Angry voters: From B.C. to Capitol Hill, it is not just about taxes

Simon Jackson on Gordon Campbell's ouster and other elements of the new politics

Sitting at nine per cent in the polls, the writing was on the wall for Gordon Campbell.

The long-serving B.C. premier had lost his traction and the question was when, not if, he would be forced to quit.

On Wednesday, a little earlier than expected and in the face of an impending caucus revolt, Campbell fell on his sword and announced his resignation after nearly a decade at the helm.

While many in Canada's political establishment rushed to praise Campbell's many accomplishments, many more were assessing their own political future in the wake of what seems to be a populist, anti-incumbency, anti-tax wave flooding the continent, from Tea Party America to Toronto's City Hall.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell at his farewell press conference on Nov. 4, 2010. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

In B.C., there is no question that Campbell's leadership was undone by the rather high-handed implementation of the Harmonized Sales Tax.

Still, the reality of why Campbell fell from grace — and why the anti-tax, anti-debt Tea Party movement roared to power in the U.S. — seems more complex than a simple public desire for smaller government.

In the end, I think, this current voter wave has less to do with conservative ideology and far more to do with an electorate that doesn't want to be taken for granted.

As consumers, we have grown accustomed to living in an on-demand world. But governments have become among the last bastions to resist taking voters into their confidence and the reality is that, on both sides of the border, politicians of all stripes have talked in code and failed to deliver on what they have promised.

As a result, many voters feel understandably betrayed and are readily primed to take out their revenge at the ballot box, which is still almost the only place they can.


This has most certainly been the case in B.C.

Campbell's policy flip-flops and broken promises (the sale of BC Rail, for example) were adding up long before the controversy over the HST implementation, which was the final straw.

Shortly after winning a third term — and after having promised during the previous election campaign that his Liberal government would not bring in an HST — Campbell imposed the harmonized sales tax without any real consultation.

That only hardened the view that the premier had blatantly lied to British Columbians during the election and led to (disgraced) former premier Bill Vander Zalm, a populist conservative if there ever was one, emerging from his political grave to orchestrate the first successful referendum petition in the province's history

It was a petition that demanded the government hold a vote on the fate of the tax and it was the beginning of the end for Campbell.

But while the anti-HST movement was quick to claim success for the premier's resignation, this whole episode has clearly been about more than the taxes.

Just last week, for example, Campbell took to the airwaves to apologize for the government's handling of the HST and, in the process, offered up some of the biggest income tax cuts in the province's history.

Theoretically, that should have been what (conservative?) tax-averse voters wanted. But instead his popularity seemed to drop even further, according to the instant polls. Voters of all stripes couldn't move past the fact that Campbell had lied.

No guarantees

In B.C., the political rallying point was initially Vander Zalm's petition drive and, to a lesser degree, plans for recalling Liberal MLAs.

But what party were voters parking their sentiments with in recent polls? Not the upstart B.C. Conservative Party, the one that came to life with the anti-HST drive, but the left-leaning NDP.

Arguably, it was simply in the right place at the right time.

Indeed, the same might be said for the NDP's ideological antithesis, the Tea Party, which energized Republican fortunes even though, according to U.S. polls, most Americans haven't been putting much stock in the Republicans for some time now.

Post-partisan? Calgary's new mayor, Naheed Nenshi, at City Hall on Oct. 19, 2010, the morning after the election. (Jack Cusano/Reuters)

This is not to say that conservatives aren't in the best position to tap into this current wave of voter frustration, but it is far from a guarantee.

Look at Calgary, where new mayor Naheed Nenshi, a relative unknown, shot to victory past two well-funded, staunchly conservative, establishment candidates.

Young, Muslim and, it is said, post-partisan, Nenshi won on a message of respect, good governance and, you guessed it, change.

It was the same formula Rob Ford used in Toronto, the same formula the Tea Party used in the U.S. midterm elections, and it was the same formula that Barack Obama won the presidency with just two years ago.

In all of these situations, I would argue, including the groundswell that forced Gordon Campbell's resignation, the common denominator was not taxes or conservatism or even economic populism.

The common denominator was about respect — about politicians honouring their promises and, even more so, their constituents when it came to explaining all that was really going on.

Economics will always play an important role in political debate and anyone who wastes taxpayer money will likely be held accountable (hello sponsorship scandal!).

But those elements alone won't be the single reason behind a volatile electoral landscape in B.C. or anywhere else.

So what lessons are there for BC's next premier? Or any of Canada's new mayors for that matter?

Respect the voter and keep your promises. If you don't, you'll likely find yourself in Gordon Campbell's shoes.

Some things never change.