CANADA

TESTING THE PUBLIC MOOD

WITH ELECTION FEVER MOUNTING, B.C. PREMIER WILLIAM VANDER ZALM CONSIDERS A FALL CAMPAIGN

HAL QUINN October 1 1990
CANADA

TESTING THE PUBLIC MOOD

WITH ELECTION FEVER MOUNTING, B.C. PREMIER WILLIAM VANDER ZALM CONSIDERS A FALL CAMPAIGN

HAL QUINN October 1 1990

TESTING THE PUBLIC MOOD

CANADA

WITH ELECTION FEVER MOUNTING, B.C. PREMIER WILLIAM VANDER ZALM CONSIDERS A FALL CAMPAIGN

Smiling broadly, and with members of his cabinet dutifully in tow, British Columbia Premier William Vander Zalm did last week what he does best. Touring docks, fish canneries and plastics companies, and walking through the revitalized downtown core of New Westminster, just east of Vancouver, the premier glad-handed local business leaders, chatted with passers-by, praised his government’s accomplishments and railed against the opposition New Democratic Party. It was the culmination of a monthlong provincewide tour, complete with town hall meetings, photo opportunities and ethnic media breakfast meetings—in fact, it had all the trappings of a full-fledged election campaign—with one important exception. As Vander Zalm approached the fourth anniversary of his mandate, the 56-year-old premier defied speculation and declined to call an early election. But with just over a year to run in the Social

Credit Party’s term, signs of an election call looming this fall were as thick as the region’s infamous late-autumn rain clouds. Said Vander Zalm: “Every day I wake up and look at the weather and assess it a little more carefully.”

The premier has several reasons for caution. Although he led the Socreds to the largest majority in B.C. history on Oct. 22,1986, the charismatic leader’s victory has since been eroded by six consecutive byelection losses to the NDP, leaving the Socreds with 43 of the legislature’s 69 seats compared with the New Democrats’ 26. At the same time, the premier has enjoyed few respites from political storms. Nine cabinet ministers have resigned as a result of scandals or after claims that Vander Zalm interfered in their ministries. And even as election fever spreads, Vander Zalm has found him^ self in the midst of another § scandal over allegations that £ he used his political office to I secure the sale earlier this “ month of his family’s Fantasy Gardens home, mall and Christian theme park -in Richmond, just south of Vancouver, to Taiwanese buyers for a reported $15 million. Declared NDP Leader Michael Harcourt: “There is just one election issue: ‘Do you want four more years of Bill Vander Zalm?’ That’s it.”

For New Democrats itching to hit the hustings, Vander Zalm’s record will clearly provide a centrepiece for their campaign. Among the scandals are the various indiscretions of his cabinet colleagues. They range from a minister who gave a personal business card to a government client, to another who channelled lottery funds to a firm run by his friends and former campaign manager. The latest resignation, that of former attorney general Bud Smith this summer, resulted from a scandal over intercepted and taped car-phone conversations conducted by Smith—a situation that was later referred to as “sex, lies and audiotapes” on the U.S. TV program A Current Affair. In one intercepted conversation with one of his officials, Smith discussed strategy for seeking to influence an investigation of a former cabinet minister. Other conversations revealed a close relationship between Smith and Vancouver TV reporter Margot Sinclair.

But whether such scandals will have any effect on voters is unclear. Since the Social Credit Party first came to power almost 40 years ago under charismatic former premier W. A. C. Bennett, voters have only once elected any other party to power: a one-term NDP government led by David Barrett, now a B.C. MP, in the mid-1970s. And despite the byelection setbacks, opinion polls taken this year indicate a gradual forgiveness. In January, an Angus Reid poll gave the New Democrats 46per-cent support, compared with the Socreds’ 31 per cent. But by July, another Angus Reid poll showed the Socreds gaining ground with 36-per-cent support compared with the NDP’s 47. And a private poll done for the NDP in

September showed the gap narrowing even more, with the NDP at 47 per cent and the Socreds at 40.

But the NDP pollsters talked to British Columbians before the sale of Fantasy Gardens, where the Vander Zalms continue to live in a brick castle while they search for a new home. The 21-acre site has been a source of controversy since the Vander Zalms purchased it for $1.7 million in 1984. When he became Socred leader in 1986, Vander Zalm said that he would transfer ownership to his wife, Lillian. Subsequent financial disclosures, however, revealed that he had retained at least a 30-per-cent interest. Then, less than a month after Vander

Zalm became Socred leader—and only days after he was sworn in as premier on Aug. 6, 1986—the B.C. government approved the family’s application to have 9.5 acres of the site removed from the province’s Agricultural Land Reserve, leading to conflict-of-interest accusations. Overnight, the new commercial land designation vaulted the assessed value of that portion of the site from $800,000 to $4.9 million.

