I was asked to explain BC politics to the Toronto Star newspaper's audience in less than 800 words! Here's what I wrote for them.
The Toronto Star
Thursday December 9, 2010
NDP leader the latest casualty in B.C.
By Bill Tieleman
"I am one of those who believe that political hatreds attest the vitality of a State.”
— Amor De Cosmos, British Columbia’s second premier, 1872-74
VANCOUVER — Even in a province known for its political blood sport reputation, British Columbia has been rocked by events over the past six weeks.
New Democratic Party Leader Carole James became the latest casualty on Monday when she announced her resignation and blamed “bullies” in her own caucus for pushing her from office.
But others see James more as the author of her own misfortunes, courting the same fate that befell outgoing B.C. Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell just over a month ago.
That means British Columbia will witness not one but two separate major party leadership campaigns over the next few months, with both replacing longtime leaders who lost the faith of many of their own Members of the Legislative Assembly in the short 18 months since B.C.’s election on May 12, 2009.
Adding to this political hurricane season is the sight of two MLAs being unceremoniously thrown out of their former caucuses — one Liberal, one New Democrat — bringing the count of independent MLAs in the B.C. Legislature to an unprecedented four.
But the word “unprecedented” has worn out here through the fall.
James’ bitter resignation Monday was perhaps even more dramatic than Campbell’s sudden departure announcement on Nov. 3.
Campbell’s polling numbers were gruesome — his personal approval level was just 12 per cent in November, according to an Angus Reid public opinion poll, while his party plunged to only 26 per cent after winning 46 per cent of the vote just 18 months earlier.
Campbell’s fate may be a last warning sign to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, now trailing Tim Hudak’s Conservatives by nine points.
The introduction of a harmonized sales tax by both premiers boosted their opposition, though the B.C. Liberal government’s surprise decision to announce its own HST just weeks after an election where the idea was openly denied proved to be a political suicide note for Campbell.
But James’ fortunes did not soar, despite the Liberals’ gift miscalculation on the new tax.
The successful Fight HST campaign under B.C’s unique direct democracy legislation was led not by James but instead by charismatic former right-wing premier Bill Vander Zalm.
His broad-based citizens’ coalition of 6,500 registered canvassers collected 705,000 signatures in 90 days to force a province-wide vote on the HST. And under extreme pressure, Campbell said that vote would be binding, despite no legislative requirement to do so.
While Vander Zalm celebrated, James languished in the shadows.
And in October when faced with mild public criticism from one of her own MLAs, James overreacted by personally expelling Bob Simpson from the caucus. That prompted the resignation of her caucus chair and later the caucus whip in protest.
By November, polling showed James’ own personal approval at only 25 per cent, despite her party being favoured by 47 per cent of voters — leaving a massive 22 per cent credibility gap.
Worse for James, that 25 per cent support fell below former U.S. president George W. Bush’s 28 per cent approval level at his term’s end and just above ex-president Richard Nixon’s 23 per cent during Watergate.
After seven years of leading the NDP, James had failed to connect with voters in British Columbia. While widely regarded as a decent person, she was also viewed as a bit of a mystery. She attacked Campbell rigorously but had no defining policies of her own.
Campbell’s disintegrating support led to his own caucus revolt and then the surprise news on Nov. 3 that after nine years in power and three majority election wins, he was resigning.
For James, hopes she could still fashion a win against the unpopular Campbell despite her own low personal popularity quickly faded with his announcement.
Fear that the new B.C. Liberal premier would call a snap election after being chosen Feb. 26 of next year led to the final blow — a devastating critique of James released by her most veteran MLA, Jenny Kwan, and supported by 12 other caucus members.
Despite nominating James for leader in 2003, Kwan now said: “At a time when the B.C. Liberal party and the premier’s personal approval rating have fallen to all-time lows, the NDP under her leadership has not been able to capitalize on the B.C. Liberals’ downfall.”
And five days later James’ career as leader had ended as suddenly as Campbell’s, both victims of their own parties’ lack of confidence.
Now the parties will face off with new leaders in a likely 2011 election that will continue B.C.’s spectator sport tradition of political bloodletting.
It’s a cautionary tale for Ontario politicians to make sure they maintain the support of their own caucuses — at all costs.