Liberals take hard right with Gary Collins' departure

Sometimes I want to reach out and smack him [Premier Gordon Campbell]. And sometimes I know he wants to smack me.

-- former B.C. Finance Minister Gary Collins, November 6, 2004

Did Gary Collins ever get his wish! On December 14, he smacked Gordon Campbell squarely between the eyes, and in public, when he resigned as finance minister to take a private-sector job.

The impact of Collins's shocking departure to Campbell and to the B.C. Liberals cannot be overestimated, no matter how much spin he and the party put out saying otherwise. Collins was second only to Campbell as the Liberals' most important politician. He was in the critical portfolio of finance minister and in September had been put in charge of the government's communications operations, taking over from Martyn Brown, Campbell's chief of staff.

Collins was also cochair of the Liberals' 2005 election campaign along with backroom operator Patrick Kinsella. He was Gordon Campbell's most trusted and loyal lieutenant, the go-to guy for damage control when Campbell was arrested for drunk driving in Hawaii in January 2003.

And now Collins is gone.

Political Connections predicted Collins might leave before the next election back on August 19, 2004. In a column about possible contenders for Liberal party leadership should Gordon Campbell resign, I wrote: "Finance Minister Gary Collins's name is always mentioned when leadership contenders are considered, but other rumours have him considering stepping down after this term. Collins suffers from Crohn's disease, has been in the legislature since 1991, and he and his wife, Canadian Press reporter Wendy Cox, have a young son."

So, more than anything else, it is the timing that raises serious questions about the motivation behind his resignation and about the increasingly social-conservative direction of the provincial Liberals under Campbell.

The cabinet was shuffled last January. At that time, Campbell made it clear that this was his reelection cabinet, the team he had chosen to take to voters when seeking a new mandate. Cabinet ministers like Ted Nebbeling and Judith Reid, who told the premier they wouldn't be running for reelection, were dropped, but Collins stayed.

Then in September the Liberals were hit by another totally unexpected resignation, that of deputy premier Christy Clark, another Campbell loyalist until that time. Clark said she had decided to spend more time with her young son and her husband, Mark Marissen, Prime Minister Paul Martin's top federal Liberal organizer in B.C., but rumours persist that she was unhappy with the rise of the Liberals' hard-right wing, led by cabinet ministers Rich Coleman and Kevin Falcon.

The Surreyí‚ ­Panorama Ridge by-election candidacy of Mary Polak, the Surrey school trustee involved in banning textbooks that discussed same-sex marriages, is increasingly seen as an ideological Rubicon in the B.C. Liberal Party. Campbell warmly embraced Polak and also asked her to run again despite her drubbing by the NDP's Jagrup Brar, who beat Polak by 20 percent on October 28.

Clark and other liberals can't be happy, either, with plans by social-conservative North Vancouver school trustee Cindy Silver to challenge long-time Liberal MLA Dan Jarvis for the nomination in North Vancouverí‚ ­Seymour. For five years, Silver was staff lawyer for Focus on the Family (Canada), the Christian group opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion.

At an Ipsos-Reid polling release event December 9, Global TV legislative bureau chief Keith Baldrey told an audience of 200 politicos that Clark is "fundamentally unhappy with the direction government is taking" and predicted she might speak out about it in 2005.

Now, with Collins's resignation and the departure of Clark and fellow small-"l" liberals like Greg Halsey-Brandt and Val Anderson, the already right-wing B.C. Liberals appear to be moving farther and farther away from the centre line of provincial politics.

There are other factors in these resignations. Collins and Clark were the two cabinet ministers connected to the raid on the B.C. Legislature that led to the firing of Collins's ministerial assistant, David Basi, over allegations of influence peddling and connections to drug trafficking.

A search warrant was also served at the home of Clark's brother, Bruce, while her husband was visited by police looking for information. No charges have yet been laid in connection to the search of the legislature, but rumours indicate they could come shortly.

Collins and Clark were also the two ministers most often mentioned as potential successors to Gordon Campbell and both are known as federal Liberal supporters. Now the would-be front-runner is seen as Rich Coleman, the very conservative solicitor general.

There are other interesting aspects to Collins's departure as finance minister and MLA for Vancouver-Fairview. He now goes to work as president and CEO of Harmony Airways, the small airline owned by David T. K. Ho. The company is a major provincial Liberal Party donor, contributing $26,050 in 2003, enough to rank in the top 10 contributors. Ho is also a big Paul Martin Liberal supporter, giving $25,000 to the prime minister's federal Liberal leadership campaign in 2003. And when a crew of B.C. Young Liberals raised $90,000 to fly to the leadership convention, they chartered a jet from Harmony Airways (then called HMY) for a special fare to get to Toronto.

So, did Collins simply resign to make big bucks and spend more time with his family, with a second child due in February?

Those are no doubt genuine factors, but there still remain the curious timing and the strange circumstances that have seen the two most powerful cabinet ministers, closest to Premier Gordon Campbell, suddenly and surprisingly disappear mere months before the provincial election.

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