Saturday, November 06, 2010

So What Was Wrong With Gordon Campbell?

One should never presume to be able to read another person's mind, but it has always seemed to me that Gordon Campbell was badly burned in the 1996 election. He lost that contest to Glen Clark in no small part because of his own folly and naivete:  what he did was speak openly, before the election, of his intention to privatize B.C. Rail. Ass a consequence, any interior towns along the BC Rail route that couldn't stomach the thought of a NDP MLA voted for the Reform Party, led by Jack Weisgerber, splitting the "free enterprise" vote. Some ill-advised candour on Campbell's part about possible restraint in social spending further contributed to the Liberals' demise. While certainly Glen Clark's ability to capitalize on his opponent's maladroitness was an important factor in the NDP's re-election, it is more true to say that the Liberals lost the election than it is to say that the NDP won it--and that it was principally Gordon Campbell's fault that the Liberals lost.

Campbell certainly learned his lesson, and never made the mistake of excessive election candour again. But he did make the opposite mistake, several times, even though he probably interpreted his election victories in 2001 and 2005 as vindication for his hard-won political acumen. In fact, those elections were won for reasons other than legerdemain: anyone could have led the Liberals to victory in 2001, and Liberals were rescued by an Asian-fuelled surge in commodity prices in 2004-2005.

So the long fuse of the BC Rail scandal and the short fuse of the HST backlash were lit with the new strategy of cautious public opinion "management" that was a central characteristic of the Campbell years. Despite some impressive legislative achievements to his credit, he never learned to trust the people, and that fact ensured that they were unlikely to fully trust him, either.

Campbell's faith was reserved for B.C. capitalism---which is why we can charitably interpret his prediction in 2001 that "tax cuts would pay for themselves" and his clinging to a belief in only a half-billion dollar deficit in 2009 as wishful thinking on his part, rather than merely crass dishonesty. He did everything he could, within reasonable political parameters, to create a good business climate. He hoped that business would return the favour. As part of this effort, Campbell's tax policies--in particular the carbon tax and HST in exchange for cuts in progressive income taxes--- appeared to shift more of the burden onto ordinary people. These are the same ordinary people who Campbell couldn't trust with a discussion of tax policy prior to the 2009 election, the same ordinary people whom he had ("mistakenly") trusted in 1996. If, deep down, Campbell wanted these people to like him, he had a flawed strategy for achieving popularity.

But was it wrong to avoid the issue before the election and then implement the tax in the first year after the election (in order for the anger over the fait accompli to die down before 2013)?  Is that not the common political strategy  for administering painful-but-beneficial medicine upon recalcitrant publics? My advice to political leaders in this situation was (and is) twofold. First, equity matters. If the point of the HST was primarily to achieve administrative and economic efficiencies rather than to engineer a supply-side "trickle down" economy, then design and explain the tax in such a way as to make that fact perfectly clear. France and Sweden have more equitable societies despite getting close to half of their revenue from consumption taxes; that fact suggests the possibility of a more equitable HST. Indeed, much of the opposition to the carbon tax was blunted by a similar strategy of ensuring that two-thirds of BC families would be no worse off as a result of the tax.

Second, the question of tax harmonization could have been folded into the terms of reference of a commission on taxation that would have included extensive consultations similar to the dialogue on health care that the BC government held earlier. The Commission could have reported to the legislature in 2011. Whether you could call it deliberative democracy or simply management of public expectations, it would have provided an opportunity for citizens to let off steam in an environment much more controlled and less volatile than a grass-roots populist revolt led by Bill Vander Zalm.

But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

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