Campbell exits, his legacy uncertain

Gordon Campbell's evolution on aboriginal rights is remarkable

VICTORIA – Gordon Campbell was in a buoyant mood as he left the legislative chamber after his final question period as premier.

“Free at last, free at last,” he said, quoting a traditional song made famous by U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King. The shackles of high office officially remain around his ankles for another week or so, but with a stand-pat budget awaiting the next premier’s priorities, his 27-year career as an elected politician is effectively over.

Campbell’s place in B.C. history is secure on several fronts, including scheduled elections, reduced business and personal tax rates and a more mature relationship with Ottawa.

There are at least two important areas where his achievements remain in doubt: aboriginal relations and climate change.

In interviews last week, Campbell said his greatest regret was the demise of the Recognition and Reconciliation Act. That law would have recognized a form of aboriginal rights and title across the province, essentially a huge out-of-court settlement for the 90 per cent of B.C. that remains without treaty settlements.

It all collapsed pretty quickly, partly because it was seen as a backroom deal that was to be pushed through before the 2009 election. The mining and forest industries were alarmed, the legislation was held back, aboriginal leaders took it to hearings, and chiefs around the province rejected it as a watered-down version of the rights they believed they could win in court.

It is remarkable that Campbell went from “professional Indian fighter,” as he was characterized by some after his 2002 referendum on treaty settlements, to the architect of the “New Relationship,” arguably a too-generous bid to untie B.C.’s biggest political knot.

The Tsawwassen and Maa-Nulth treaties are important, but they were hashed out the old-fashioned way, with years and lawyers and consultants and sacks of taxpayers’ money. Two northern B.C. Liberal MLAs voted against them; the split remains.

On aboriginal relations, Campbell started deep in his own end and carried the ball at best to midfield.

On climate change, one could say he scored at least a field goal. When I sat down with him last week, he mentioned a recent conference in California he attended with George Schultz, the economist and business executive who rose to be secretary of state for Ronald Reagan.

With plans for a carbon trading system in disarray in the U.S., Campbell said Schultz pointed to B.C.’s revenue neutral carbon tax and said that is exactly what other jurisdictions should be doing to reduce greenhouse gases.

By 2012, the B.C. carbon tax will account for just under seven cents on a litre of gasoline, on top of other fuel taxes B.C. and Ottawa continue to collect. It will set a “carbon price” of $30 a tonne across all fossil fuels.

Campbell is convinced the carbon tax will survive, if not grow. He says leadership candidates should look at continuing the increases that are mandated until 2012, and continuing to offset them with personal and business income tax reductions.

One leadership candidate is already touting the benefits of the carbon tax, and surprisingly, he’s not a B.C. Liberal. The NDP’s John Horgan now admits he was wrong to oppose the tax, but he wants it extended to the non-fuel emissions of heavy industries.

Horgan has also cautiously embraced Campbell’s other main climate effort, run-of-river hydro and wind power, although he wants public ownership through a new BC Hydro division.

Campbell’s climate agenda will have to reach beyond today’s mainly symbolic effort and spread to other jurisdictions if it is going to change the course of B.C. history.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com. tfletcher@blackpress.ca