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If Campbell is staying, he had better start leading

Fairly early on in his presidency, Barack Obama had congressional leaders from both parties to the White House for a chat about the economic stimulus plan he was trying to sell.

At one point, a Republican senator challenged the President on his strategy, suggesting he and the Democrats go in another direction. "I won," said the President, in a clear rebuke of his political opponent's proposition. U.S. voters had given him a mandate to govern for the next four years and he planned to do just that.

I was reminded of that moment this week upon the occasion of B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell's return from a European holiday. When he surfaced at the legislature, he was immediately swarmed by reporters desperate to know if he had plans to step down.

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The past year has been among the most challenging periods of Mr. Campbell's long and distinguished political career. Other than the immediate months after his drunk driving charge in January, 2003, I can't think of a time in his nine years as Premier that was as stressful. The Premier's popularity is at an all-time low - which is saying something - his ratings torpedoed by a grassroots rebellion against the harmonized sales tax.

Right now, the Liberals are 20 points behind the New Democratic Party in public opinion polls. While he was away, a couple of Liberal Party officials suggested the Premier take one for the team and resign.

Against that backdrop, reporters wanted to know if Mr. Campbell planned to accept the advice of his party apparatchiks and throw in the towel.

"I was elected a year ago for four years and I intend to serve out …" the Premier said.

In other words: "I won."

Mr. Campbell is correct. The Liberals did win, and Mr. Campbell has the right to govern until May, 2013. So here is my advice to him: if you're going to lead Premier, then lead.

If there has been anything as bewildering and perplexing as disgraced former premier Bill Vander Zalm's massively popular campaign to kill the HST, it's been Gordon Campbell's decision to allow his opponents to march up the field uncontested. When he promised to go on a province-wide tour last fall to sell the merits of the tax, it looked like he was back in fighting form, finally prepared to contest the lies and misinformation he alleged were being spread by Mr. Vander Zalm and company.

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But then instead of putting up his dukes, he decided to sit in his corner office.

At a time when the province should be exploiting the momentum established by the astounding success of the 2010 Winter Olympics, the one-sided HST debate has killed the feel-good vibe that was in the air six months ago and once again made corporations wary about investing in a province that has too often suffered from a reputation for being wacky and unstable.

No one needs to tell Gordon Campbell how tough governing is. He's made all sorts of unpopular decisions during his time in politics and was never afraid to defend them, until now. His supporters aren't used to seeing him shrink from a good political scrap. It has made him look weak, vulnerable and very un-premier-like.

If Mr. Campbell is indeed planning to stay on as he has vowed, he'd better start demonstrating the nerve that it takes to be a political leader in the modern age. If the HST is so good for everyone, then he should start holding town hall meetings around the province to tell voters why. He may not succeed, but he has to try.

He needs to press the re-start button on this term and begin promoting the things that truly matter to this province: Asia-Pacific trade, building a green economy, health-care reform and education, a vastly important area that NDP Leader Carole James has wisely chosen to be the centrepiece of her party's policy platform.

The next 12 months will largely determine Gordon Campbell's fate. We will see just how much fight is left in someone who has been counted out and underestimated before. Many times.

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Some have speculated recently about a call for a leadership review at the party's annual convention in November. I'll be shocked if that happens. Gordon Campbell has led the Liberals to victory in three straight elections. He deserves at least a year to try to pull his government out of its tailspin.

To do that, he's going to have to show that he still knows how to be a leader.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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