In the past four years, Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell has turned British Columbia from the worst-governed province in Canada into the best. Voters should not hesitate to re-elect him on Tuesday.
When Mr. Campbell took office in May of 2001, British Columbia was in a mess. During the 1990s, when the ham-fisted NDP was in power, the economy stagnated. Despite B.C.'s talented people, its resource riches and its position as the gateway to a rising Asia, its economic output per capita actually fell, making it the only province to experience such a decline. Individual British Columbians saw their after-tax incomes plunge by close to $800. The NDP government's mismanagement was typified by the "fudge-it budget," in which the party misled voters to win re-election, and the fast-ferries fiasco, in which then-premier Glen Clark squandered $463-million on whiz-bang vessels that didn't work. Mr. Clark himself was forced to resign in the midst of scandal.
After angry voters chucked the New Democrats out, reducing them to just two seats in the 79-member legislature, Mr. Campbell took the bull by the horns. He introduced an almost immediate 25-per-cent income-tax cut, a dramatic signal that better times were coming. He faced down the big public-service unions to overturn unaffordable wage increases. He cut the corporate tax rate. He modified the labour code to take the burden off business. He tabled a three-year plan to wipe out the budget deficit -- and stuck to it. Rather than blame Ottawa for the province's woes, as so many B.C. premiers had done over the years, he did what was necessary to put his province's own affairs in order.
Mr. Campbell did not budge throughout the ensuing storm, during which the NDP and the labour movement portrayed him as a West Coast Lucifer for trying to restore some sanity to the province's finances. Now B.C. is reaping the rewards. Its economy grew by 3.9 per cent last year, the highest rate in the country. Unemployment is the lowest it has been since 1981. House construction and manufacturing exports are booming. Capital investment is expected to grow by 8 per cent this year. Thousands of people are migrating to the province in search of new opportunities.
Not all of this is Mr. Campbell's doing. He has been lucky as well as smart. Soaring prices for timber, energy and minerals have done wonders. But he has managed the windfall well, resisting the impulse to spend it all at once. In its latest budget, his government said it would use $1.7-billion to help pay down the provincial debt while bringing in tax reductions worth $480-million over three years. With what is left over, it is reinvesting substantially in health care and education.
It is a measure of Mr. Campbell's success that NDP Leader Carole James is not promising any significant rollback of his economic and fiscal program. Tacking to the political centre, she, too, promises balanced budgets and no tax increases. Instead of attacking Mr. Campbell's program, she plays on a certain unease that many voters have about Mr. Campbell's character and claims he is untrustworthy.
The charge does not stand up. Mr. Campbell committed a grave personal error when he drove a car while drunk on a vacation in Hawaii in 2003, but he expressed sincere and immediate remorse and says he has since quit drinking altogether. While it is true that he broke some election promises, such as the pledge not to privatize B.C. Rail, nobody can accuse him of abandoning his principles. He didn't have to set a fixed, advance date for this election, a move that robbed him of the flexibility to hold the vote at a politically advantageous moment, but he did so. He didn't have to appoint a citizens group to design a new electoral system, either. That group's proposed system, the single transferable vote, is the wrong way to introduce proportional representation, but the Premier promised to put the idea to a vote and it will be on the ballot Tuesday. Many British Columbians may dislike the way he has pared government, but his integrity and sincerity are not in doubt.
What is most attractive about Mr. Campbell is his optimism. After years of being governed by rogues, eccentrics, mediocrities and bean-counters, the province finally has a leader who has a clear vision of British Columbia's possibilities and how to achieve them. His campaign looks forward to a "golden decade" for B.C. and sets five great goals: to produce more jobs per capita than any other province, to become the best educated, most literate jurisdiction in North America, to lead the world in environmental management, to build the best supports in Canada for seniors, the disabled and children at risk, and to lead the way in North America in health and fitness.
Pie in the western sky? Perhaps. If there is room to criticize Mr. Campbell, it is over the sometimes gauzy and insubstantial nature of his plans, which show great ambition but little detail about how to achieve them. It would be a shame if, having done so much, he were to spend a second term resting on his laurels and musing grandly about the future.
But there is no doubt that British Columbia can do great things. With the 2010 Winter Olympics on the horizon, the economy roaring and a sensible, far-seeing government in charge at last, its potential is limitless. As the Liberal slogan goes, B.C. is Back. A large measure of the credit goes to Gordon Campbell, who has done more than any other sitting premier to turn his province around. British Columbians should return him to office.