CANADA

Hard times for Harcourt

The B. C. premier is busy plotting his comeback

CHRIS WOOD May 22 1995
CANADA

Hard times for Harcourt

The B. C. premier is busy plotting his comeback

CHRIS WOOD May 22 1995

Hard times for Harcourt

The B. C. premier is busy plotting his comeback

The occasion was a primerib banquet for New Democratic Party friends, loyalists and insiders to honor one of their own: B.C. Minister of Skills, Training and Labor Dan Miller. Among the 300 party faithful who tucked into the elegant fare on May 5 in Vancouver’s waterfront Westin Bayshore Hotel were several of Miller’s provincial cabinet colleagues, assorted luminaries of the West Coast labor movement and his boss, Premier Michael Harcourt.

It was thus in the spirit of a friendly jest that Miller, towards the end of the night, presented Harcourt with a T-shirt emblazoned with the words:

“I’m the premier for now.” With such friends, Harcourt might well have reflected, his need for enemies was shrinking fast.

As the waggish double meaning in the T-shirt text sharply reminded the 52-year-old Harcourt, it has been his political friends who have been mostly responsible for the doubts spreading among political observers that the premier of British Columbia now will be the premier for very much longer. Among those problematic friends is Ron Johnson, a former party strategist and president of Vancouver-based NOW Communications, whose patronage con-

tracts with the NDP government became an issue earlier this year. Even before that controversy ebbed, another one ignited when half a dozen women accused Harcourt’s government services minister, Robin Blencoe, of sexual harassment; Harcourt at first equivocated and then fired Blencoe. The latest ally to cause the premier grief was cabinet star and Environment Minister Moe Sihota, who resigned just hours before Miller’s banquet. The resignation came after the B.C. Law Society found that Sihota was guilty of unprofessional conduct while practising law between 1988 and 1991. “We’ve had some screwups,” Harcourt acknowledged last week. Still, the premier was insis-

tent that “there is a comeback trail” for his troubled government. If so, Harcourt and his colleagues need to regain their footing on it soon: the next provincial election must be held no later than October, 1996—but political observers say it could come as early as this fall. In any event, the party has little time to undo the damage done by months of almost nonstop embarrassments. After decades of ingrained belief among loyalists that the New Democrats enjoy the irreducible core support of about 33 per cent of the B.C. electorate, the party, since late 1993, has been mired at no better than about 25 per cent in province

wide opinion polls. It has also failed to close a yawning gap of as much as 20 points between its own standing and that of the Opposition Liberals led by former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell, 46. Observed Julie Winram, senior research director of Marktrend Research, a Vancouver polling company whose most recent survey of 500 voters, taken in April, gave the Liberals a 12-point lead over the NDP: “The public mood is centrist and a little bit to the right. And that fits the Liberals like a glove.”

That analysis plainly feeds Campbell’s optimism. Handsome and well-connected, the Liberal leader is a career politician whose first job after completing a degree in municipal government at New Hampshire’s prestigious Dartmouth College was as an aide to former Vancouver mayor Arthur Phillips in the early 1970s. After a brief, but profitable, dabble in real estate development during the early 1980s, Campbell says that he dissolved all his business interests after returning to municipal politics in 1984, first as a councillor and, two years later, succeeding Harcourt as Vancouver mayor. Since winning the Liberal leadership in 1993, Campbell has steadily pushed the party to the right, peppering one recent speech to supporters with such well-worn conservative aphorisms as: “Government is no longer the answer to our problems. It is the problem.” Earlier this month, Campbell showed off his party’s growing organizational muscle by stealing a byelection win in Abbotsford that had seemed destined to fall into the hands of the Liberals’ main rival for right-wing voter support, the B.C. Reform party led by for-

mer Social Credit minister Jack Weisgerber. Still, the ever-optimistic Harcourt is not entirely alone in believing that he can still lead his party back to a second term in office, a feat that eluded British Columbia’s last NDP premier, David Barrett, who governed from 1972 to 1975. Although the party’s recent setbacks have eroded gains made since an earlier crisis in 1993, Daniel Savas, senior research director for the Vancouver-based Angus Reid Group polling firm, said, “I don’t think they are down and out.” Added Independent MLA David Mitchell, a former Liberal: “The huge opportunity that exists for the NDP right now is that the two main opposition parties are fighting it out increasingly on

the right wing of the political spectrum.”

In fact, B.C. New Democrats pin their hopes for a political resurrection on three elements. First, their self-inflicted wounds must stop. Second, Campbell and Weisgerber must split the support of conservative voters. Third, the government must succeed in getting the public to pay attention to what it regards as its generally successful handling of the economy and resource issues. “British Columbians want the tough issues tackled, and we’ve done that,” Harcourt insisted last week in an interview with Maclean’s. Promis-

ing to fight the next election on his government’s economic record and its defence of medicare, Harcourt dismissed his ministers’ gaffes as insignificant: “The important time is the 28 days of an election. People will be able to see the difference between the New Democrat mainstream government and the two reform parties on the right wing.”

Unhappily for Harcourt, there is reason for skepticism that any of the three keys to an NDP comeback will play out as he hopes. A planned shuffle of senior aides and a possible realignment of cabinet jobs, both of which could come as early as this week, are intended to instil a new sense of discipline at the top. But the effect may be blunted in the weeks ahead by reports from two continuing investigations—one into the government’s close relations with its political friends at NOW Communications, and the other into a Nanaimo group that routinely funnelled money raised for charity into party coffers during the 1980s.

At the same time, the Liberals’ win in Abbotsford on May 3 underscored that party’s success in outmanoeuvring Reform for the support of conservative voters. With an appeal heavily larded with Reform-style rhetoric on downsizing government, but steering clear of that party’s perceived bias against immigrants and multiculturalism, Campbell has so far managed to pick up the lion’s share of former Social Credit support, and appears to be running well ahead of his right-wing rivals in fundraising as well. Noted Savas: “The Liberals are clearly the front-runners at this point.”

With a year to go before the most likely date for an election, Harcourt and his strategists may still reasonably hope that voters’ memories will prove short when it comes to cabinet gaffes, and that Campbell will stumble. But that is no guarantee that voters, once they finally focus on the NDP record, will necessarily approve it. In fact, both party insiders and independent analysts concede that while the public has generally approved of the party’s handling of conflicts between loggers and environmentalists over the province’s shrinking old-growth forest, they also agree that most voters seem reluctant to give the New Democrats credit for the achievement Similarly, the government has proven vulnerable to charges of financial mismanagement even while British Columbians have enjoyed the most robust economy in the country—the province has led all others in employment growth for the past eight years. And, warns pollster Winram, the party may find itself on the wrong side of public opinion again if it campaigns on a doctrinaire defence of social programs that many voters increasingly want changed. “They are doing what people expect,” Winram noted. “It is just not what people want” Unless Harcourt and his dispirited troops succeed in changing that perception, the embattled premier’s new T-shirt may well prove to be painfully prophetic.

CHRIS WOOD

JOHN STANTON