CANADA

British Columbia’s political malaise

JANE O'HARA August 12 1985
CANADA

British Columbia’s political malaise

JANE O'HARA August 12 1985

British Columbia’s political malaise

CANADA

Three years ago British Columbia’s Social Credit government introduced the word “restraint” into the provincial political lexicon as a watchword for government thrift while Premier William Bennett tried to coax the province out of the worst recession since the 1930s. Now, with British Columbia transformed into a have-not province despite the gradual recovery elsewhere in the country, and polls showing the Socreds to be in deep disfavor with the electorate, Bennett’s government is trying hard to expunge any memory of the word restraint from the minds of British Columbians. Typically, the 53-year-old Bennett joined Vancouver businessmen at a breakfast meeting late last month to assure them that they lived in the most beautiful province in Canada and that “we should be feeling upbeat. We should be feeling positive.”

During a flurry of activity designed to bolster spirits in the province, Bennett last week travelled to Chemainus on Vancouver Island, where he officiated at the opening of a new sawmill by MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. Earlier, he donned a bright blue hard hat and screwed in a commemorative panel to mark the completion of the B.C. Pavilion at Expo 86, the $1.5-billion world’s transportation fair scheduled to open in Vancouver next May. “Bennett,” noted Donald Blake, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, “is

trying to reduce the level of suspicion and hostility and lower the political temperature of the province.”

It may take much more than Bennett’s boosterism to rally public confidence in the wake of draconian government cutbacks that began 26 months ago and in the end put 12,686 civil servants and schoolteachers out of work, eliminated or reduced a wide range of social services and raised income taxes for British Columbians by an average of eight per cent—all in the name of economic recovery.

Now, with world markets for the province’s key mining and forestry industries still depressed, unemployment is the province’s most serious problem. In June, some 205,000 British Columbians were still out of work—fully 14.8 per cent of the provincial labor force, compared to a national average of 10.5 per cent. And despite generous new tax incentives and grants extended to the business sector in Finance Minister Hugh Curtis’s budget last March, the economy remains painfully sluggish—though the Conference Board of Canada predicts encouraging growth in 1985, with the

provincial economy projected to grow by three per cent in terms of real domestic product.

In the meantime, some pollsters have detected the existence of a widespread malaise within the province and an antigovernment trend in the Vancouver region.

An influential private study conducted in April by Toronto’s Decima Research Ltd. concluded that “depression seems to be exactly what British Columbians are suffering from.” As a consequence, the popularity of the Bennett government has slumped. According to a poll carried out in British Columbia’s lower mainland area in June by 3 Vancouver’s Marktrend Marketing Research, 25.7 per cent of the 501 respondents backed the opposition New Democratic Party, compared to 22.6 per cent for Bennett’s Socreds, 9.6 per cent for the Liberals and three per cent for the Conservatives —with 25.3 per cent undecided.

The disillusionment is felt even within the ranks of the Social Credit party itself. Said John Gilchrist, a former executive director of the party: “The party is in terrible shape. I think it’s just disintegrating.” Anthony Beks, a former president of the Victoria constituency of the young Socred movement, quit the party six months ago because he was unhappy with the direction the party was taking. Said Bek: “Party policy often seems to be for a select group of people rather than for the general good of the province.”

Still, there is no sign of any serious movement within the party to replace Bennett, who is in his 10th year as premier. And his suddenly increased visibility around the province suggests that he may already be campaigning for the next provincial election. Although Bennett, whose government was reelected for the second time in May, 1983, could I wait until 1988, there is u speculation that he

might call a snap pre-Expo election in the hope of exploiting the euphoria that the world fair could generate. Bennett, says NDP Leader Bob Skelly, who expects an election as early as next April, “has been running for re-election since January, when he started sending out reports to all local newspapers in British Columbia telling them the restraint campaign has been successful.”

For his part, Skelly, a moderatesounding politician who replaced former premier Dave Barrett as NDP leader in May, 1984, has been working to overcome the image of the NDP as a party of interventionists, a legacy of Barrett’s period as premier from 1972-75. The party’s spirits were buoyed last November when New Democrats won two byelections. But Bennett’s party is still solidly in control of the 57-seat legislature. When the house rose for the summer recess in June, Social Credit held 34 seats, the NDP 22 and the five-monthold, middle-of-the-road United Party one seat.

Evidence of widespread discontent with the Socreds has even given new hope to the Liberals, a party that has not held a seat provincially since 1979. With the added encouragement of national leader John Turner’s federal election victory in Vancouver Quadra last September, provincial leader Art Lee says that British Columbians are “dissatisfied with the government and skeptical of the NDP,” and “they are looking at us as a better way.”

Bennett’s efforts to rejuvenate the economy have included about $4.3 billion worth of major projects around the province—including a major coal-mining project in the province’s northeast, which has suffered from declining world coal prices, the construction of a rapid transit system for the lower mainland and a major bridge and highway construction program.

But British Columbians are still gloomy about the province’s economic prospects. Unemployment, according to the Decima survey, is “the most important issue facing British Columbia today.” And Bennett was forcibly reminded of that when he visited the lower mainland community of White Rock two weeks ago. At a meeting held to promote Expo 86, a placard-carrying demonstrator interrupted the premier’s speech by shouting, “We want jobs.” Retorted Bennett: “I’ll give you a job. If you take that sign and wave it up and down you could keep all these people cool.” But until British Columbia’s beleaguered economy shows signs of rebirth, he will need more than repartee and sloganeering to preserve the Socreds’ domination of the volatile province.

DIANE LUCKOW

-JANE O'HARA with DIANE LUCKOW in Vancouver