CANADA

The credibility gap

Glen Clark lashes back at his critics

CHRIS WOOD November 11 1996
CANADA

The credibility gap

Glen Clark lashes back at his critics

CHRIS WOOD November 11 1996

The credibility gap

CANADA

Glen Clark lashes back at his critics

“There is good news and bad news, Mr. Premier.” “Give me the bad news.” “Seventy-five per cent of the people think you’re lying.” “And the good news?” “Ninety-three per cent of them don’t care.”

That is likely not exactly how Premier Glen Clark’s staff broke the news to him. But according to one poll released last week, it may be a pretty fair assessment of where the British Columbia New Democrat finds himself, less than six months after his party narrowly won a second mandate in a provincial election last spring. Open skepticism about Clark’s credibility now extends even to former cabinet colleagues. Last month, former B.C. highways minister Jackie Pement, who sat with Clark in the cabinet of Clark’s NDP predecessor, Mike Harcourt, tore up her NDP membership in protest against what she called the premier’s “dishonesty and outright breach of trust.”

This is British Columbia, of course, where such things are relative and the modern standard for scandal was set by Bill Vander Zalm, driven from office in disgrace in 1991 because of the conflict-of-interest uproar over the sale of Fantasy Gardens, his religious theme park. By that measure, the transgressions of Clark and his government are minor. Still, that the rookie premier is on the defensive over his government’s honesty could hardly be any clearer. In an extraordinary move so soon after an election, Clark had his staff buy time on province-wide television on Oct. 29, and schedule more than two dozen interviews over the following days, to counter what he called “a scurrilous campaign and schoolyard rhetoric” levelled against his government. Clark’s media blitz, however, failed to offer a convincing explanation of how his election claim that his party balanced two successive provincial budgets began to unravel less than a month after the votes were counted. And with difficult issues looming on several fronts in the weeks ahead, that could soon prove to be a costly failure.

What many had expected to hear from Clark’s 30-minute, prime-time TV address was an apology. During last spring’s election campaign, Clark boasted repeatedly that the New Democrats had balanced the 19951996 B.C. budget and would do so again in a 1996-1997 budget tabled just hours before the election writs were dropped. A month after his party won re-election on May 28 with 39 of 75 seats in the legislature, however, government documents revealed that the 1995-1996 budget was more than $200 million in the red. Subsequent disclosures showed that Clark also ignored advice from his own Treasury Board officials that his election budget was built on inflated estimates of tax revenue—and that the 1996-1997 budget deficit could exceed $1 billion.

Those revelations have angered many British Columbians. “People feel betrayed,” says Liz James, a North Vancouver businesswoman who launched a petition to have B.C. Lt. Gov. Garde Gardom dissolve the legislature and call a new election. Said Liberal Opposition Leader Gordon Campbell, whose party outpolled Clark’s in May but wound up with only 33 seats in the house (two others are held by Reform, one by an Independent): “This isn’t the first time that he’s misled people. This is just the first time he’s been caught so red-handed cooking the books.”

But Clark was adamant last week that he had nothing to apologize for. “I think apologizing would have been admitting we did something wrong,” he said in an interview after his televised speech. “I think it’s not warranted.” Clark insisted that the budgets were based on widely accepted predictions by outside agencies for the performance of the B.C. economy.

Largely avoiding that issue, however, his televised remarks dwelt more heavily on election promises that the government has kept. They include a tax cut for some families, freezes on auto insurance rates, hydro charges and university tuitions, and a new

monthly income subsidy for low-income employed families. “We made a whole series of very specific commitments during the campaign,” Clark argued. “We’ve lived up to every single one of them”—with the exception, so far at least, of balancing the budget. To that end, his speech announced several new measures to restrain spending, among them a plan to slash 3,500 positions from the 40,000-member provincial public service and advance warning that British Columbia’s municipalities can expect a cut in the $300 million that they receive annually from Victoria.

