BUSINESS WATCH

The next premier of British Columbia

NDP Leader Michael Harcourt, the former mayor of Vancouver, is one of those rare politicians without a hidden agenda

Peter C. Newman January 29 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

The next premier of British Columbia

NDP Leader Michael Harcourt, the former mayor of Vancouver, is one of those rare politicians without a hidden agenda

Peter C. Newman January 29 1990

Bill Vander Zalm’s determination not to let political reality deter him from becoming the kamikaze champion of Canadian politics (Richard Hatfield’s record will be hard to beat, but he’s willing to have a shot at it) focuses attention on his most likely successor as premier, the provincial NDP’s avuncular leader, Michael Harcourt.

Six byelection triumphs have highlighted voter swings towards the NDP, but its expected sweep in the next election is based on a more complicated formula. In his unobtrusive but persistent way, Harcourt has expanded his party’s core support to about 37 per cent— placing him significantly ahead of the Social Credit party—while other polls show his personal popularity at 55 per cent, more than 20 percentage points ahead of Vander Zalm. While the Zalm has acted as an ambulatory lightning rod for all his administration’s problems, none of his ministers—with the possible exception of Finance Minister Mel Couvelier—have performed adequately, leaving too many vital issues unresolved. One senior Vancouver businessman describes the cabinet as being “functionally lousy.”

What has kept Social Credit in power for all but three of the past 38 years is that their leaders have successfully whipped up election-campaign images of socialist hordes pouring through the mountain passes, pillaging the homesteads and savaging all that’s sacred in the free enterprise creed. That no longer works. When Highways Minister Rita Johnston recently equated the NDP to Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, adding that “even tanks and guns can’t make socialism work,” she was laughed off the platform.

The problem is that, hard as they try, his opponents can’t make Harcourt look or sound frightening. With the natural big-bear ungainliness of carrying 200 lb. spread over a six-foot, three-inch frame, and the benign appearance of a small-town optometrist, even the editorial cartoonists have a hard time portraying him as anything more fierce than a walking moustache.

His record as mayor of Vancouver from 1980 to 1986 was that of a reform-minded consensus seeker and solid manager of the city’s finances, moving its credit rating up to AAA, while the Social Credit government’s risk ratio dropped. The main worry about any future NDP administration among Vancouver businessmen is less about Harcourt than about his ability to control a much more radical caucus. Harcourt is one of those rare politicians who doesn’t have a hidden agenda—even if he did, you feel he probably wouldn’t know where to hide it.

“It was Tommy Douglas who first got me interested in politics and turned me into a New Democrat,” Harcourt told me during a recent interview. “I worked eight summers as a waiter on the CPR transcontinental trains and once spent three days serving him right across the country. He took time out to talk to a curious young political-science student, and I’ve never forgotten that.”

Harcourt later graduated in law from the University of British Columbia and set up one of the city’s first storefront legal practices before entering municipal politics. “Unlike the Social Credit, which worships free enterprise, I believe in a mixed economy and that if you have too much of either public or private ownership, you get into trouble,” he says. “I’m a Social Democrat and damn proud of it. Unlike the Socreds, who keep wanting to impose their own moral views on the rest of us, I believe in the separation of church and state.” He maintains good contacts with B.C.’s business community, insisting that any NDP government he heads would not move beyond asking them to pay a fair share of taxes, to treat their employees fairly and not to mess up the environment. Harcourt’s toughest platform proposals are aimed at real estate flippers. He would impose an 80-per-cent windfall-profits levy on speculators who sell properties within one year and 60 per cent for sales within two years. To avoid another Expo land-sale debacle, he would lease rather than sell public lands. He would also roll back unjustified rent increases, double grants for seniors housing and close loopholes that allow companies to avoid the provincial property-purchase tax. He is surprisingly uncompromising in his stand against Meech Lake, even though he counted himself among its early supporters. But it is on the issue of aboriginal rights that he might find his government generates the most controversy. The NDP leader flatly declares that he wants outstanding Indian claims to land and resources settled and predicts that such negotiations would eventually produce $9 billion in federal funds and, in turn, 20,000 new jobs for British Columbia.

Harcourt is at his best outlining what will be the main plank of his election platform: cleaning up of the environment and trying to resolve the eternal battle between British Columbia’s loggers and tree-huggers. On top of introducing some mild and overdue measures such as forbidding the export of raw logs, a realistic forest inventory and the outlawing of slash burning, an NDP government would insist that forestry companies do much more selective logging and establish local reforestation programs. “I would hope,” says Harcourt, “that after two or three terms as premier, B.C. forests would be the model instead of an example of how not to do things.”

Instead of perpetuating the current battle between loggers and environmentalists for every valley, he wants to set a provincewide policy. “What is British Columbia except one big watershed?” he asks. “You can’t go to war over every bloody valley. I want to do it rationally, with good land planning. We also want to double the province’s parklands and protect the jobs of workers who blow the whistle on employers who pollute.”

It’s all very ambitious, and even if Social Credit’s fortunes appear to be at a low ebb, they have been able to resurrect themselves before. Perhaps Michael Harcourt’s real problem is that he doesn’t fit the provincial stereotype of what a good politician should be. “For all their periodic fits of morality about good manners and gentility in the legislature,” Rafe Mair, a Vancouver broadcasting personality and former Socred cabinet minister, observed recently, “British Columbians consider politics a blood sport.” In that arena, Michael Harcourt has yet to prove himself.