Visited by tourists and shoppers, Fantasy Gardens was also a magnet for many protest groups with a placard to paint. In fact, the shopping mall’s largest tenant pulled out last May, claiming that the frequent political protesters rendered their enterprises unprofitable. But in the end, it proved profitable for the Vander Zalms. On Sept. 7, Taiwanese billionaire Tan Yu purchased the Gardens for a reported $15 million through his daughter,

Emilia (Bien Bien) Roxas, who visited British Columbia in search of investment opportunities.

The sale has led to a renewed storm of controversy. For one thing, despite the fact that the premier’s own conflict-of-interest guidelines forbid even “the appearance” of combining personal and government business, Roxas, whose nickname means “everlasting” in Chinese, was roundly entertained by the B.C. government. In fact, the day before the sale, Vander Zalm and his wife joined Roxas and her entourage at a luncheon at Government House in Victoria, hosted by B.C. Lt.Gov. David Lam—at Vander Zalm’s request.

Harcourt, for one, decried what he says was the use of the premier’s office to promote a private business transaction. He added, “What other vendor in the province has access to the red carpet treatment for a potential buyer?” But Vander Zalm, who was born in the Netherlands and emigrated to Canada with his family as a child, said that he was surprised at “the little tempest” resulting from the Fantasy Gardens sale. The premier told Maclean ’s last week that the Yus had expressed interest in investing $1 billion in the province. Said Vander Zalm: “To have contact with someone who could potentially invest here, I saw as a big plus. I am always selling, not just myself or my policies. If there is something I think is good for the province, I am out there promoting it.” Still, the Fantasy Gardens uproar may deter the premier from calling a fall election. That, at least, is the advice that Vander Zalm is receiv-

ing from some other Socreds. Among them: former deputy premier and economic development minister Grace McCarthy, who resigned in 1988 after claiming that Vander Zalm interfered in the functioning of her ministry. McCarthy said that there is a harsh antigovernment mood in the electorate. And, she added, “People are enraged at governments at all levels—and they’ve got good reason to be enraged.”

Vander Zalm himself has said that he is keenly aware of recent political upheavals— most notably the crushing defeat of the Ontario Liberals at the hands of the NDP on Sept.

16. As a result, he has said that he is closely studying the mood in British Columbia before committing himself to an election call. But in recent weeks, the premier has made a number of public statements clearly designed to tantalize the public—a sign, according to many observers, that he is still weighing the desirability of a fall campaign. For one thing, Vander Zalm said that “a good number of issues that need public input” may be included as referendums on any future provincial election ballot. And he also said that his government is considering removing taxes from agricultural land—and not raising taxes in general in the next budget.

According to Harcourt, 47, those pre-election promises reflect the Socreds’ fear of facing the electorate. Declared the NDP leader: “This summer in British Columbia, the public mood has

been opposite to that in Ontario. In Ontario, people were asking: ‘Why are we having an election?’ People in British Columbia are asking: ‘Why are we not having an election?’ If Vander Zalm puts it off to the spring, then he has real

problems. He is afraid to face the people.”

For its part, the NDP has worked tirelessly to erase the free-spending antibusiness image left by Barrett’s brief tenure in the 1970s. “It has been our stated intention all along to have a balanced budget,” Harcourt told Maclean’s.

“If we have to trim, we will.” The Socreds have cast the New Democrats as ‘born-again’ free enterprisers, opportunistically changing policies to suit the electorate’s mood. But Harcourt countered that the party has always accepted the vital role played by big business—as long as it works in concert with a strong social program. And he added that he is eager to put his policies to the electoral test. “We are ready,” said Harcourt, who became NDP leader in 1987 and has overhauled the party’s organization and accumulated a sizeable election war chest. “British Columbians are tired of a government serving not the people, but friends and insiders.”

The NDP, meanwhile, is not the only party hoping for a breakthrough in a coming election. British Columbia’s moribund Liberals, who have not elected an MLA since 1975, hope to field candidates in all ridings. Gordon Wilson, a professor at North Vancouver’s Capilano College who has been party lead2 er since 1987, said that £ whenever the election is % fought, the government’s re“ cord will be its worst enemy. He added, “The scandals will

hang around the premier’s

neck like an albatross.” Perhaps. But at week’s end, the premier was still considering whether to take the risk of his government sinking—or soaring—at the polls in a general election.

HAL QUINN in Vancouver