Flashback Friday – Kim Campbell

So it was bothering me that I had yet to feature a woman on Flashback Friday, but since this is a feature largely reserved for former American Presidents and Canadian Prime Ministers, there is really only one option. So I decided not to prolong it anymore and feature Kim Campbell in this week’s post. Campbell has the distinction of being the first and only woman to become Prime Minster of Canada. Unfortunately, she also has the distinction of leading her party to the worst electoral thumping ever witnessed in Canada. Her time as Prime Minister was brief, less than five months, and she never actually lived in 24 Sussex or sat in parliament as Prime Minister. So why did Canada turn on a leader who initially had very high approval ratings before the election of 1993? It was a series of blunders and a predecessor who killed his party that brought down Canada’s only female Prime Minister.

Born Avril Phaedra Douglas Campbell, she has lived most of her life in British Columbia. As is the case with many future leaders, she was active in politics at a young age. After graduating from high school she received a degree in political science from UBC. She then won a scholarship for a PhD at the London School of Economics, where she specialized in Soviet Studies. She never did complete the PhD, and moved back to Vancouver teaching at UBC and Vancouver Community College. She then went on to study law at UBC.

It was while she was studying law that she first became involved in politics, outside of a school setting. She served on the Vancouver School Board for four years, and was approached to run as a Social Credit candidate in the 1984 provincial election. While she did not win the seat, it cemented her within the conservative movement in that province. She became an advisor to Premier Bill Bennett. Upon Bennett’s retirement in 1986, she ran for the leadership of the Socreds. She lost to Bill Vander Zalm. I can’t help but wonder how different British Columbia’s politics would have been if Campbell had beat Vander Zalm. The Socreds were killed by Vander Zalm’s scandalous resignation. Perhaps they would still be around had Campbell won? But all speculation aside, her loss at the provincial level was an opportunity for her to be courted by the federal PC’s, thus charting her course for becoming Prime Minister.

In the federal election of 1988, Campbell ran as a Progressive Conservative. She won the riding of Vancouver Centre, and was given a junior cabinet post by Prime Minister Mulroney. It was not long after that when he then offered her the position of Minister of Justice, that position that gained her respect for her clout as a politician. Campbell was the first female Minister of Justice, but by this point she had become used to being the first female in many positions. She right away had to deal with gun control, in the wake of the Montreal Massacre. The challenge was to balance the desires of increased safety, with the concerns of gun owners. One of her most memorable bills was Bill C-49. This had to do with victims’ rights during a sexual assault trial. Furthermore, the bill was remarkable, in that it remained constitutional, while still protecting victims. In a rare move, the bill was supported unanimously ball all three parties in commons. In 1993, Campbell received a new portfolio as Minister of National Defence. It was not one she held for long, as Mulroney announced his retirement, but she had to deal with issues as soon as she received the position.

Controversy irrupted after this bare shoulder portrait of Campbell as Justice Minister

Campbell was only in Parliament for a short time, when she was encouraged to run for the leadership of the PC’s. It was a brave decision, as Campbell had only been in parliament for one term, did not have long standing ties to the PC party, and was hardly a veteran politician. But those characteristics helped her in 1993. The party and Canada had grown weary of Mulroney’s polished, technical and elite style of governing. Jean Charest, who would go on to succeed Campbell, was her main opponent for the leadership in 1993. Campbell talked plainly while campaigning for the leadership and sported signs that simply said ‘Kim”. She went on to narrowly beat Charest.

Since she was the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament, Campbell automatically became Prime Minister. She enjoyed a honeymoon phase with her party and the electorate, which is not uncommon. Canadians seemed receptive to her down to earth style and honesty. These would be two things that would come back to bite her though. In her brief time as Prime Minister, she was able to trim cabinet, while adding some new portfolios. She attended a G7 summit and attempted to introduce herself to Canadians. In an informal tour of the country, she was able to win many supporters, and the country seemed to like their new leader. She unfortunately did not have time to strengthen this relationship more, as she was forced to call a fall election.

