Skip navigation

Campbell sees 'golden decade'

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

It has not been a job known for its long-term security. Before yesterday's general election in British Columbia, only four other premiers had lasted in office long enough to win back-to-back elections.

The fact that Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell has now become the fifth would have to be considered a monumental achievement. Yet when he contemplates his renewed mandate he doesn't revel in the personal accomplishment it represents, but prefers to imagine the opportunities it brings.

"What I think we have now in British Columbia is a chance to recapture that optimism, that pride, that drove the province when I was a kid," Mr. Campbell told The Globe and Mail in an interview several days before the election. "Back then there was no sense of a limit in terms of what British Columbia could accomplish. I think we are on the verge of a period in our history that is similar in terms of how we feel about where we live and the potential that exists to be truly great."

There's little question that B.C. returned to its feet nicely after a long period of political instability and economic turmoil that saw the province's standing in Canada drop significantly. And while you can debate how much credit Mr. Campbell's government deserves for the province's economic resurgence in the past few years, there's little doubt it was a central factor in the Liberals' victory yesterday.

A strong economy is the foundation upon which everything the Liberals hope to accomplish in government is built.

Mr. Campbell articulated his chief objectives for the next four years and beyond at one campaign stop after another throughout the election. He even gave them a title: Five great goals for a golden decade.

They were:

Make B.C. the best educated, most literate jurisdiction on the continent;

Lead North America in healthy living and physical fitness;

Build the best support system in Canada for persons with disabilities, special needs, children at risk and seniors;

Lead the world in sustainable environmental management, with the best air and water quality and best fisheries management;

Create more jobs per capital than anywhere else in Canada.

Today, Mr. Campbell says these were not empty campaign pledges. They are for real and there is nothing that gives him more delight than crossing off items like these on his personal to-do list. He said the goals he has outlined would be the most important ones his government attempts to meet over the course of its mandate.

"But remember, these are goals for a decade," Mr. Campbell said. "So I'm not sure we're going to accomplish them all in the next four years. But we'll have to make substantial progress towards them. But if you want an idea of some of the main areas we'll be pursuing as a government, those five are a good place to start."

But while his goals for a "golden decade" provide some overarching themes for the next four years, there are other areas the government in general and the Premier in particular will be focusing on. Maybe none more so than the 2010 Winter Games.

A big booster of the Olympics, Mr. Campbell is aware of the positive economic reverberations a megaproject like the Games can generate. Construction alone can create thousands of jobs in the lead- up to any Games. But Mr. Campbell is just as aware of the economic sinkholes that can sometimes swallow up cities hosting Olympic Games, Winter or Summer. The government of Greece, for instance, is believed to be facing a debt of more than $10-billion from the 2004 Olympics.

The B.C. government will want to insure it isn't dragged down in any way by the Olympics, something Mr. Campbell is confident won't happen because of the leadership of Games president John Furlong and members of his Vancouver Organizing Committee.

"For me, the Olympics represents more than just sports," Mr. Campbell said. "I think it's really about excellence in general. The Governor of Utah told me when you get the Games everyone raises their game. From the airport security officer to the retailer to the banker. They all get better because the Olympics are here and that culture of excellence starts to permeate the province.

"I'm a huge supporter of the Olympics and what they can do for us, but it won't happen if we don't take advantage of it."

During the campaign, Mr. Campbell mused about opening the Games as B.C. premier but stopped short of saying he'd seek a third term. Gary Mauser, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, said he believes one of Mr. Campbell's main goals in the next four years will be to try to ensure his re-election so he can realize his dream of playing host to the Games as premier.

"That will definitely be one of his priorities," Prof. Mauser said.

On the economic front, meantime, you will likely see Mr. Campbell focus his attention on two areas near to his heart: the growing opportunities that exist in the Asia Pacific and the continued diversification of B.C.'s resource-based economy.

"The potential that exists in the Asia Pacific is absolutely huge for us," Mr. Campbell said. "People sometimes forget that 24 per cent of our trade right now is with the Asia Pacific. In Ontario, it's 2.5 per cent of their trade. But what's happening is the weight of the world economy is shifting towards China, Japan and India, and British Columbia is particularly positioned to take advantage of that shift."

He said the social and cultural connections B.C. has with China and India, in particular, are going to help build strong bridges for future prosperity.

Meantime, Mr. Campbell said the resource sector would always be a key part of the B.C. economy. The forests aren't going to move to Wyoming. The coal deposits aren't going to suddenly trot off to Australia. But at the same time the province needs to encourage the explosion in other industries -- something he said is close to happening.

"People in B.C. don't understand that our biotechnology industry is about to break free," Mr. Campbell said. "It is being recognized around the world for not just its critical mass but the product it's developing. That excites me because that is going to push forward a whole series of opportunities for other sectors of the economy like tourism and tourism development.

"We have $4-billion in resort development on the boards right now -- four billion that is approved and ready to go and will be taking place over the next 10 years. That represents enormous job opportunities that range from young people working on lifts to guides working in the woods to people working in managing and marketing. That's a result of a diversified economy."

