How Carole James Won the '05 Election

There's a simple rule in politics: either fire people's imaginations or those imaginations will turn around and fire at you. Unable to project a compelling image of himself, [Gordon] Campbell wound up wearing a negative image designed by his enemies. He became known as a suit in the nastier sense of the word; i.e., a greedy, sleazy, conniving, heartless corporate type.

— Kenneth Whyte, Saturday Night, September 1996

MAY 17, 2005—It will go down in Canadian political history as the biggest choke of all time: the defeat of the Gordon Campbell Liberal government that had won 77 of 79 seats in the legislature just four years ago.

Stunning, shocking, unbelievable—tonight, journalists were left searching for hyperbole strong enough to convey what seemed impossible to even the most optimistic New Democratic Party supporter.

Premier-elect Carole James could have scarcely looked more like Alice in Wonderland as the final election results flickered across television screens across the province: NDP 41 seats, Liberals 38.

What happened? How did Premier Campbell squander one of the most overwhelming victories in B.C. history?

Like most failed politicians, the premier sowed the seeds of his own demise. Campbell, a leader who was never personally popular and almost always trailed his party's level of political support, was nonetheless seen as a necessary evil to voters who desperately sought an end to the beleaguered NDP government in 2001.

But those same voters became increasingly chagrined as Campbell appeared to actually relish slashing programs for B.C.'s neediest, creating confrontations with everyone from hospital workers to doctors to women's groups, and governing with an aloof arrogance that reinforced his negative ratings.

The first clear signs of Campbell's impending defeat came on December 9. An Ipsos-Reid poll released that day showed that the most important issue to British Columbians, at 58 percent, was no longer the economy but health care, followed by education at 30 percent.

And who did B.C. voters believe would do a better job dealing with health care? The NDP, by a 50-percent to 25-percent margin over the Liberals. On education, the NDP led the Liberals by a 47-percent to 24-percent margin, and on social services the NDP cleaned up by 59 percent to 18 percent.

Shortly afterward, on December 14, Campbell's number-two man, Gary Collins, suddenly quit the government to take a job in the private sector. Collins's departure shocked the Liberals and was followed in early 2005 by other key cabinet ministers and MLAs, including Attorney General Geoff Plant.

Observers now believe that there were two key flaws in the Liberal strategy that caused their upset defeat: focusing on the economy to the exclusion of all other issues and highlighting their unpopular premier.

As the economy improved, voters felt less need to support Campbell and more desire to fix the deteriorating health-care system, improve education, and deal with the ever-present evidence of poverty throughout B.C.

Campbell's fatally strong negatives were also clear in December 2004. Although the Liberals held a statistically insignificant lead of 44 percent to 41 percent over the NDP, Campbell himself was a touchstone for discontent.

Six in 10 voters surveyed by Ipsos-Reid disapproved of Campbell's performance as premier, and 57 percent said the Liberals did not deserve to be reelected; 58 percent said Campbell was a liability to his party, including 36 percent of committed Liberal voters.

Worst of all for a politician going into a campaign where promises are made daily, the polling showed Campbell was simply not to be believed.

In response to the statement: "You can't trust Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals to keep their promises," a deadly 63 percent agreed, including even 36 percent of Liberal voters.

So despite blanket pro-Campbell television advertising by the business community, the disapproval ratings continued throughout 2005.

In fact, NDP insiders secretly cheered on the multimillion-dollar corporate advertising campaign because in their view it cemented negative views that Campbell was merely a business puppet.

But an unloved premier and an incompetent campaign strategy were not the only cause of the Liberals' demise. B.C.'s labour movement refused to rise to desperate Liberal attempts to bait it and instead worked an intensive but low-key organizing campaign that had only one goal: to ensure the maximum turnout possible on election day of the province's 555,000 unionized workers.

Results showed that 65 percent of union households had voted NDP, the same percentage as in that party's successful 1991 and 1996 elections.

And the release of NDP leader James's long-awaited election platform defied media predictions that it would give the Liberals lots of opportunities to attack the rookie politician, who has yet to sit in the legislature.

The NDP learned from the successful 2002 Vancouver municipal elections that saw Larry Campbell elected mayor by pledging to deal with escalating drug problems through both harm reduction and enforcement.

The key campaign promise by James was a guarantee that anyone attempting to end their drug or alcohol dependency would get into a detox centre within 24 hours.

By combining urban voters' concerns about increasing poverty, food-bank usage, and homelessness into one positive program that also addressed addiction as the root cause of street crime, James narrowly won key ridings in Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria that had been expected to stay Liberal.

Campbell's election-night resignation as Liberal party leader will spark a wide-open leadership campaign. Former deputy premier Christy Clark, who quit Campbell's cabinet in a surprise move in September 2004 and began publicly criticizing the Liberals' move to the social-conservative right in 2005, is expected to face off against newly elected Liberal MLA Mary Polak in a left-right battle to determine the party's future direction. *

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio One's Early Edition. E-mail him at