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BC Liberals Need to Look for a New Leader

The premier is piling up political liabilities. His party will have to pay for them.

Rafe Mair 17 Aug

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Cartoon by Ingrid Rice

Has Gordon Campbell lost it? The Liberal party needs to ask that question for their own good. I see a situation developing which is similar to what happened with the Social Credit Party in 1986, when the leader and his supporters put themselves above the interest of the party, and lost not only the election of 1991, but the party itself as well.

No two situations are the same, of course, but if the leader gets a messiah complex, precise parallels of fact patterns are unimportant.

I would say that looking at Campbell and his actions over the last five years tell us that it's his way or the highway and the party be damned. I can easily see him retiring after the Olympics, leaving the Liberal party in seriously bad shape.

Here are some major reasons I say this, in no special order of importance.

A promise betrayed, and Railgate. Campbell will never live down B.C. Rail, and depending on the Basi-Virk case, things might get much worse yet. The premier betrayed a promise given during the 1997 election when he promised to change his mind about selling B.C. Rail in order to have any chance of winning (he lost). When in power, he disposed of B.C. Rail with a shabby game of "Oh, I only leased it" -- for 990 years! Every year that goes by will see C.N. Rail close unprofitable lines, increasing both awareness and anger at the decision.

B.C. Rail was created by W.A.C. Bennett as a tool of policy. He knew that opening up parts of the province required a rail system that might lose money on some lines and run in the red if policy required it. He also knew that the railroad would, in time, be profitable. Mr. Campbell was either naïve enough to think that C.N. Rail would also be willing to install unprofitable lines in order to develop the province, or he just didn't care. Wearing his Fraser Institute blazer and tie, the mantra that 'no publicly owned company can run a business as well as a private one' carried the day. The issue has legs.

The fish farms issue. From 2001 onwards, evidence has piled up indicating that fish farms are a terrible idea from every point of view. Scientific report after scientific report told the premier his policy was fatal to wild salmon; report after report was shrugged off and new licences granted. The only answer one can think of is that Mr. Campbell just doesn't care about this sort of thing. There were fish farmers with deep pockets willing to fill his political coffers and all he had to do was give them licenses. Never mind what a parliamentary committee found; never mind what John Fraser's committee found; never mind the tireless scientific investigation of Alexandra Morton and the scientists from all over the world who support her evidence; never mind public opinion.

Private river power. This issue should have done Campbell in on May 12, but luckily for him the NDP badly botched the issue. But issues like this one tend to intensify rather than going away. The sweetheart deals he has forced B.C. Hydro to make will put our power company in serious jeopardy. The environmental damage will be seen as such by voters, and it will dawn upon British Columbians that this power is not destined for British Columbia homes and industry but instead for export. As the weeks and months go on, the Liberals will awaken to the fact that their leader has got them into another ongoing problem and losing issue.

The huge HST tax shift. I simply cannot understand why the Campbell government thought that if they explained HST better, British Columbians would cheerfully pay more sales tax on items that were previously exempt. A sales tax is, by nature, a highly regressive tax which hits the poor the hardest. This tax shift is also hurting key Campbell constituents such as the restaurant industry. To hear Liberal apologists tell us how good it is to have more taxes truly betrays Campbell as a man who has lost touch with reality.

B.C. Ferries. While it may appear to be a private company, it isn't really -- the province gives it a huge subsidy and takes a lot of interest in what is going on. The only way B.C. Ferries could be truly privatized is if the government sells our shares without giving it a condition that unprofitable runs must be maintained. On the evidence, Campbell is just stupid enough -- or arrogant enough, take your pick -- to do this.

It must be remembered that the Liberals would have lost the last election if many voters who disliked them had not stayed home as a result of being afraid of the NDP. It's guesswork, I concede, to know how the NDP's leadership difficulties will play out -- but if Campbell is permitted to continue his autocracy, it might not matter. In 1991, after Bill Vander Zalm, the Liberals could have 'run a fencepost with hair' and won. (In fact, they ran one without hair.)

The parallels between Mr. Campbell and Mr. Vander Zalm are there. A sense of invincibility and an 'I know best' attitude are two faults in common. Neither of them cared about the party except when it furthered their ambitions. Mr. Vander Zalm -- always a decent man -- has discovered the 'common citizen,' as evidenced by his stands on B.C. Rail, B.C. Hydro and the Harmonized Sales Tax. Based on what I've seen, Mr. Campbell appears to be a 'big corporations man' who does not care about ordinary people or the environment.

The problems faced by the Liberals in the days to come include the traditional ones of health, welfare and education and it's the pileup of these issues that will convince Campbell to leave before his term is up.

When that happens, failing a road-to-Damascus-like conversion, he will drag his party down with him. If so, a lot of ordinary, decent hardworking people will bid good riddance, as history repeats itself and reminds us of the time when Bill Vander Zalm passed the poisoned chalice to Rita Johnston.

Under our system, dealing with a leader drunk with power resides in the caucus. But no caucus ever has the guts to bell the cat. And so, as with the Socreds, the B.C. Liberal Party will pay the price.  [Tyee]

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