Thirty years ago, on May 5, 1993, a historically-significant event in BC politics took place.
In front of over 600 supporters at the Hotel Vancouver ballroom, the Mayor of Vancouver bounded onto the stage, and announced he was seeking the leadership of the BC Liberal Party.
At 45 years old, Gordon Campbell was already doing in local government politics what no one had ever done, nor will likely ever do again – he was Mayor of Vancouver, chair of the regional district, and president of the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) at the same time. He had been mayor for almost seven years but the boundaries of local government could not contain him. He had restless energy for a new challenge, and this meant a challenge like no other.
Taking a step back, between 1952 and 1991, the Social Credit Party had governed for all but three of 39 years. When Campbell was elected mayor in 1986, the Socreds were enjoying a resurgence with leader Bill Vander Zalm, who triumphed at the polls a month earlier. However, the aging Socreds were not a great fit with the City of Vancouver nor were they a great fit with a ‘new era’ politician like Campbell. Elected as mayor in 1986, he had been careful to live up to the “Non-Partisan” aspect of the Vancouver NPA. While it was clear the NPA was not the left-wing party, it was a centrist blend of ‘free enterprisers’ – liberals, conservatives, and those simply there for good government. And as the Vander Zalm government imploded in the late 1980s, he was wise to steer clear of provincial politics.
And then in the 1991 B.C. election, the heretofore also-ran BC Liberals blew up the provincial political landscape.
During the TV debate, BC Liberal Leader Gordon Wilson caught lightning in a bottle, precipitating the collapse of the tired Socreds and a fundamental realignment of BC’s political landscape. Mike Harcourt’s new NDP government – the first NDP government since 1975 – was greeted unexpectedly by an even newer BC Liberal opposition.
Leaping from zero to 17 members, the BC Liberals were inexperienced in almost all respects. Wilson, who had been a tenacious one-man band out in the political wilderness, struggled as the leader after the election. The House Leader left caucus to sit as an Independent. The Caucus was a hotbed of unrest. By January of 1993, under huge political pressure, Wilson acceded to a leadership convention.
Wilson instantly sought to regain his leadership. Former BC Liberal leader Gordon Gibson put his name forward. Gibson had been the lone BC Liberal in the Legislature from 1975-1979 before the party slipped into sleep mode for 12 years, and had a family history in the party that led back to the 1950s with his father Gordon Gibson Sr. (‘Bull of the Woods‘) serving prominently as BC Liberal MLA and thorn in the side of the Socreds.
All eyes then turned to yet another Gordon, Mayor Campbell. An opening lay before him, but it was not as obvious as it seemed; Campbell was not a member of the BC Liberal Party. Many weren’t sure what he was in terms of partisan labels, though he was seen as a business-oriented, budget-conscious centrist that was in tune with the times.
But leading the BC Liberals? They had been in the political cold until only recently. The BC Liberal brand dated back to 1903, to the advent of party politics in British Columbia. BC Liberals had not governed since being vanquished by the Socreds in 1952 , its elected remnants had been decimated by floor-crossing MLAs in the 1970s, and the party had been further weighed down by its affiliation with the very unpopular P.E. Trudeau federal Liberal government in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Wilson picked up the leadership in 1987 after it had recently improved to 7% of the popular vote, but had no seats. Under his leadership, the party split from the federal wing before the election in 1991 and became an independent provincial party, a pivotal moment, and a precondition of its breakthrough and sustained success.
Campbell contemplated taking on this brand and the shell of an organization. It had about 3,000 members, weak riding associations, an eclectic group of MLAs who were surprised to get elected, and the continued existence of the Social Credit Party on its right flank. In order to be successful, he would need to modernize the BC Liberal Party, demonstrate its independence from the federal Liberals, and make it a vehicle for ‘free enterprise’ in order to wrest power from Mike Harcourt’s NDP government.
By 1993, there was a hunger already for change among non-NDP forces. Mike Harcourt’s NDP government was already taking on water. ‘Tax and spend’ budgets had angered voters in Campbell’s orbit. On April 5, 1993, Campbell headlined a tax revolt rally at Oakridge Mall that drew over 4,000 angry taxpayers. The issue was the NDP’s move to restrict the homeowner grant. It set off a brushfire. The Oakridge rally seemed to make the idea of an anti-NDP provincial groundswell more real. Memories of Dave Barrett’s one-and-done NDP government were fresh in the minds of seasoned politicos.
Campbell faced a fork in the road – actually more like a trident. There were three paths: (1) Lead the upstart BC Liberals; (2) Revive the Socreds which had a deeper organization and governing experience; or (3) Form a new free enterprise movement and bring the two other parties together.
All options had flaws.
The 1993 Socreds had a deeply damaged brand, lacked an urban sensibility, and were of another generation. A new party would be greeted with stiff resistance by both parties, and without any seats, would be on the outside looking in with no guarantees of gaining a foothold. Despite some brand baggage, at least the federal Liberals had been out of power for nine years, and antipathies toward the word ‘Liberal’ had faded. The BC Liberals had a relatively fresh sheet with the voters and were the Official Opposition, keeping them front and centre in Question Period for the foreseeable future.
