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Friday, May 22, 2009

Bait and switch

A recent profile of newly re-elected B.C. premier Gordon Campbell in the Vancouver Sun is quite revealing.

If nothing else, it reveals that Mr. Campbell, who Sun reporter Miro Cernetig suspects might prove to be one of the most influential B.C. politicians ever, might have had a great career selling used cars.

The article tries to nail down what Mr. Campbell believes and discovers that the answer is quite "complex".  Mr. Cernetig himself notes that he has "struggled to pin down his guiding political philosophy" in the years that he has covered the premier.

The profile begins promisingly, noting that Mr. Campbell says that he is a believer in "classical liberalism". There proved to be a slip between the cup and the lip, though, when he became premier.

Mr. Cernetig writes:

Critics could look at all three of those statements and find immediate contradictions. Hasn't this economic conservative already broken his promise to balance the budget? How is it that a "subsidiarian" runs such a centralized premier's office, one in which he takes the role of hands-on CEO? How could this classic liberal, who favours the power of the individual citizen, be so inclined to push through special recognition for first nations, in essence an attempt to empower a fourth level of government that is ultimately defined by race?

Despite the philosophical architecture he has created for himself, the reality is Campbell is not nearly as rigid as he is often described. In fact, he is far more strategic and flexible from a public policy perspective than he is given credit for. And there is an overall coherence, though it is not always well-articulated.

The answer that seems best to me is that Mr. Campbell likes to govern as a small-l liberal, based on his record in office.

Mr. Cernetig explains it well. I've added emphasis:

....Flashback to 1996, when Campbell was on a campaign swing down the east coast of Vancouver Island, building up the B.C. Liberal party he had recently joined as leader. Here's what I wrote after interviews back then:

"Campbell promises legislation to ban future deficits on taking office. ... He would cut MLAs' pensions. Slice the number of MLAs from 75 to about 60. Cut the number of ministries from 15 to 12. Slice a cabinet minister's salary when he blows his budget. Sell off BC Rail and any other Crown corporation where it 'makes sense.' And cut through red tape by ceding more power to municipalities ...."

On review 13 years later, it's clear Campbell kept most of those promises in his first term, from 2001 to 2005. In his second, about half of them have been watered down or broken entirely. There are more MLAs, their paycheques and pensions are again gold-plated and he's rescinded his balanced-budget legislation -- temporarily, because of the global recession, he promises. Does this swing from right to the centre display a lack of ideological coherence? Campbell argues not. He prefers to see it as a sort of pragmatic, evolving path to governing.

In his first term, he saw himself as having one paramount goal that he found no joy attending to: taking out the knife to slash services. "We had to have a sound financial footing. You don't value balancing the budget. You value the opportunities that are created when you balance the budget."

There's also, of course, something he doesn't say -- there was a short-term tactical benefit in moving his politics to the right. In 2001, to win his first term, he had to recapture former Reform party supporters, disgruntled Socreds and stay-away Conservatives. That tactic worked. He won in a landslide.

But in the 2005 election, Campbell came close to losing power on that red-meat agenda. He entered his second term with a dramatically reduced majority -- but still workable. Consequently, he moved closer to the political centre.

One might call that political opportunism. But there's more to it. Campbell is now governing from what he himself agrees is his "political sweet spot," where he is most comfortable and would have preferred to be all along.

Too bad that my old magazine, B.C. Report, isn't publishing any more. We would have been able to point out that only a liberal B.C. Liberal would feel comfortable with governing this way. Conservative policies are only useful to enable the liberal ones that Mr. Campbell really wanted to do. Conservative policies are then forgotten. Liberal policies become legislation.

Historically, Mr. Campbell has proved adept at the "bait and switch" beloved by bad used car salemen. Promise something, do something else.  

I wonder if there are any small-c conservatives in the B.C. Liberal caucus? What do they think of this? Have any of them talked to people about their concerns? Or is Mr. Campbell's iron-clad control of his government strong enough to crush dissent?

If Mr. Cambell is going to run again, as seems likely, conservative politicians should start reminding voters of his record, and urge them to ignore what he says at election time. Start now. Harp on it, if necessary. And it may be. 

Posted by Rick Hiebert on May 22, 2009 in Canadian Provincial Politics | Permalink


Rick...they're "all" used car salesmen. :)

Posted by: JC | 2009-05-23 12:17:19 AM

My son is a used car salesman. Please stop making a comparison that insults him.

Posted by: DML | 2009-05-24 12:26:58 AM

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