It was political theatre at its best, and it played for 35 suspenseful days. British Columbia Premier William Vander Zalm set the stage last Dec. 13 when, after his Social Credit party’s sixth successive byelection loss to the New Democratic Party, he announced that he would reconsider his political future. Appearing contrite and even humbled by the string of defeats, his popularity plummeting in opinion polls and seemingly bruised by defections from his cabinet and caucus, Vander Zalm retreated behind the crenellated walls of his mock-castle home on the grounds of the Fantasy Gardens theme park south of Vancouver. Finally, in a provincewide televised address last week, Vander Zalm ended speculation about his intentions—and dashed the hopes of his political opponents. Informing viewers that he had decided to stay on as premier, Vander Zalm declared, “I’ve got a job to finish.”
For more than a month,
Vander Zalm’s playful hints about his plans—interspersed with rallies staged by his supporters, a public plea from his own son for his resignation and a flurry of letters to and from the premier’s office—had alternately entertained and exasperated British Columbians. But the anticlimax was unique in Canadian political history—and as unexpected as the spectacle of a leader of a majority government in its first term in office taking to the airwaves to announce that he was not going to quit. Observed Winnipeg-based pollster Angus Reid, who regularly surveys public opinion in British Columbia: “He was able to control the political agenda for five weeks. It was masterful.”
But it was also a measure of the unique quality of B.C. politics, as well as of the rarely matched string of controversies that has entangled the three-year-old Socred administration. Vander Zalm used his 21-minute address on Jan. 17 to rebut criticism of his controversial stance on abortion, allegations that he interfered in the sale of land left vacant after the close of Expo 86, his role in a questionable plebiscite on a neighborhood pub licence and
his decision to block the distribution of condoms in high schools and an educational video on AIDS. He struck out at his critics and the media and hammered the federal government over high interest rates and its proposed Goods and Services Tax. Then, Vander Zalm concluded with an extraordinary commitment to reconcile Canada’s constitutional impasse over the Meech Lake accord.
Despite the defiant tone of the message,
however, some observers concluded that Vander Zalm’s political future remained in doubt. Noted political scientist Ken Carty of the University of British Columbia: “It isn’t at all clear that he would stay around to fight the next election”—which must be called before October, 1991. And there were indications that some former dissident Socreds might act as early as this week to activate a new right-wing alternative to the Social Credit party under a name—the B.C. Private Enterprise Party— that was discreetly registered with the provincial Registrar of Companies five days before the premier’s address.
Meanwhile, Vander Zalm’s declaration that the Meech Lake accord was “unacceptable to the people of British Columbia,” launched the mercurial premier into a fresh controversy. For his part, Vander Zalm insisted in interviews following his address that he was not reversing his position on the accord—which he signed in June, 1987, and the B.C. legislature ratified in June, 1988. Instead, he said that he had developed what he called “a very innovative and very effective new framework” to save the constitutional pact. Details of the proposals were to be released this week. But one official close to the premier told Maclean ’s that the plan—delivered to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on Jan. 19—contained five points designed “to make all of the participants feel equal, with no special privileges for any sector.” Added the official: “If that entails identifying all of Canada’s distinct societies, so be it”—a reference to the contentious clause in the accord that sets Quebec apart within Confederation as a “distinct society.”
In Ottawa, a spokesman for Mulroney acknowledged at the week’s end that the Prime Minister had discussed Vander Zalm’s proposals with him during a telephone call on Friday—but declined to reveal their details. Earlier, Mulroney, noting that Vander Zalm had defended the accord since signing it, remarked dryly of the B.C. premier’s latest initiative: “He is a man of principle. Mr. Vander Zalm would not do anything inconsistent.” But in Quebec City, Premier Robert Bourassa repeated his assertion that any modification of the accord was “unrealistic.” For the flamboyant B.C. premier, however, it was just g the latest twist in a roUer| coaster political career. After ” taking over his party in 1986 _ following the resignation of 8 his predecessor, William Ben1/1 nett, Vander Zalm led the Socreds to the largest majority in the province’s history. In the Oct. 22,1988, election, the party won 49 seats to the NDP’s 20. But by last month, Socred defections and the NDP’s string of half a dozen byelection victories had reduced that margin to seven seats from 29. The present standings in the B.C. legislature: 38 Socreds, 26 NDP, and five Independents—four of them former Socred caucus members who resigned over Vander Zalm’s leadership.