Of course, there are always challenges on the twin fronts of education and the environment in British Columbia and the next four years will be full of them for the Liberals. But more than those two areas, health care might represent the single toughest test for Mr. Campbell as he looks down the road.

Baby boomers are placing a burden on the health-care system.

Mr. Campbell believes, no doubt rightly, that the problem this dynamic is creating is bigger than any one provincial government. It is an issue with which society, as a whole needs to wrestle, he said, although he concedes it will likely consume a great deal of his time.

"The reason we've established the council on seniors and aging is we have to think about what we demand people do in regards to things like registered retirement savings plans," Mr. Campbell said. "People in their 70s are contributing enormously in every way they used to when they were in their 50s.

"We have to look at how we build communities to accommodate that new reality. What kinds of facilities do we need to provide to deal with this, what kinds of services? I think it's one of the truly huge societal challenges we face as a country, but, by extension, it will also be a huge challenge this government faces in the next four years."

(B.C. is pushing to increase the age at which seniors must convert their registered retirement savings plans into registered retirement income funds.)

If there is one area Mr. Campbell didn't receive much credit for in his first term it was the new relationship he forged with Ottawa. In the past, that association has been chronically acrimonious. In fact, one of the many truisms about B.C. politics was: If you wanted to get a quick bump in the polls all you needed to do was pick a fight with the feds.

Mr. Campbell decided to try a more diplomatic approach, which relied less on whining about how badly B.C. had been treated over the years and instead focused on the notion that the federal government would be silly to ignore a province that had quietly become an economic powerhouse with a glaringly bright future.

At federal conferences, he took on a leading role among the premiers. Not a fan of empty rhetoric that seldom leads to solutions, Mr. Campbell, a policy enthusiast, gained a reputation for trying to bridge the divisions that existed between the provinces and Ottawa.

Mr. Campbell's more statesmanlike approach also helped restore a measure of respect toward B.C. that had been lacking at the federal level. The fact is, for most of the past 30 years (and likely beyond) British Columbia had been considered somewhat of a joke (often warranted) at federal gatherings. When it came to the West, Alberta was seen as the chief power player.

"British Columbia has an enormous contribution to make on the national agenda," Mr. Campbell said. "And that is something I am going to continue to push in the years ahead. When I was at the western premiers conference recently, I think my colleagues were very pleased with the thrust of the initiatives we were taking.

"I think they all see that B.C. is an important part of Canada. I think we now have a strong voice and this is a positive thing. I think people see a door of opportunity opening across the Asia Pacific. I've got all the western premiers agreeing and seeing B.C. as the linchpin in terms of access to that market for the entire country."

Of course, beyond foreign markets and changes to health care and education and a myriad of policy challenges that will arise in the next four years, Mr. Campbell will also have to worry about re-election. A politician's constant concern.

As mentioned, there is little doubt that Mr. Campbell would like to be around for the opening of the 2010 Games -- as premier. Unfortunately, the next general election in B.C. will be in the fall of 2009 -- the every-four-years fixed election date will be moved from the spring to the fall to avoid interrupting debate around the provincial budget. That will be about six months short of the Olympics so Mr. Campbell will likely find himself trying for a three-peat at the polls.

How difficult or easy that is will depend on a number of things. As always, the economy plays a huge role. If B.C.'s economy continues to hum along in the lead-up to the Games it will give Mr. Campbell an almost unprecedented run of prosperity on which to campaign. But the province's economy, for now, is still largely resource based and as such is reliant on world commodity prices for much of its success.

Another factor is where the New Democratic Party goes from here. Leader Carole James has pledged to move it more toward the centre on many issues. She has pledged to balance budgets. She has pledged to distance herself from labour. She has hinted, in other words, at doing what Tony Blair did in England -- make labour a mainstream type of party, left-of-centre on social issues, right-of-centre on economic matters.

If Ms. James is successful at this, it could mean some retooling from Mr. Campbell, who has serious issues with large sectors of the population in B.C. who believe he is mean-spirited and tilts toward the concerns of the rich and powerful over those of the working class and elderly.

Dealing with that problem may not be as easy as it would appear.

The Liberals will have to continue to appeal to the right because they can't afford to have some new version of the Reform Party or Canadian Alliance popping up to steal votes from them in the way the Greens swipe votes from the NDP. (And cost them seats in the legislature.)

The fight for that large group of voters in the middle of the political spectrum -- the ones who now don't trust economic matters to the NDP but don't believe the Liberals have much of a social conscience either -- could become more intense than ever.

As you can see, there will be lots to occupy Mr. Campbell's time in the next while. Today, however, he can take pride in the fact he's accomplished something no B.C. premier has in 22 years -- getting re-elected.

"I think what that says is that on balance our government made the right choices," Mr. Campbell said. "No one is giving us 100 per cent. I know that. But we have made progress. I can tell you that the feeling in this province today compared with four years ago is like night and day.

"When you talk about our challenge the next four years, well, it might be as simple as that. To build on that sense of optimism that we haven't felt here in a long time. That's the No. 1 thing we have to do -- give people a reason to believe again in the future."

gmason@globeandmail.ca

Recommend this article? 1 votes

Back to top