Campbell Re-elected BC Premier
"THINGS ARE GOING TO BE very different in the legislature," promised newly minted Opposition Leader Carole James last Tuesday, in what was more of a resurrection speech than an election-night concession. British Columbia's New Democrats, left with just two seats four years ago, stormed back in last week's election with 34 MLAs, pending a few recounts - not a bad night's work for a rookie leader of a once-discredited party. In a province not noted for political subtlety, the election result was an artful settling of accounts. Voters laid a spanking on Premier Gordon CAMPBELL before returning him and about 44 fellow Liberals with a well-diminished majority, and a message: play nice. As well, a referendum proposal to implement a radical new system of proportional representation, known as the Single Transferable Vote, just missed the required threshold of 60-per-cent approval. Don't write off the initiative yet. STV - which would diminish the grip of major parties while giving voice to a wider range of independent voices - won 57 per cent support across the province. The profound dissatisfaction with winner-take-all electoral politics is a message the Liberals, and other governments, ignore at their peril.
With B.C.'s economy running hot, and a return to balanced budgets, there was little appetite for letting the NDP at the province's finances after their 10-year record of roller-coaster rule. Voters were content to buy Campbell's optimistic vision of a "Golden Decade" of prosperity, capped by the 2010 Winter Olympics. But polls showed his hardline agenda carried a price. Crowded hospitals, soaring university tuition, government cuts and controversial privatization initiatives alienated voters in traditional NDP enclaves like Vancouver Island. So did the Liberal's high-handed conduct in the legislature. With 77 of 79 seats at the start of their last term, what passed for debate was often an orgy of self-congratulation.
The price the Liberals paid was more than 30 seats and several cabinet ministers - which explained the subdued victory celebration rattling inside Vancouver's convention centre. They did add badly needed talent. Wally Oppal, an outspoken former B.C. Court of Appeal judge and prominent Indo-Canadian, is a near-certainty to be the next attorney general. Another cabinet shoo-in is Carole Taylor, a superbly connected ex-television journalist, ex-Vancouver councillor and, most recently, chairwoman of the CBC. Neither will be easily cowed by a leader used to running the show from his office. Taylor was off-message within hours. While Campbell initially read the results as a glowing endorsement of his last mandate, Taylor had a different take. People want "vigorous debate," not an imbalanced legislature, she said flatly. "It's the only way you get good decision-making, accountability and people really listening to constituents."
The narrower than expected win can't detract from an election that is, as clichéd as it sounds, historic: this was the first senior government in Canada to go to the polls on a fixed election date, a day the legislature approved almost four years ago. In legislating regular elections every four years, Campbell surrendered the governing advantage of calling a vote at the most advantageous time time. Campbell is only the fifth premier in the province's bare-knuckle history to ever win back-to-back elections. Also, give Campbell credit for initiating the citizens' assembly that crafted the electoral reform plan, and for the unprecedented referendum that resulted.
Campbell won't say how he voted on electoral reform. James, with the election over, admits she voted against STV. They concede, though, that there is a strong desire for a better system of representation, which will have to be appeased. Will the legislature indeed be a different place? The voters have served notice: it had better be.
Maclean's May 30, 2005