How did 'Newt of the North’ become Canada’s most popular premier?
Gordon Campbell makes a U-turn
How did 'Newt of the North’ become Canada’s most popular premier?
It must have seemed like Christmas in November to B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell. In a bout of prime ministerial largesse three weeks ago, Stephen Harper, standing in the Kicking Horse Pass in Golden, gave a $2.2-billion infrastructure gift to the province, some of which will help to fund Campbell’s baby: the multi-billiondollar Pacific Gateway Project, intended to speed up the movement of goods to and from B.C. ports. The next day, Harper, tucking into an election-style lunch with Vancouver’s business elite at Coal Harbour’s Bayshore Hotel, promised B.C. seven more parliamentary seats and an eight-year Senate term limit. (West of the Rockies, they’ve been talking up reform since the ’70s; B.C., with its third Senate retirement slated for February, will soon be down to three senators, putting Canada’s third-most populous province on par with P.E.I.) Thus ended Harper’s whirlwind, threeday visit to the province—his sixth this year.
Prime ministers are always trying to cozy up to fickle B.C.: the contrarian province loves voting against the tide. But with the winds blowing the right way, Harper could steal as many as nine B.C. ridings—a quarter of what he needs to make it to majority territory, says pollster Greg Lyle, director of the Toronto-based Innovative Research Group. Locally, he adds, the Tories are running
ahead—at 43 per cent, up six points from 37 per cent in the last election, with both the Liberals and the NDP down from 2006.
Federal goodies notwithstanding, these are sweet days for Campbell. As North America increasingly turns toward Asia, and manufacturing giant Ontario looks set to stumble, B.C.’s location and resource-based economy look more like assets than liabilities. When Campbell took office in 2001, B.C. was in 10th and last place in economic and employment growth. By 2005, the value of its coal exports had reached $3 billion, double that of a decade earlier, copper moved up to almost $3 billion, and natural gas and oil royalty revenues grew fifteenfold, topping $2 billion. The province is behind only Alberta in population and economic growth, and commodities prices continue to rise.
Campbell’s stature has grown with the economy: currently, he’s one of only two premiers who are popular at home and show promise on the national scene. The other is Danny Williams, the Mouth from the Rock, whose hissy fits are legendary. But unlike offshore oil in Atlantic Canada, the Gateway project is “vital” to the country’s competitiveness and economic well-being, says University of Lethbridge politics professor Geoffrey Hale, who calls Campbell “the most able and effective Canadian premier of the new century.”
The future didn’t always look golden for the 59-year-old. He and his born-again Liberals—a curious coalition of federal Liberals and Reform party members—swept to power in the greatest landslide victory in B.C. hist-
ory, capturing all but two seats in 2001. Campbell immediately moved to erase all traces of the NDP’s decade-long rule. The day after his swearing-in, he announced a Reagan-like 25 per cent cut in personal income tax rates. Then, over three stormy years, he slashed government spending by 25 per cent, cutting 12,000 civil service jobs, throwing 100,000 from the welfare roll, shuttering rural hospitals and courthouses and reducing legal aid. Nurses, B.C.’s powerful unions, and tens of thousands of angry protesters took to the streets to sound off against the tough new economics. The NDP labelled him heartless. Campbell folded his arms and stood firm.
But the past few years have been “Extreme Makeover: Coastal Edition.” With the possible exception ofjean Charest in 1993, Campbell has done the best job of repackaging himself of any party leader in the country, says Hale. Thanks largely to his support for green causes, the man once named “Newt of the North” (after U.S. right-winger Newt Ginj grich) is now known as Mr. Green. He’s pledged to cut greenhouse gases in B.C. by a third, toughen car emissions regulations, and crack down on pollution by the oil and gas industry. In 2005, by easing up on his deep-
est cuts and repositioning himself in the political centre, Campbell neutralized the opposition NDP, becoming the first B.C. premier in over 20 years to win back-to-back victories. (He faces his third election in 2009.)
