As he watches a seemingly never-ending scandal dog his leadership, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might be wise to study how recent B.C. political party leaders handled their own times of trouble. Some of them survived, others did not.
Trudeau is fending off what appears to be a coup attempt from a couple of members of his own caucus. We have several examples of leadership crisis to draw from B.C. political history, and they are scattered over the past 30 years or so.
And the prime minister can take heart in the fact that various B.C. leadership “crises” show that if a leader doesn’t want to step down it can be difficult and take a long time for a caucus to force a change at the top.
Take former premier Bill Vander Zalm, who endured almost three years of internal turmoil as calls for his resignation mounted almost daily. Some caucus members were actively scheming to dump him, but it took a formal finding of a conflict-of-interest against him to force him to step down.
Then there is an example of a leader who probably could have stuck things out but instead threw in the towel early on. That would be former NDP premier Mike Harcourt, whose government was engulfed by the so-called Bingogate scandal.
Harcourt knew someone in the party had to pay the ultimate price for the scandal, and when no party officials stepped forward, he decided to fall on his own sword. He could have survived the scandal, but he opted to avoid what was going to be a bruising recovery.
His successor, Glen Clark, knew he was politically dead the minute RCMP officers showed up at his house (with a television news crew in tow) but instead of resigning immediately, he opted to stick it out almost six months before quitting.
Early in his first term B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell was hit with an impaired driving charge, and to many it looked like his career was over. But he persevered in the face of massive criticism and won two more elections (he finally resigned when it looked like his caucus was going to revolt over the HST debacle).
Leadership duels can befall Opposition parties as well. That is what happened to NDP leader Carole James in 2011, when 13 of her caucus members announced they could not support her leadership. James wanted to hang on and boot the dissidents from caucus, but realized she was now captaining a sinking ship and reluctantly quit as leader.
Campbell’s successor, Christy Clark, had a full-blown caucus rebellion on her hands in the run-up to the 2013 election. Some MLAs were openly mocking her and agitating for her departure. But she stared her detractors down, and unexpectedly won the election.
Trudeau has six months before he enters the election campaign. So far, two ministers have quit on him and effectively challenged his honour.
One of them – Jane Philpott – dropped a lengthy resignation letter that questioned the integrity of the government. Bizarrely, both her and former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Reybould continue to sit in the government caucus.
Every day the Opposition parties are using the SNC-Lavalin affair to batter the Liberal government. Trudeau has not helped matters much through his fairly inept and inconsistent communications strategy (assuming there is an actual “strategy” in play).
At some point, more damaging information may surface, which will give this story the proverbial “legs” to keep the issue front and center. On the other hand, perhaps the air is seeping out the balloon, and the dial will eventually turn to a different channel. However, history shows unless a lot more caucus members join those two ex-ministers (or the police get involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair) in their apparent challenge of his leadership, Trudeau will lead his party into the October election.
With the federal election drawing so close, there is not enough time to change leaders and there is no apparent successor. Even slumping poll numbers will not be enough to push Trudeau out, or convince him to step aside.
He need only look to B.C.’s rich trove of leadership controversies to provide him with examples of when to hang on, and when to walk away.
Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global BC. Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca
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