Thus, sometime in April 1993, Campbell decided to take the plunge and make it a race of the ‘Three Gordons’ (and a Linda, Wilf, Allan, and Charles). He had heard from many BC Liberals that pledged their support, mitigating fears that it would be perceived as a hostile takeover. In fact, as a non-member, it was very important for Campbell to be invited, even drafted to run, and not press too hard appearing to want the leadership. Party members came to him throughout April. Wilson, while admired for his breakthrough, never had a deep organization behind him and seemed even weaker now. Gibson was respected for his thought leadership and policy focus, but had been out of elected politics for 14 years and was not as well known in the general public.
Campbell made it clear from the outset that he was running to be the leader of the BC Liberal Party and not looking to broker a coalition of parties. He stated his view to the media, shaped by his experience in Vancouver, when he launched his leadership bid:
“I don’t think it’s a question of parties. Frankly I think that is obsolete thinking. It is not bringing parties together; it is bringing people together that will make a difference. I am not trying to lead the Social Credit party. I am trying to lead the Liberal party. I am not in favor of the Socred way. That would be a step backward. I am not seeking a coalition.”
Campbell was newer and fresh. He had no provincial political baggage, though much was made of his business community ‘Howe Street’ connections, similar to a federal political mantra of the time – ‘Bay Street vs Main Street’ – pushed by the federal NDP. The attack sought to convey that he was more interested in business elites than regular people. The BC NDP picked its theme early and hammered it for years, not to mention Campbell’s leadership rivals playing it up.
Four MLAs from the 17-member caucus backed him from the beginning along with a cross-section of active BC Liberal members, federal Liberals, some Progressive Conservatives, but the added oomph came from two places – the NPA network in Vancouver, a highly effective political machine at that time, and from mayors and councillors around BC that he had met through his service with the UBCM. Campbell had built up friendships around the province that would belie charges that his support was too Vancouver-centric.
From the Hotel Vancouver, he headed straight to the airport and flew to Kamloops for an evening event on day one. Day two would see him hit the road to Williams Lake then onto Prince George. It was felt he needed to get out of Vancouver to campaign as soon as possible, to send a message. A campaign office was procured at City Square Mall, across the street from City Hall. The grande dame of Liberals in BC, May Brown, chaired his campaign, along with young BC Liberal MLA Gary Collins, who saw the need for the caucus and the party to evolve its leadership. From there, it was four months of relentless travel to sink his roots deeper in the party, and around the province. The NPA brought membership strength in the city, and the municipal network put meat on the bones outside Vancouver.
One odd aspect of this leadership process was that the rules had not been confirmed at the outset. There were existing rules, but the party executive expressed a strong preference to move to a universal ballot, instead of a delegated convention. In addition, it favoured an unweighted ‘one member one vote system’. This basically meant there was one ballot box; whoever got the most absolute votes province-wide would win. However, in order to effect these changes, there needed to be a party convention to approve the rules, with two-thirds support required.
On July 31st, BC Liberals convened at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver. The Campbell campaign favoured the executive’s recommendation for one member one vote, and the Gibson campaign advocated for regionally-weighted results, so that every riding was equal.
The Campbell campaign was not too concerned about regional weighting – it could win either way. It favoured one member, one vote, in part, to support the party recommendation, but also from a practical perspective of campaigning, it was very focused on membership sales wherever they could be found. Regional weighting would have shifted the focus to gaming out 75 micro-campaigns. The Gibson campaign felt regional weighting was the right way to go for its interests, given Campbell’s strength in the City, and its own regional perspective (and it should be noted that the BC Liberals and other parties now use regional weighting).
Next came what turned out to be a defining moment in the leadership race. There was a heated debate on the convention floor with a long lineup of speakers. Campbell and Gibson supporters were bedecked in t-shirts, with floor captains directing traffic. Campbell delegates were instructed to stay in place and not even consider leaving the room. At last, voting cards were raised, and a manual count tabulated. The vote was 460-229 in favour of the executive’s recommendation for one member, one vote (province-wide).
As it needed two-thirds support, this meant it passed – by one vote.
The crowd was stunned, then jubilation erupted among the Campbell delegates while Gibson delegates despaired. The chair of the meeting paused, then proceeded to the next item. No immediate demand for a recount was heard. The rules were set. Campbell’s team had demonstrated considerable organizational strength at the convention and it carried through to the leadership vote.
By the time the vote was held on September 11, it was fairly clear Campbell would win. The membership of the party had grown to over 15,000, much of it driven by Campbell’s campaign. By that point, it was only a question of by how much, and whether it would need more than one ballot.
