The sad decline of Liberal rule in B.C.

It was Thursday, March 18, 2010, and Team Canada was facing off against Japan in the Paralympic sledge hockey semifinal. Between periods, grinning B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell stopped by the rink to shake some hands and give the crowd an upbeat message.

It was Thursday, March 18, 2010, and Team Canada was facing off against Japan in the Paralympic sledge hockey semifinal. Between periods, grinning B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell stopped by the rink to shake some hands and give the crowd an upbeat message.

It was the last time I saw the premier and he looked buoyant. Despite the awful start to the Olympics (the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on a training run just before the opening ceremony), the Games had been a success on many metrics.

Canada had cleaned up on medals, setting a Winter Olympics record for most golds, and warm weather and a feel-good patriotic vibe saturated downtown streets.

At the Paralympic event, Campbell was basking in it.

Just seven months later, he’s the most unpopular premier in the country.

The downward spiral began just after the May 2009 provincial election, which saw the Liberals win 14 more seats than the NDP but only four per cent more of the popular vote. During the campaign, the Liberals had pledged not to “harmonize” the seven-per-cent provincial sales tax with the five per cent GST.

Money talks, however. Motivated by a $1.6-million federal incentive to harmonize — and a budget deficit three times what Campbell had discussed during the campaign — the Liberals jumped aboard the HST train. The result: Higher taxes on many items, everything from coffee and newspapers to school supplies, bills and bicycles.

It was hardly the first broken election promise in B.C. political history. But for voters who had just rewarded Campbell with his third straight majority, this one stung.

Using initiative legislation designed by the Liberals, a ragtag group of tax rebels led by former premier Bill Vander Zalm gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures provincewide, forcing a vote on the HST. The vote will be held on Sept. 24, 2011 — not soon enough for Vander Zalm’s forces, who have launched recall campaigns against Liberal MLAs in vulnerable ridings.

The Liberals were so blindsided by the anti-HST initiative campaign that they didn’t even register with Elections B.C. to oppose it, so were prevented from spending money to get their message out.

While in opposition, Campbell used to champion B.C.’s direct democracy tools — initiative, referendum and recall. Now they threaten to bring down his government.

While the HST backlash gathered steam, a political corruption trial began for two former top aides to B.C. Liberal cabinet ministers. They are charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting cash and other benefits for allegedly leaking confidential info about the bidding process for a government-owned rail line that was being sold off (another broken election promise).

A surprise guilty plea was entered on Monday, but not before defence lawyers at the trial brought to light several damaging/embarrassing revelations that are a PR nightmare for the Liberals.

A top aide to the premier testified that Campbell is a micromanager who regularly asked cabinet ministers to praise him in their speeches. The president of B.C. Rail continued to draw lucrative salaries, including almost $800,000 the year after the sale, even though the government-owned railway no longer owned any trains. Taxpayers also footed the bill for corporate perks such as Canucks tickets for years after the sale.

It all feeds the perception of the Liberals as an arrogant, out-of-touch government.

Campbell likes to invoke the legacy of province-builder W.A.C. Bennett, the B.C. premier and political legend who governed from 1952 to 1972 and literally laid the groundwork for the modern province. So flaming out wasn’t in his exit plan.

But the jockeying for position among potential replacements is well underway. NDP Leader Carole James, meanwhile, has been touring the province, building her leader cred.

Campbell is insisting he’ll stay. But his farewell is looking more and more like that of his nemesis Vander Zalm, who was forced from office himself in 1991 after battling scandals for years.

Politics is a bit like sport that way — its unpredictability is part of its appeal and developments tend to regularly veer from the script.

That Canada-Japan sledge hockey game where Campbell made a triumphant appearance, for example? Japan dispatched Canada 3-1, shocking the world’s No. 1-ranked team.

James Kwantes is a former Advocate copy editor. He can be reached at gone-coastal@hotmail.com.