Gordon Campbell (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 3, 1999. Partner content is not updated.

For a growing number of British Columbians unhappy with the NDP government that has ruled them since 1991, Campbell and his party are the bearers of hope for a better future.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 3, 1999. Partner content is not updated. For a growing number of British Columbians unhappy with the NDP government that has ruled them since 1991, Campbell and his party are the bearers of hope for a better future.
Gordon Campbell, politician
Premier of British Columbia (courtesy Government of British Columbia).

Campbell, Gordon

The leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in the province of British Columbia is in his Vancouver office, suit jacket stripped off to uncover a white shirt still crisp at 5 o'clock on a Friday afternoon. At the end of a lengthy interview that has dealt with Gordon Campbell's political challenges and his Liberal party's policy aspirations, the conversation has turned to Campbell's stint as a volunteer teacher in West Africa in the early 1970s. To illustrate a story, Campbell suddenly rises, goes to the door, turns and duckwalks, crouching, back to his seat. It is a mark of respect among West Africans, he says - and one that Campbell, then an idealistic and egalitarian young foreigner, was not expecting when a local man approached him for a job. "I learned," he says of his experience in Nigeria, "that you are to people what you are for them."

For a growing number of British Columbians unhappy with the NDP government that has ruled them since 1991, Campbell and his party are the bearers of hope for a better future. While NDP Premier Glen CLARK was able to boast last week of securing the legislature's approval for the first treaty signed with B.C. natives in this century, the victory was a rare one for his troubled party. It came, moreover, at an additional political cost: the landmark treaty with the Nisga'a was passed on April 22 only after the government imposed closure to bring an end to debate. Campbell's Liberals voted against the pact. And in a province flirting with recession, burdened by some of the country's highest personal taxes, swamped by a growing public debt and transfixed by nonstop political scandal, Campbell is promising to weed socialist apparatchiks from the civil service, slash taxes, balance the budget and revive the economy.

But, he admits, he knows only too well that "you've got to get elected, or you don't get to do any of this stuff." And even with the New Democrats in apparent political freefall, Campbell's electability remains an open question. One old rival, former NDP premier Mike Harcourt, expresses a view shared privately even by some Campbell supporters when he says: "Gordon is capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." It has happened before. Campbell lost the last B.C. election in a credibility battle with Harcourt's successor, Clark. Whether the former Vancouver mayor loses the next election - which must be called before May, 2001, but could come as early as this fall - will depend heavily on who voters decide Gordon Campbell really is.

By most conventional political calculus, victory for Campbell's Liberals in British Columbia's next election should be a sure thing. In a mid-February survey of voting intentions, Vancouver's MarkTrend Research found support for the governing New Democrats, at 24 per cent, far behind that of Campbell's Liberals, at 53 per cent. Events since that poll was taken have done nothing to improve the New Democrats' standing. Shortly after the survey, police searched Clark's east Vancouver home in the course of an investigation into the awarding of a casino licence to a group of investors, which included a friend of Clark's. The friend, Dimitrios Pilarinos, is a construction contractor who, it emerged, built two sundecks for the premier, one at his house in Vancouver and another (with Clark's help) at his Okanagan Valley summer retreat. Last week's political drama in the B.C. legislature over the Nisga'a treaty diverted attention from Clark's personal political woes. But the former union organizer's hold on his caucus and cabinet appears to be slipping. Senior ministers have publicly questioned government policy and at least two key members of Clark's inner circle - deputy premier Dan Miller and Finance Minister Joy MacPhail - are reported to have told him privately that he should resign for the good of the party.

Still, Campbell has failed in the past to capitalize on NDP disarray. In 1996, six months after a previous gaming scandal forced Harcourt from office (despite an absence of evidence that he was personally involved in wrongdoing), Clark out-campaigned Campbell to steer his party to its first-ever second consecutive majority government. "If they excel at anything," says MarkTrend vice-president Julie Winram of the New Democrats, "they excel at putting things behind them." Some political observers expect Clark to resign in the weeks ahead (perhaps soon after presenting the historic treaty at the Nisga'a annual convention this week). That would clear the way for a new leader to revive the party's flagging fortunes, says Winram. "They've got two years," she notes. "If the economy improves, people have such short memories they could very well forget and forgive."

Perhaps. But what haunts B.C. Liberals is the fear that Campbell's own performance may help them do it. Since taking over the party leadership in 1993, Campbell has been dogged by doubts about his convictions and an ill-defined public sense that the man cannot quite be trusted. Vancouver city councillor Gordon Price, an admirer who considers Campbell to have "an essential integrity," also says of him: "He just doesn't seem able to click with the public. His private personality, his sense of humour, just don't come across. It's partly the way he looks: too good, too slick, too Howe Street."

That silver-spoon, private-club image is an especially ironic handicap for a politician whose childhood ended abruptly at age 13, with his father's suicide. Until his death in 1961, Dr. Charles Gordon (Chargo) Campbell had seemed to lead a favoured existence: he was handsome, a successful physician who became assistant dean of medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and the father of four good-looking and gifted children. But beneath the surface there were darker currents: Chargo Campbell was a workaholic who drank heavily. His suicide by an overdose of prescription drugs (for years, his children publicly attributed the death to a heart attack) left his family in straitened circumstances. Widowed, Peg Campbell moved her daughter and three young sons out of the comfortable Point Grey home they could no longer afford into a tiny apartment, taking a job as a secretary to support her brood. In the tenor of the times, the role of male "head of the household" fell to Gordon - the eldest son. "Did that shape me?" Campbell asks now. "Of course it did. How could it not? We were latchkey kids before they invented the term."

