Vander Zalm – was in the news. Mr. Vander Zalm, who resigned from office in 1991 amid a conflict of interest scandal, was found guilty of libeling Ted Hughes – the man whose investigation into the one-time premier’s real estate dealings led to his departure. Mr. Vander Zalm was fined $60,000 for his carelessness.
“The Vander Zalm ruling and Mr. Campbell’s reappearance creates an unfortunate confluence,” says David Mitchell, historian and expert on B.C. politics. “But the two events offer the opportunity to highlight just how hard we are on our former leaders, in Canada generally, but in British Columbia particularly.”
It’s true. In fact, the doors to the premier’s office in Victoria have revolved at a dizzying pace at times. A beaming populist once loved by the masses, Mr. Vander Zalm was forced to resign in 1991. His demise ushered the New Democratic Party into power. But NDP premiers Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark both were forced to resign amid controversy in the years that followed.
Mr. Campbell’s decade in power was remarkable in its unremarkableness. While people never, ever loved him, they grudgingly respected his managerial skills. He knew how to run an economy, something the public hasn’t been prepared to entrust to the NDP since 2001. But when Mr. Campbell made his great HST blooper, the reaction was merciless, the public’s scorn unreserved.
“When you are effectively sent into political exile, you don’t return to quickly, if at all,” said Mr. Mitchell. “Former B.C. premier Richard McBride went to the U.K. as agent general, and he didn’t come back. He was buried there. The world of B.C. politics is often extremely harsh to those who serve.”
Not only did the public turn its back on Mr. Campbell, so did his former party. The Liberals did not fete him at the most recent convention. Last year, Ms. Clark declined a photographer’s invitation to pose for a picture with her former colleague when the two found themselves at the same event. She talks openly about the mess she inherited from Mr. Campbell on many fronts.
In fact, she is dismantling many of his most cherished policies and programs.
But on Friday, all that was forgotten. Mr. Campbell was introduced by former 2010 CEO John Furlong, who showered the former premier with superlatives that made him blush.
When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Campbell, looking as relaxed as he’s been in years, talked about the new job and the cool honorific that goes with it – His Excellency.
“But I want you to all know that you can just call me Gord or Gordon,” Mr. Campbell said. “Just don’t call me some of those other names I used to be called when I was in politics.”
The audience chuckled knowingly. But on this occasion, they weren’t laughing at him.