Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Give Campbell a break - he's from B.C. you know

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No, it's not that there's something strange in the water out here.

True, British Columbians have gone through a half-dozen premiers in 10 years. Some we've lynched, others we've just airbrushed out of the official photographs. And yes, when we're not carrying Salvatore Allende up the steps of the legislature on our victorious shoulders, we're goose-stepping behind Augusto Pinochet to the nearest football stadium.

It's also true that the oligarchs of Howe Street duly selected our current premier, and the high priests of the conglomerate now called Canwest Global anointed him by their own sacraments, and the voters confirmed these things and made Gordon Campbell our 34th premier in a 77 out of 79-seat landslide a mere 18 months ago.

It must also be admitted that with every passing West Coast morning, Campbell's image and likeness is appearing on ever more coffee mugs, T-shirts, voodoo dolls, barbecue aprons, votive candles and lunchboxes. And it's true that these things are all accumulating ominously beneath the bloody altar at the epicentre of that central British Columbian political custom, the ritual sacrifice-by-media frenzy.

But there are rational explanations for this. I'm sorry, but there are no endemic hallucinogenic microbes in the drinking water out here, thank you very much.

There is nothing much that needs to be said about the specific circumstances of the event that still consumes the obsessive attention of B.C.'s television news programs, radio hotline shows and daily newspapers, all these days later.

We have all seen Campbell's mugshot plastered on the front pages, his smile the degenerate rictus of just another drunk tourist hauled into the Wailuku police station after being noticed driving erratically on the Honoapiilani Highway in the wee hours. We know that in the hours before dawn on Friday, Jan. 10, he registered a blood-alcohol level of .149, almost twice the legal limit in both Maui and B.C. And we know the dimensions of the drunk tank he was left in, what was written on the walls, and the fact that he paid his own $257 bail the following morning.

We've been allowed to study pictures of the palm trees around Campbell's Napili Kai Beach redoubt. We've seen the sunny enclosure where Campbell wiled away the hours alone, with furrowed brow, at his accounts and balance sheets, pen in hand. We've considered the sympathetic utterances of deeply tanned Los Angeles divorcees who took an interest in the vaguely distinguished-looking man, all by himself all those days. Campbell's last hours of supposed innocence have been drawn so vividly you can almost hear Dean Martin on the poolside hi-fi.

We have also been presented with a range of purported harbingers, such as the suicide of Campbell's alcoholic father when the premier was just a boy. We are now all similarly conversant with the event's epilogue, enlivened as it has been by the lamentations of Vancouver radio celebrity Fred Latremouille, in whose company and at whose Kihei condominium Campbell became so crapulously sozzled that night.

It's not something in the water. It's the way we discuss politics in British Columbia. It's the way we're allowed to do politics here. It's the ritual that we are incessantly admonished to judge our politicians solely on how precisely and predictably they discharge the ceremonial roles assigned to them by the Vancouver Board of Trade on the right, and by the more amorphously-configured guardians of sanctimony on the left.

Here's how it's played out since that night at Fred's place.

Campbell's transgression demanded an immediate, public act of contrition. This he made last Sunday, on his 55th birthday, with his wife, Nancy, at her obligatory station to the premier's right. Campbell was then universally judged according to the degree to which his "performance" was "convincing." Most said yes, he seems to be appropriately remorseful and generally sorry-assed about himself.

Then Joy MacPhail, who leads a two-member caucus in the pathetic remnant of the once-proud B.C. New Democratic Party, came in perfectly on cue with an exactly predictable degree of dudgeon and umbrage, pronouncing Campbell a disgrace and a hypocrite who must necessarily resign.

This was followed by the equally predictable and similarly lame pleadings by Campbell's caucus and corporate allies, all of whom cited the relevant ecclesiastical references supporting Campbell's continued hold on the premier's office and requiring abeyance of judgment in anticipation of time spent in sackcloth, vigour of penance, severity of self-flagellation, and so on.

Then came the polls. About four in 10 British Columbians say he should stay. Another four say he should go. The final two say they don't know what to say, and the punditry stokes it all along as though it was actually important.

One press gallery wag went so far as to compare Campbell's booze-addled conduct to the disgrace of being caught in a Bangkok brothel, as though there's no difference between making a thoroughly impaired decision to drive home while being utterly knackered and a conscious decision to go whoring in Thailand.

Well, sorry. It just isn't that important.

Even an unrepentant drunk can be an effective politician, which is another truth nobody wants to admit. Sir John A. Macdonald ended up being known as the Father of Confederation, even though his best defence during the "Pacific Scandal," in which he was alleged to have accepted bribes from railway magnate Sir Hugh Allen, was that he couldn't remember much about what happened because he was drunk for a period spanning almost two full years.

Gordon Campbell is no Sir John. He is considered by many British Columbians to be more callously indifferent to human suffering than any B.C. premier since the savagely cruel James Dunsmuir of a century ago. A perfectly reasonable argument can be made that Campbell is tearing apart an already hemorrhaging public service, doling out billions in tax handouts to the elites that elected him, and immolating what little is left of social cohesion in B.C. on the pyre of his own failed, neoconservative ideology.

But that's politics.

Politics is important. It's worth taking seriously, and politics makes its demands of us, as citizens.

To be a citizen requires more than to be a mere poll respondent who pays prurient attention to the sordid and thick-headed private behaviour of our politicians. That's the role we played in the so-called "Casinogate" affair, when Glen Clark was forced to resign from the premier's office because of bogus criminal charges on which he was ultimately acquitted. It was how we lost Mike Harcourt, who was harried out of office in the similarly bogus "Bingogate" affair.

It's not the water. It's the bipolar disorder that afflicts our political culture. It's also about the news media's insistence that we accept scandal as a substitute for honest political debate.

The truth is that it doesn't matter what Campbell does now, as a private citizen. It doesn't matter how furiously he flogs himself in public or how many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings he attends or whether he manages to cry in public a few more times.

It doesn't even matter whether he resigns. Howe Street will just as happily select a successor from his cabinet. The business-page pundits will be only too willing to anoint, say, Finance Minister Gary Collins, in Campbell's stead.

What matters is the hard work of rational debate and solid politics, which means stepping outside the bounds of the ritual. It might mean speaking the unutterable truth now and again, which in this case is that Campbell is fully entitled to some charity in all of this, and that there's actually much more important work to do.

It would mean admitting that, whatever your politics, what happened in Hawaii doesn't really matter at all.

Terry Glavin is a well-known B.C. author, critic and journalist. He is the editor of Transmontanus Books, and lives on Mayne Island, in the Southern Gulf Islands.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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