But Campbell refuses to dwell on the emotional toll of his father's death. He certainly did not allow it to limit his adolescent success. At school, he was a track star who performed well enough academically to win a scholarship to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, alma mater of former U.S. vice-president Nelson Rockefeller, among others. There, he studied urban management. During a summer break back in Vancouver, he met and fell in love with an athletic young woman studying to become a French teacher.

Campbell and Nancy Chipperfield wed after graduating, and together volunteered to work abroad through the Canadian Universities Service Overseas. The couple (they have two sons) spent two years in Nigeria teaching in a residential school, an experience Campbell calls "a huge gift for us." Bernie Lucht, now executive producer for the CBC Radio series Ideas but then a fellow CUSO volunteer, stayed for days at a time at the couple's quarters in Yola, near the Cameroon border, waiting to fly out of the remote town's grass airstrip. He remembers a hospitable, very funny young man who liked to pen satirical songs and perform them on his guitar. Campbell's reasons for being there, Lucht says, were like his own: "It was a sense of adventure and it was also a sense of wanting to contribute something."

What Campbell remembers about Nigeria is telling. "It was not a democracy," he says. "It was not a place where people could change things." Within months of his return to Vancouver in 1972, Campbell started his climb through the ranks of its political elite, eventually compiling a record of change even as he acquired the establishment sheen that now deflects voters' trust. A fellowship at Vancouver city hall led to a job as then-Mayor Art Phillips's assistant. When Phillips left office in 1976, Campbell found work at Marathon Realty, then a development arm of Canadian Pacific Ltd. Leaving there five years later, he start his own development company, completing two midsize hotels in Vancouver. By the early 1980s, he had become well connected and intimately familiar with both the public and private sides of the central issue of the decade for Vancouver: how to manage frenetic growth. In 1984, he sought and won a seat on city council. Two years later, a still boyish-looking 38, he began the first of three terms as the city's mayor.

By 1993, Vancouver was booming, but British Columbia's Liberal opposition was in trouble. In the election two years earlier, the party, which last sat in government in British Columbia in 1952, had surged back from near extinction to win 17 seats as the official Opposition to Harcourt's victorious NDP. But leader Gordon Wilson, a married college teacher from Powell River on the B.C. coast, with no experience in managing a caucus, soon found himself distracted by a love affair with his house leader. A caucus revolt in early 1993 forced Wilson to step aside. That fall, Campbell seized the party leadership. (Wilson and Kelowna-area MLA Judi Tyabji subsequently married and formed their own party, the Progressive Democratic Alliance; Wilson held his seat in the last election, but in January joined the NDP cabinet, where he is now considered a possible successor to Clark.)

Losing the election that followed still rankles Campbell. The Liberals won 42 per cent of the popular vote, more than the New Democrats' 39 per cent. But the distribution of ballots delivered 39 ridings - a narrow majority in the 75-seat legislature - to Clark, and only 33 to Campbell. In the nightmare scenario for centre-right parties in politically bipolar British Columbia, the competing appeal of the Reform Party of B.C. had divided the anti-NDP vote.

Campbell is determined not to let that happen again. Increasingly over the past 18 months, his speeches have evoked the stridently anti-socialist memory of the Social Credit party, which ruled British Columbia almost unchallenged for all but three years between 1952 and 1991. Echoing Socred rhetoric, Campbell describes his Liberals as "the free-enterprise alternative" to the NDP, returning constantly to the critically important theme of uniting the right in British Columbia. He speaks admiringly of Bill Bennett, the Socred premier whose early-1980s program of restraint led to massive demonstrations and a general strike in the province. "I think Bill Bennett was a very good premier," says Campbell. "He understood what the responsibilities of government are."

It is clear that Campbell's own ideas about government still reflect the young CUSO volunteer's perception that democracy is about making change. At the party's annual convention in Kelowna earlier this month, Campbell undertook to make radical changes to how the B.C. government does business: instituting more free votes in the legislature, holding some cabinet meetings in public and creating a committee to examine electoral reforms.

The Liberals' campaign themes, though, are more likely to focus tightly on economics. Campbell promises to deliver a "dramatic" cut in income tax, beginning within 90 days of the next election, with an eye to making the rate the lowest in the country. At the same time, he promises to balance the budget while protecting health and education. Elaborating on those core points in person, Campbell shows one benefit of the years spent courting support from the shadows of opposition: he appears far more confident and convincing on issues beyond those of the lower B.C. mainland than he was in 1996.

That will be important at election time. There are more seats at stake in the interior than in the urban Lower Mainland. But those areas are also peopled by social conservatives, deeply suspicious of the liberal values in the city where Campbell, as mayor, recruited Vancouver's first openly gay councillor into municipal politics. Many prefer the unabashedly moralizing message they hear from Reform's de facto new leader, former premier Bill VANDER ZALM, whose party enjoys 19-per-cent support provincewide. Much of it is in critical swing ridings where Campbell's privileged, city-slicker image could hurt him most.

New Democrats, predictably, insist that image fits. "When I first knew him," says Harcourt, "he was a progressive-thinking assistant to Art Phillips, newly returned from being a CUSO volunteer. I've seen him regress since then to being a grim neoconservative. It's sad." Friends dissent. Former fellow CUSO worker Lucht, for one, got a very different sense from Campbell at a casual reunion dinner in Vancouver a couple of years ago - their first encounter in two decades. "I felt I was meeting the same man," Lucht recalls. "That same sense of warmth." Who is Gordon Campbell, really? Even with the New Democrats in deep disarray, the Liberal leader knows he must put the question to rest, if he hopes to replace them in power.

Maclean's May 3, 1999