Socred critics of Vander Zalm’s stewardship point to a poll conducted by Winnipeg’s Reid and published 11 days before last week’s address as evidence that he should leave office for the good of the party. Reid’s survey indicated
that 46 per cent of respondents preferred the NDP under leader Michael Harcourt to a Socred party headed by Vander Zalm—the choice of 31 per cent. Still, an overwhelming majority of respondents (73 per cent) said that Vander Zalm was doing a good job of encouraging business activity in the province.
Accordingly, Vander Zalm devoted the first portion of his speech to a recital of glowing indicators of his province’s economic health. Among other things, the provincial workforce grew by six per cent in 1989, compared with the national average of two per cent; capital investment climbed by 21 per cent compared with 11; and retail sales rose by 11 per cent compared with six. Last year, the premier noted, British Columbia tabled the country’s only balanced budget, and a second balanced budget is due before the end of March.
But then Vander Zalm turned to the controversies that have dogged his administration. Perhaps the most emotional one has revolved around the devout Roman Catholic premier’s anti-abortion stance. Following the Supreme Court of Canada’s January, 1988, decision striking down the federal abortion law, Vander Zalm declared that the province would not fund abortions unless the mother’s life was at stake, even in cases of rape or incest. In March, 1988, the B.C. Supreme Court struck that policy down as illegal.
Two other controversies the same year involved Vander Zalm’s relationship with developer—and former Vander Zalm fund raiser—Peter Toigo. In one instance, opponents accused the premier of interfering in the sale of the former Expo 86 lands on behalf of his friend. An RCMP investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing—but two of his cabinet ministers resigned in protest over his role in the affair. On another occasion, the provincial ombudsman revealed that falsified ballots had been employed in a plebiscite that led to a Vancouver pub—built, but no longer owned, by Toigo—receiving a liquor license. The private firm that conducted the plebiscite was owned by the manager of Vander Zalm’s leadership campaign. Last week, the B.C. premier insisted that he had known nothing of the events surrounding the pub—and that he had only sought the best deal for British Columbia in the sale of the Expo 86 lands.
Vander Zalm also swept aside opposition charges that he was wrong to have blocked the release of an educational AIDS video and the sale of condoms in high schools—saying that the video needed improvement and that parents should decide whether their children receive condoms.
As if to underscore the message that he has learned from his past brushes with controversy, Vander Zalm acted swiftly on Friday when media reports revealed that a wholly owned subsidiary of B.C. Hydro was on the point of leasing space in a Kamloops office building that he owns. Vander Zalm scrapped the deal.
And despite an accusation by the NDP’s Harcourt that his address had “more to do with fantasy than facts,” there was at least one early indication that Vander Zalm’s new undertak-
ings were proving persuasive to voters. In a poll taken over the two evenings following his television appearance, Winnipeg’s Reid found that 48 per cent of respondents agreed with the premier’s decision to stay—compared with 42 per cent who said that he should have resigned. Noting that the element in Vander Zalm’s speech that drew the most approval was his commitment to seek changes in the Meech accord, Reid commented, “The Social Credit party appears to have picked up new support as a result of this initiative.”
Whether that new approval rating would silence Vander Zalm’s Socred critics, however,
remained to be seen. For his part, Vander Zalm declared last week that “there is no room for dissenters” within the party. Significantly, 11 of Vander Zalm’s 23 cabinet ministers found reasons not to join him in watching the broadcast of last week’s pre-taped statement in his Victoria office. For British Columbia’s unpredictable premier, plainly, the new challenge was to turn last week’s unexpected denouement into an enduring political advantage.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.