The campaign is where things really began to fall apart. It was going to be an uphill battle for Campbell and the PC’s to shake the negative image of Mulroney. The country was still divided over free trade, the GST had been introduced and the country was still recovering from years of dreaded constitutional reform. If she wanted to win, Campbell needed to prove she was not a Mulroney puppet, and show she could be effective at managing the economy. She also needed to come up with some other issues to steer the discussion away from the GST, something her Liberal opponent Jean Chretien said he would get rid of (but obviously did not). Campbell oddly said during the campaign that she believed this was not the time to be discussing issues. Obviously, this was a huge mistake, as many believe the main reason for fighting election campaigns is the discussion of issues. In some ways, Campbell is correct. Campaigns are not the time to be discussing issues, but rather putting your message to the voters, in such as manner as to win you support. Unfortunately, she was dragged across the coals for the comment.

Her honesty, which was once an admired quality, soon became a liability. In media interviews, and speeches, Campbell made blunders, which were repeated in the media over and over. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes made by her campaign was the decision to air an ad questioning if Jean Chretien looked like a Prime Minister. The ad was obviously directed at Chretien’s facial paralysis, and showed many unflattering pictures of him. It was a complete and utter disaster. Despite their attempts to state otherwise, it was clear they were saying Chretien should not be elected based on his looks and manner of speech. That is unacceptable, and the decision to create such an ad was a major error in judgement.

As the first female Prime Minister, Campbell suffered under what can be shown to be biased media coverage. The manner in which the media spoke of Campbell was very different from the manner in which they discussed the other male leaders. What is interesting about 1993, is that Campbell was joined in the debates and campaign by another female party leader. Audrey McLaughlin was the leader of the NDP, however her media coverage was more favourable. Of course, she was not the incumbent Prime Minister, and thus did not receive the same level of coverage. In the debates, Campbell stood her ground and performed well, but it is very clear that her statements lacked any concrete plans. They were generalities, and easily attacked by her opposition.

On election day in 1993, the worst of the worst occurred for the PC party. They went from governing with 169 seats, to just 2. To add to the loss, Campbell herself was defeated in Vancouver Centre. Such a dramatic shift in support is almost incomprehensible. What made the loss so significant was the impact of the new Bloc Quebecois and Reform parties. Their success came at the expense of the PC’s and allowed the Liberals to sneak up the middle with a manufactured majority. Campbell stayed on until December, when she resigned as PC leader and left politics. Without a seat in the House of Commons, and after such a dramatic loss she really had no choice.

So what is the reason for Campbell downfall? How much blame does she deserve and how much blame should be placed on her predecessor? That is difficult to answer. There is no question, the PC’s were likely to go down to defeat. A PC victory in 1993 would have been outstanding. I don’t think Campbell can be necessarily blamed for the loss. What she does deserve blame for is the atrocious campaign, which took a party which was struggling, and accelerated its death. Had the Reform and Bloc not been present in 1993, there is no doubt the result would have been different. The PC’s could have remained the official opposition, and at the very least, would have maintained official party status.

Campbell's official portrait

Since leaving politics, Campbell has remained very active. She maintains a website and blog about her current life. Most of her time has been spent outside of Canada, in various positions. While I think it is HIGHLY unlikely, I would be interested to see how she would be received if she ever returned to Canadian politics. She is a highly intelligent woman, who has and will continue to positively impact the world, but seeing her back in the House of Commons would be so much fun to watch. Although she had a difficult and short tenure as Prime Minister, the opportunities it has afforded her since leaving office seem to be well suited to her talents.

http://archives.cbc.ca/politics/prime_ministers/topics/2084/ (The ad about Chretien looking unlike a Prime Minister).
http://www.bitesizechunks.org/blog/ (Campbell’s blog).


About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on December 3, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. im kim ever returns to politics, nobody will see beyond her failure as PM. i think she is better off not re-dipping in the pot which poisoned her political career…

  2. I think she was a woman ahead of the time (not just her time). I don’t think Canada was ready for a woman prime minister. This comment is not meant to be a sexist comment. Just my opinion. I believe that the best person for the job should hold the job. Be that a man or a woman.

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