The last we heard from Gordon Campbell was eight months ago, when he stepped down as premier of British Columbia after 10 years in office, three election victories and a bruising battle to introduce an unpopular harmonized sales tax.
And then: nothing.
For the greater part of a year, Mr. Campbell has maintained a monastic silence, refusing all interviews and speaking engagements even as Christy Clark replaced him as premier following a fraught leadership battle, even as his province descended into an ideologically polarized referendum battle over the 12-per-cent HST, even after his tax went down in defeat in August.
He has vanished from public life, turning down major speeches this autumn, declining to attend a public ceremony to accept the Order of British Columbia.
And now, on the other side of the globe, Mr. Campbell has finally reappeared. Fit, rested and in an ebullient mood, the 63-year-old former premier gave the first interview of his new career in his sprawling office on the edge of Grosvenor Square, where just over a month ago he was installed as Canada’s high commissioner to Britain – a diplomatic post that Stephen Harper’s government has given a level of prominence approaching that of a ministry.
The silence, he says, was a necessary tactic to divide his erstwhile political life from his new diplomatic career.
“I felt it was right for me to step back, and I’ve done that,” he said. “I did it when I left being mayor [of Vancouver] I still care about British Columbia, and I care about what’s happening there, but I’ve got other things that I need to do now.”
To his political allies who felt let down by his disappearance, who hoped he might have lent his voice to the leadership race or the referendum campaign, he says, sharply, that B.C.’s policies and debates are no longer any of his business.
“I think when you leave, you leave. There’s a new leader, they have initiatives they’re going to undertake, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment on them. If I wanted to keep on commenting I should have stayed, right?”
By appointing a career politician like Mr. Campbell to this high-profile post – in which he will be involved with such key files as Canada’s military relations with NATO countries and its trade negotiations with the European Union – Mr. Harper is changing the nature of the position.
It could be an awkward position sometimes, as Mr. Campbell will be the most prominent European representative of a federal government that sometimes appears to the right of his own views on a number of issues, especially those involving the environment and native rights. But he says he is no longer a B.C. Liberal but rather a loyal representative of the government.
“I think that the issue for me is that I’m representing Canada, and the government is my government,” he said. “I believe in the goals and objectives that the federal government have set for themselves internationally.”
This loyalty might be put to the test, as Ottawa struggles to overcome a darkening public image in Europe, where after years of cutbacks to Canada’s cultural and “soft” diplomatic programs, many citizens and leaders know little of Canada beyond the images of seals pups and “dirty” Alberta oil.
“My impression in my vast 35-day experience here is that Canada has got to tell its story,” he said. “No one is going to tell Canada’s story for Canada. We have to do it ourselves.” He hopes to draw on the goodwill of Canada’s large expat business and artistic community to help do the job.
Still, it can only described as a cosmic moment of karma that Mr. Campbell now finds himself washed ashore in a country that has happily lived with a value-added tax, nearly identical to his proposed HST, for a quarter of a century, and just raised it to 20 per cent, without any significant complaint from voters. This, he says, vindicates him somewhat.
“I do think the HST was still the best strategy we could possibly have, but people in B.C. didn’t agree with that,” he said.
The competitive advantages and cost savings of a harmonized tax, he says, will become apparent some day. “I think there’s going to be a movement in the world to see more of that sort of policy, not less of it…. I think for me the most important lesson is you always have to do what you think is right.”
Mr. Campbell’s arrival has been welcomed by many British officials, who are scrambling to prepare for the Olympics that will descend on London in eight months. They have looked to his successful 2010 Vancouver Winter Games for inspiration, and have sought him out for advice.
“I think the most important thing about the Olympics is to recognize that it is the largest single public-private partnership that we have managed to invent,” he said. “It’s also, I think, an enormous international opportunity.”
But he warns that Britain needs to heed the lessons of other big international events and avoid the temptation to put public safety above all else.
“I think the challenge is always in these events to remember it’s an international sporting event, not an international security event – I think that’s one of the things they did well in Vancouver”