CANADA

Whether Clark’s performance—described by many as “wooden”— changed many minds is, at best, doubtful. Performing a public flip-flop over the deficit is only one of the ill-starred decisions that have cast a deepening shadow over the NDP’s credibility since last May. Another took place in September—nominally at arm’s length from cabinet—in the boardroom of Forest Renewal British Columbia. Created by Harcourt’s government two years ago, the agency collects money from fees levied on felled trees and uses it to pay for reforestation and jobs for people left unemployed by a plethora of new NDP restrictions on logging. At the time, Minister of Forests Dan Miller promised, “There won’t be a politician next week, next month, next year or 20 years from now who will dare put their hands into that pocket of money.” Now, Miller has been obliged to defend the government’s willingness to do just that by proposing to change legislation to allow the transfer of a temporary cash surplus of up to $400 million from the forest renewal fund to the province’s general revenues. The diversion especially galls British Columbia’s forestry companies—still giant players in the provincial economy—which have seen last year’s substantial profits dissolve, in many cases into losses this year.

Clark’s TV address only served to reinforce the impression of elastic ethics. For one thing, the cost—widely reported to have totalled between $120,000 and $150,000—of hiring a consultant to prepare the speech and of buying time on commercial television giant BCTV, is to be borne by B.C. taxpayers rather than by New Democrats, notwithstanding the event’s plainly partisan purpose. And one measure of the distance that Clark has to make up to regain voters’ confidence was the poll undertaken jointly by The Province newspaper and broadcaster UTV on Oct. 24. Released last week, it found support for Campbell’s Liberals running at 50 per cent—twice the level expressed for Clark’s NDR At the same time, 75 per cent of those surveyed said they did not believe Clark’s explanation for his election budget claims: that they were based on widely accepted forecasts of British Columbia’s economic growth in 1996.

£ This isn't the first time he's misled people ^

Neither statistic suggests that Clark’s po-

litical fate is sealed. Far from it. Campbell has enjoyed a 2:1 lead over the NDP before—as recently as a year ago—without being able to translate it into election victory. The 472years remaining in Clark’s mandate, moreover, are an eternity in politics, where an unguarded remark can make or unmake fortunes in a matter of seconds. As well, the Province/\J>TV poll turned up another intriguing indicator. Asked to name the most important issue facing government, most respondents identified unemployment. Barely seven per cent of British Columbians said they were concerned about their political leaders’ honesty and integrity.

But even if Clark has political time to spare, he will have no trouble filling the days ahead. His plans to shed government jobs and restructure the province’s health and education systems along as yet undisclosed lines have already raised hackles

among public sector unions. At the same time, the intention announced last week to cut an unspecified amount from annual provincial transfers to municipalities— hard on the heels of an earlier reduction of more than $200 million—is likely to worsen an already testy relationship. In a startling breach of tradition and protocol, representatives to the annual meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities erupted into booing when Clark appeared before the group in September.

Meanwhile, whatever confidence Harcourt’s version of NDP management earned with the province’s business community is eroding. The Vancouver Board of Trade is one of several significant business groups to complain that neither Clark nor his senior economic minister, Moe Sihota, has bothered to meet with them since the election. Then there is the much-debated deficit. Clark continued last week to rely on predictions that the B.C. economy will rebound next year, after two years of decline, from four-per-cent growth in 1994 to an estimated oneper-cent expansion this year. But others question that optimistic outlook. Darcy Rezac, managing director of the Vancouver Board of Trade, accused Clark of endorsing “Bart Simpson economics: underachievers and proud of it.” According to Rezac, a $6-billion increase in the amount of tax that British Columbians pay to their provincial government since the NDP took power in 1991 has helped make the province unattractive to investors—and priced its products out of many markets.

Other currents are working in favor of Clark’s main rival. Reform Party of British Columbia Leader Jack Weisgerber’s midSeptember decision to retire casts doubt on that party’s future and the future allegiance of its supporters—roughly 16 per cent of voters, according to recent polls. Liberal Leader Campbell is well positioned to pick up that support—and consolidate his party’s position as the sole right-wing alternative to the New Democrats in the next provincial election. As for Clark, with the man he defeated only last May now leading him in the polls, and a long season of hard decisions and deal-making—or breaking— ahead, he will need all the political capital, and credibility, he can call on.

CHRIS WOOD