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Opinion

Campbell Is Damaged Goods

Like Socred Bill Bennett, he's made himself too disliked to win another election.

By Rafe Mair 28 Sep 2009 | TheTyee.ca

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Who will pick up pieces?

History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

-- Mark Twain

I'm damned if I know what that means but I think it says that Gordon Campbell is in trouble if he wants to win another term.

But there is hope for the BC Liberal Party.

Lessons from 1983

Many may not remember the election of 1983. Bill Bennett and his British Columbia Social Credit party had been in power since December 1975 and, against all polls, won again. The issue was "restraint" and it resonated with the public, many of whom had been badly burnt by the recession the country was in.

Many -- myself included -- saw their houses falling in value to the point it was worth less than the mortgage. Or mortgages, since many took out a second mortgage to fund daily living.

A lot of voters saw the bureaucracies, especially in Victoria, as being bloated with high-paid sloths. They looked upon many government agencies, such as human rights tribunals, as being boondoggles masking more three-piece wastrels we could do without.

Bennett caught that wave and went from being a loser in private polling to winning his third straight victory.

Then it hit the fan. Bennett brought in the restraint he promised and the "left" especially, led by Art Kube, then president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, went bananas. Empire Stadium was filled to the brim with chanting and angry demonstrators, which had been rallied under the "Solidarity" movement, the name coming from the then popular uprising in Poland under Lech Walesa. At the end of October, the B.C. Government Employees' Union went on strike and it was soon joined by a sympathy strike by many B.C. teachers. The ferry workers were readying themselves to be next, and if they went out it seemed as if the province might collapse.

It all fizzled out when then prominent labour leader Jack Munro went to Bill Bennett's home near Kelowna and the two of them put together the "Kelowna Accord." The strike ended but the seething discontent didn't.

Expo '86 and the 2010 Games

Bennett's popularity plunged, though it recovered briefly with Expo '86. Bennett saw the polls in May of 1986 and knew that unless some miracle occurred, he and the Socreds would lose in the next election. The reason was obvious. The voter dislike unto hatred of Bennett had not gone away, which sent him into retirement to be succeeded by Bill Vander Zalm.

The "Zalm," who had been an unpopular Bennett cabinet minister, suddenly became a prince of charisma who shortly after becoming premier called an election and won handily.

What an interesting coincidence! Gordon Campbell wins his third election and almost immediately becomes extremely unpopular. Campbell and his finance minister, Colin Hansen, putting the kindest interpretation on it, did not tell the public that their forecast budget deficit of under $500 million would, as if by magic, go to just under $3 billion after the election. Environmental issues that Campbell had escaped debating during the election, because of NDP campaign shortcomings, came to the fore and his ratings plummeted.

Campbell has his own Expo '86 in the Winter Olympics of 2010, which he is counting upon to make him popular again. I predict 1986 will repeat itself and while Campbell will get a bit of a spike in the polls, his popularity will plunge again. If he thinks of the party, he will try to find a Vander Zalm successor -- perhaps the, ahem, aging Carole Taylor.

Campbell's liabilities too great

Many times premiers -- W.A.C. Bennett comes quickly to mind -- can do unpleasant things early in the mandate yet, relying on voter amnesia, win office again in a couple of years. Why couldn't his son Bill do the same? Why can't Campbell?

The answer is simple. Bennett Senior did things that were unpopular at the time but had no political legs. He was easily able, during an election campaign, to brush what in retrospect were minor matters into the political dustpan and win with a new barrage of promises.

Permit me to digress. In WAC's reign, nobody would ever admit voting for him. I was at a B.C. Lions game during one of the election nights of the '60s and when the Bennett victory was announced, the news was greeted by a cacophony of boos! Somebody must have voted for him but not, apparently, B.C. Lions fans!

After the spectacle, bowing out?

Bill Bennett committed sins that time couldn't bury. Had he chosen to hang on he would have been slaughtered and he knew it. He could only hope that his successor would bring his own political virtues and that fair play would keep the public from transferring their hatred of him to his successor. For one moment -- the 1986 election -- it worked.

I believe that Gordon Campbell in 2010, after the Olympics are over, will be precisely where Bill Bennett was in 1986 -- hugely unpopular because his sins did indeed have political legs.

The only question unanswered is whether, like Bennett II, Campbell will fall on his own sword, letting the leadership go to another who would be able to win for the same reasons Vander Zalm did.  [Tyee]

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