The most striking change is Campbell’s new relationship with B.C. First Nations. “Uturn doesn’t even begin to describe the shift,” says University of Victoria politics professor Norman Ruff, who’s been watching Campbell’s political journey for 25 years, since his three terms as Vancouver mayor. Unlike the rest of Canada, B.C. is essentially treaty-free. Until 1990, its leaders argued that it was under no legal obligation to negotiate Aboriginal land claims. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled differently. In 1998, former premier Glen Clark tabled the Nisga’a Treaty, B.C.’s first since the 1870s. Campbell, then leader of the opposition, vigorously opposed Nisga’a. He argued it established taxpayer-funded special status for a racial minority, and took the fight all the way to court. He lost, then scrapped
the appeal when he was elected premier, instead holding a divisive referendum on treaty issues, which pollster Angus Reid dubbed the greatest act of “political stupidity” he’d seen in his entire career. Campbell got the results he wanted: over 80 per cent endorsed his intransigent position, though only 30 per cent of British Columbians voted, thanks to a large-scale boycott.
Fast forward five years: in 2006, Campbell announced “A New Relationship” with B.C. First Nations, an accord meant to fast-track treaties. That summer, the Ahousaht First Nation gave him an Aboriginal name, Chamatook, meaning “one who is able to do the right thing and bring harmony.” This fall, he proudly tabled treaties with B.C.’s Tsawwas-
ODDLY, CHANGE BEGAN WITH HIS DUI ARREST. NOW HE’S MR. GREEN, AND A LEADER IN NATIVE POLICY.
sen and Maa-nulth First Nations. He even admitted he was wrong on Nisga’a. Why the turnaround? Was it a business decision? A political calculation? Or did he simply see the light? That’s the question of the day.
“The jury’s out on the road to Damascus story,” says UBC anthropologist Bruce Miller, an expert on state-indigenous relations.
“Personally, I think it’s totally ridiculous.
Somebody’s convinced him it’s in the interest of the province to do this.” Indeed, accounting firms KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers say the uncertainty surrounding B.C.’s unresolved land claims has cost the province over $1 billion in lost investment, hurting mining, forestry and agriculture. Michael McPhie, president and CEO of the Mining
Association of B.C., called it the “single greatest challenge facing mining.” A more conciliatory approach made business sense. One cabinet colleague, speaking on condition of anonymity, argues the referendum itself was just politics. “Campbell needed the far-right, anti-Indian vote. That’s all. People talk a lot about the need for principles in politics. He doesn’t have deep principles about anything. He’s almost a man without a soul.”
It’s also possible Campbell learned something about the political value of atonement after his Maui arrest for drunk driving in 2003. He remains the only Canadian politician to have spent a night in a U.S. jail cell. Some pundits, like popular Vancouver Province columnist Michael Smyth, figured he was done. It
wasn’t just the ugly mug shot; this was B.C.—in a dozenodd years, three premiers had been felled by scandal. Teary and contrite, Campbell faced the cameras at a Vancouver press conference on Jan. 12, his 55th birthday. The press zeroed in for the kill. Strangely, however, this seemed to mark the beginning of his about-turn. The incident actually boosted his personal popularity: British Columbians had never seen their robotic, Dartmouth College-educated premier look so human. Then again, another story shared the front page with his DUI charges: “B.C. leads Canada’s job boom,” the Vancouver Sun’s headline read. DUI notwithstanding, Campbell was starting to look like a fiscal whiz.
There’s another possibility, what Ruff calls the “Campbell enigma.” The premier wants to be seen as a tough-minded policy-maker, says Ruff. But he also has an intense desire to be liked. The first three years saw that toughness; lately it’s all been kiss-and-makeup politics. But why not? “It’s way more fun to have people come up and smile at you, than be afraid to be near you,” Campbell says, touching a hand to his thick, GQ wave that’s gone from silver to white. Maybe Mr. Ice really has made nice. What’s Ahousaht for three-peat? M
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