He's back in the game. More than 20 years after resigning as premier of Newfoundland, Brian Peckford, once known as the bad boy of Confederation, has returned to the political arena to help resuscitate the B.C. Conservative Party.
Mr. Peckford, now 68 and living in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, says he does not have any intention to run for office in the next provincial election.
However, he has been traveling to Victoria, Nanaimo and other Vancouver Island cities in recent months to speak at constituency meetings. He has also joined a circle of current and former federal, provincial and municipal politicians who are offering advice to the B.C. Conservative Party on how to set up constituency organizations, raise funds and sign up new members.
Sounding much like the outspoken populist he once was - a scrapper with Ottawa over constitutional reform and offshore oil and fishing - Mr. Peckford said Monday he joined the B.C. party's advisory committee because he believes the current government was dysfunctional and abandoned those with conservative views. "A lot of people like me feel the same way," Mr. Peckford said in an interview.
The advisory committee is offering the experience of once-prominent politicians who cumulatively won around 40 elections. Randy White, a former federal Tory strategist who was first elected in 1993 as a Reform Party MP and retired as a Conservative in 2005, is chair of the committee. Other members include John Cummins, the current MP for Delta Richmond who has represented the area since 1993, and former B.C. premier Rita Johnston.
The Conservative Party has not been a viable alternative in a B.C. election since the 1940s. The party currently has the support of 7 per cent of the electorate, according to an online survey of 806 British Columbians on Dec. 20 and 21 by Angus Reid Public Opinion. The NDP and Liberals each had 38 per cent, while the Greens had 12 per cent.
However, the province has a history of wild swings in political allegiances. The Social Credit Party formed the government for 36 years, but was reduced to third-party status in the 1991 election and did not run any candidates in 1996. Similarly, the NDP formed the government for two terms in the 1990s, but was then reduced to two seats in 2001.
The Conservative Party now sees an opening to catapult into government. Among other things, party membership has increased exponentially, up to about 2,000 from 300 in June. "We're building a home for a new coalition," said Keith Roy, a party spokesman. "We'll be back in full force by the next election."
So far, 45 Conservative Party constituency associations have been established. Another 10 to 12 will be organized by early February, and a full slate of Conservative candidates will run in all 85 constituencies in the next election, he said. A leadership convention will likely be held in late spring, Mr. Roy said.
Mr. White said he believes the coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives built by Premier Gordon Campbell 15 years ago has been shattered. Many people are unsatisfied with the government's management of its finances, he said. He knows the Liberal coalition is falling apart, he added, because many of the new Conservative Party members are former B.C. Liberals.
The Conservatives have been almost invisible in recent months by design, as both the Liberal and NDP parties moved to replace their leaders. Some people have indicated an interest in the vacant Conservative Party leadership, Mr. White said, though he declined to identify anyone. He doubted that any of the advisers would run in the next election.
"All of us have been through the same political wars, from time to time, and I don't think any of us really want to get back into it," Mr. White said. The committee is expected to disband when a party leader is elected.
Mr. Peckford, who was first elected in 1972 at the age of 29, has studiously avoided any involvement in politics since he resigned in 1989 after winning three majorities. He said he has found the B.C. Conservative Party message resonates with people of the right who are disillusioned with the Campbell government over numerous issues, including the carbon tax, BC Rail and problems with the health and education systems.
He does not believe a change in leadership will bring them back to the Liberals. All the candidates for leader are former cabinet ministers who were part of the problem, he said.