The B.C. Legislature. Will a knockout or a major screw up change B.C.’s government? (Black Press Media file photo)

The B.C. Legislature. Will a knockout or a major screw up change B.C.’s government? (Black Press Media file photo)

Painful Truth: Waiting for the political fumble

It’s seldom that big catastrophes sink governments

We see political campaigns most clearly with hindsight, and not even that is reliable.

Right now, the NDP, BC Liberals, and Greens are locked in battle for B.C.

Will one land a knockout blow? Worse, will one leader fumble?

One of the most famous political fumbles in Canadian history is very literal – in 1974, Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield was running against Pierre Eliot Trudeau when he tossed around a football with some reporters during an airport stopover.

The Globe and Mail ran a front-page photo of Stanfield fumbling the ball – even though he’d caught it fine plenty of times during the back-and-forth.

After Stanfield’s loss, the photo was seen as emblematic of the way he’d fumbled a campaign against Trudeau, whose popularity had seriously waned since the “Trudeaumania” days of six years earlier.

Some even blamed his loss on the photo.

Was that true, or was it a justification created after the fact?

Stanfield was then in his third election contest against Trudeau. Both were known quantities. If the fumble photo did anything, it likely cemented an already existing idea in voter’s minds.

In politics, the drip-drip-drip of bad news can often be deadly – even if, in retrospect, it seems like there was one big scandal.

Here in B.C., a good example is the downfall of the Social Credit party in 1991.

Bill Vander Zalm had resigned after being embroiled in a conflict of interest scandal over the sale of Fantasy Gardens.

But even before that, there had been a host of controversies, and Vander Zalm had been adept at making them worse.

Both before and after becoming premier, he’d shown a distaste for the way he was portrayed in editorial cartoons, most famously when he sued over a cartoon showing him pulling the wings off a fly.

But Vancouver Sun columnist Roy Peterson hit the Zalm again in the 1980s, when B.C. was subsidizing pro football, but also sending kids out of province for medical treatment because of hospital overcrowding.

Peterson’s simple but brutal cartoon – Vander Zalm in a football uniform, punting a baby between the uprights – drew some attention. But it drew more stories when Vander Zalm publicly complained about it. A simple cartoon summed up in one image two controversies and got under the then-premier’s skin to become a news story in itself.

Did that one cartoon bring down the Social Credit party?

Nope.

But it was one of a host of issues that the public had on its mind by election day in 1991.

One fumble seldom undoes a government. It’s the perception that is slowly created, issue by issue, as voters weigh their leaders. Eventually, it turns into a gut feeling: “This guy’s going to fumble it.”

The problem isn’t when you fumble the football. It’s when the voters take the fumble for granted that you’re in trouble.

Matthew Claxton writes for the Langley Advance Times. For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

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