This was a real issue facing Campbell’s team – what if it did need a second ballot? This was pre-Internet. The party was using a technology called “TeleVote” where members received a code in the mail and voted their first ballot choice by phone, then waited for the results by listening to the radio or trying to find it on TV. It was not a preferential ballot, as is used today in most leadership elections.
Had it gone to a second ballot, turnout likely would have dropped off a cliff. But it didn’t get that far. Campbell won the Battle of the Three Gordons decisively with 63% of the vote on the first ballot, with Gibson in second, and Wilson well back in third.
While the leadership race had been hard work, Campbell faced little resistance. He had a blank canvas. He could redefine what it meant to be a BC Liberal, and he did. The BC Liberals were shaping up to be a real contender, led by a four-time winner from the province’s largest city. But what he had just gone through was dwarfed by his challenge going forward.
While there was goodwill from most in his caucus, and a gem in Fred Gingell who led the caucus in the interim, it was not Campbell’s team and it would take a while to learn to work together (Wilson, and his wife Judi Tyabji, left caucus immediately after the leadership vote to start a new party). Campbell matched up well against Harcourt, but it was NDP enforcer Glen Clark who would inflict political damage with relentless attacks and emerge as his main rival. Campbell had to raise money, find his way into the Legislature, win over old Socreds and Conservatives resistant to the BC Liberal brand, learn the cadence of provincial politics, recruit a campaign team, and help a 30-year old country lawyer in Matsqui take on the most experienced campaigner in British Columbia, and new leader of the Socreds, Grace McCarthy, in a titanic byelection battle.
The rest is history, as they say. Campbell encountered many obstacles and suffered setbacks. Winning the popular vote in 1996, but losing the election. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he decided to gut it out, spending almost eight long, and, sometimes, miserable years in opposition. He triumphed in a 77-2 electoral landslide in 2001 and launched the ‘New Era for British Columbia’, the slogan of his winning campaign. The BC Liberal franchise from Campbell to Christy Clark would win the popular vote six consecutive times between 1996 and 2017 and earned majorities four consecutive times.
Over time, the makeup of the BC Liberals changed, but from the time of his leadership win, Liberals who had fled the Vander Zalm Socreds or had never warmed up to them in the first place, were at the heart of contending for power, building a party where everyone on the non-NDP side of the ledger were welcomed. Candidates and staff with Liberal pedigrees, and liberal sensibilities, took key roles, alongside those with Socred, Progressive Conservative pedigrees, and conservative sensibilities. And many had no evident federal leanings at all.
That new BC Liberal identity was being formed. It was a vehicle that occupied the centre/centre-right of the political spectrum, united mainly by economic and fiscal policy, and represented a foundation from which Campbell could move. While a formal coalition of parties never did happen, a de facto coming together of ‘free enterprise’ voters took place.
The new definition of BC Liberal would begin to mean something – not to everyone’s liking, and especially not to some die-hard Liberals who had campaigned for Wilson or were resistant to Campbell’s policy approach, but it was being legitimized to a plurality of voters in urban and rural B.C. The party left behind some of the idealists, and some unwilling to make necessary compromises to grow the party, and attracted the pragmatists and those wanting to be part of building something new. He was careful not to get drawn into federal politics, following an instinct that served him well with the NPA. He recruited a new generation of provincial politicians from all stripes. The class of 1996 was young, with the mainstream in their 30s and 40s, and he led them to government five years later.
Turning away from the Social Credit Party and building, essentially, a new party under the BC Liberal brand, under a young but experienced leader, ultimately was a winning model. The Party gained a new life in 1987 when Gordon Wilson took it on and delivered the miracle breakthrough. Campbell benefited from the shakeup in the landscape, and proved that he could take it to the next step, albeit later than he hoped. Christy Clark extended the life of the BC Liberal government for six additional years until 2017.
What if? What if Campbell had not run for the BC Liberal leadership? The landscape would be very different today. Perhaps Gordon Gibson would have led the party from 1993 on; perhaps new Socred leader Grace McCarthy would have won the Matsqui by-election and the Socreds would have hung in there longer. Different circumstances may have kept Campbell out of provincial politics indefinitely or forever. Who knows? It’s hard to imagine Campbell being in any role in provincial politics other than leader.
Today, the BC Liberal brand has been relegated to the dustbin in favour of BC United. Lessons can be learned from the BC Liberal rise to power, how it aligned with a new generation in politics, and the struggle to win.
Looking back, the BC Liberals had a remarkable 30-year period from 1987 to 2017. For almost 18 years during that span, Gordon Campbell led the party, serving close to a decade as premier. And it all started at the Hotel Vancouver on May 5th, 1993.
Mike McDonald served under all three BC Liberal leaders who led the party from 1987 – 2017. He worked for Gordon Campbell from 1992-2003, as Special Assistant in the Mayor’s Office, Campaign Director in the 1993 leadership campaign, and in various other roles in the party, Premier’s Office, and Government Caucus. He was Chief of Staff to Premier Christy Clark.