It would be a stretch to claim that Gordon Campbell received much of a “mandate” in last week’s British Columbia election. With 46 per cent of the vote, in an election that saw turnout fall, for the first time, to less than 50 per cent, Campbell is the choice of barely one in five electors.
Still, it is triumph enough that he was not defeated. Not only were Campbell’s Liberals seeking a third term, an honour voters have historically proved unwilling to bestow, but as the incumbents in a recession-year election, they were fighting daunting odds. His win ought to make opposition parties in other parts of the country sit up straight: if they were under any illusion that they had only to show up, and the economy would carry them to power, they can think again.
If anything, the economy seemed to be a plus for Campbell: voters gave him credit as a competent economic manager who had slashed taxes and balanced the books. Even the lapse into deficit in the February budget did not provoke a backlash, his own balanced-budget legislation notwithstanding. No doubt this reflected a greater public tolerance for red ink, given the state of the economy. But as important was the way he handled it. If he did not make any drastic shifts in fiscal policy to avert a deficit, neither did he deliberately expand it, or try to pretend that deficits were now a virtue.
And, to signal that his principles remained intact—that the exception was not about to become the rule—Campbell made no attempt to rescind the legislation, or to evade its penalties: he and his cabinet took the prescribed 10 per cent cut in pay. Compare that to Dalton McGuinty’s consequence-free overturning of similar legislation in Ontario.
This is, I think, the real message of Campbell’s victory: conviction politics is back. Big ideas, taking risks, sticking to your guns—all those things that had seemed so passé, in this season of incrementalism, may not be so politically fatal as all that. You can run on major change, and win.
I’m talking, of course, about Campbell’s carbon tax: the first such tax of any heft in North America (Quebec’s is barely noticeable), and among the most comprehensive in the world. Wildly unpopular at first, and hardly beloved today, it may not have been the centrepiece of his campaign, but it certainly was the NDP’s. Yet it did not, in the end, seal his defeat. It may even have helped him win.
Let’s just pause on that first point. In recent Canadian elections, it seemed, bold was out. Whether it was John Tory’s promise to fund religious schools in Ontario, or Stéphane Dion’s “green shift,” or (alas) electoral reform, the public’s answer in every case was no. You can just imagine the advice the political pros were offering their clients: don’t do it. Don’t say anything. Just sit tight, and hope the other guys defeat themselves.
Against this background, Campbell’s victory is hugely significant. It isn’t just that he won: it’s how he won. On the surface, after all, Campbell’s signature policy was something very like what Dion proposed: a shift from taxing income to taxing carbon, with no net increase in taxes. But whereas Dion’s plan was weighted down with exceptions, subsidies, and unrelated redistribution programs, Campbell’s “green shift” was the real deal. Every dollar in carbon-tax revenues was returned in cuts to personal and corporate income taxes.
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