Those chosen to replace long-serving government leaders often lose the next election.
The province has had one premier since 2001, and as the B.C. Liberal party chooses a new leader on Saturday (February 26), one question comes to mind: will Gordon Campbell's successor suffer that fate?
According to Hamish Telford, head of the political-science department of the University of the Fraser Valley, studies have shown that changing leaders after a long period of rule does not usually work for governing parties.
“We don't have in Canada, generally speaking, a strongly ideological or class-based polity,” Telford told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, “and governments rotate when there's this sort of vague feeling among the electorate that it's time for a change, whatever that means.”
He cited the case of former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, who succeeded Jean Chrétien, won a minority government in a following election, but lost the next one to Stephen Harper's Conservatives.
“It's motivated by a sense that governments that have been in place for a long period of time grow complacent, arrogant, perhaps corrupt, develop a sense of entitlement, that they have a right to govern, and when those sorts of perception, at least of government, emerge amongst voters, they say: ”˜No, we've got to change,' ” Telford noted.
John Redekop, a political-science professor at Trinity Western University, noted that successors are often “punished for the misdeeds of the incumbent”.
He mentioned Kim Campbell, who succeeded unpopular Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney. Campbell lost her seat in the 1993 federal election, and her party was reduced to only two seats in Parliament.
“Similarly here, the NDP ended up with two seats because of the shenanigans of the Nanaimo ”˜bingogate' scandal and a few other things,” Redekop told the Straight in a phone interview.
He was referring to the string of scandals that plagued the successive NDP governments of Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark, which eventually led to the selection of Ujjal Dosanjh as leader. Dosanjh himself lost his seat in the 2001 election that paved the way for the rise of Gordon Campbell and his B.C. Liberal party. Dosanjh later became a federal Liberal.
However, Redekop maintained that the pattern for successors to long-time leaders may be broken for the one who will replace Campbell as B.C. Liberal leader. “I would assume—particularly if it's Christy Clark, who's not involved with the HST [harmonized sales tax]—that Liberal supporters will hold their noses and vote for the Liberals instead of punishing Campbell and voting for the NDP,” Redekop commented.
But he also conceded that another scandal or crisis involving the current government may change things.
SFU political-science professor Marjorie Griffin Cohen noted that long-serving leaders often leave under a cloud. In the case of Campbell, according to her, it's the turmoil caused by the introduction of the HST.
Cohen said that the outcome of the next general election may rest on who actually becomes the next B.C. Liberal leader.
She referred to Kevin Falcon, who is said by some to be a Campbell clone, and who is being endorsed by the largest number of cabinet members. “If he's the leader, you might have your proposition come true, because he will be the most closely identified with a very unpopular leader,” Cohen told the Straight in a phone interview.
However, Cohen also noted that the NDP hasn't been as strong as it was in the fall before Carole James was sidelined as leader following an internal revolt.
“I do think that the weakness of the NDP does give the successor to Gordon Campbell some kind of traction that they would have not had,” Cohen said. “And then, of course”¦whoever is chosen as successor will make a difference. Christy Clark is doing everything she can to distance herself from Gordon Campbell. George Abbott is trying to do that as well, but in a milder kind of way.”
Telford agreed that Clark may do better with voters, although he also said that the electorate may decide to punish the governing party just the same for the HST controversy. Telford also noted that the NDP has to overcome an established pattern in the politics of the province.
“Usually there is a right-of-centre governing party, now the Liberal party, previously the Social Credit party, with the NDP on the left,” he said. “The NDP”¦they only win when there is a divided party system on the right, where there is an alternative conservative party for people to vote for. If that does not materialize in the near future, then history would suggest that the Liberal party will do better than the NDP, despite the HST.”