VANCOUVER – B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell has announced that he will step down as the province’s leader after weeks of speculation about his political future following the disastrous introduction of the harmonized sales tax.
Campbell said he’s asked for a leadership convention as soon as possible because voter anger over the unpopular tax has bogged down his government’s ability to get the job done.
“After considerable soul searching and discussion with my family, I’ve decided to ask the B.C. Liberal party executive to hold a leadership convention at the earliest possible date to elect a new leader of the party,” Campbell told reporters at a news conference outside his Vancouver cabinet offices.
He said his government has tried to move forward in recent weeks with initiatives to strengthen the B.C. economy.
“It is clear to me that those initiatives have been overshadowed and when public debate becomes focused on one person, as opposed to what’s in the best interests of the province of British Columbia, we’ve lost sight of what is important.
“When that happens, it’s time for a change,” Campbell said.
He said he made the decision in the best interests of the province, the government and his party.
“At a time like this, everyone’s attention should be focused on helping our economy rebound from the global recession and move forward with an agenda that families can see is in their long-term interests.
“It’s time for a new person to lead the province.”
Campbell faced a caucus meeting Thursday which some have characterized as an emergency gathering. The introduction of the harmonized sales tax has been a disaster for the B.C. Liberals, and Campbell’s popularity has dropped into the single digits for the first time in three terms.
He faces a leadership review at the annual party convention in Penticton later this month and many pundits had been predicting his political demise. Even within the disciplined Liberal party ranks, some caucus members had begun to publicly criticize the premier.
Former energy minister Blair Lekstrom quit cabinet in the spring, saying the government had badly mismanaged the issue and he felt honour-bound to listen to his constituents in his heavily conservative-leaning northeast riding.
Last week Campbell announced a 15-per cent income tax cut that was panned by critics as a last-gasp effort to buy off voters disillusioned with the government.
Last Wednesday, he went on provincewide television and radio to give voters a tutorial about why his government thinks the HST will benefit B.C. and to announce the tax cut.
But the tax cut received little in the way of good reviews and the cabinet shuffle became controversial after the energy minister went public with his complaint that his ministry had been stripped of some of its responsibilities without consultation.
Though no caucus is routinely asked for input into cabinet-making decisions, Campbell shrugged off the dissent and left Bill Bennett in his portfolio – prompting political watchers to speculate about a caucus revolt and suggest the premier was too weakened to hold Bennett to account as he once would have.
While any new tax is bound to be unpopular, the government has paid a deep price for introducing the HST just weeks after being grudgingly elected to a third term.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen’s weak explanations that the province was forced to match what Ontario was doing for investment and economic development reasons fell flat in the face of an electorate convinced they’d been lied to during the campaign when the Liberals said they weren’t considering it.
The province’s unique petition act opened the door for charismatic former premier Bill Vander Zalm to mount a hugely successful campaign to repeal the tax.
By July, Vander Zalm had collected more than 700,000 signatures on the petition, which demanded the tax be put to a referendum or a vote in the legislature. Elections B.C. validated more than half-a-million of them, well over the threshold to prompt a referendum.
Campbell was unapologetic Wednesday.
“It’s not always popular to do what you think in your heart is right and in the long-term interests of our province and the families who live here,” he said.
He thanked his colleagues and his family, in particular his wife Nancy and his children, noting the price his family has paid for his 26 years in public life.
“Politics can be a very nasty business and at times that nastiness spilled over into their own personal lives. For that, I am sorry,” said Campbell.