COVER

A VOLATILE POLITICAL MIX

CHRIS WOOD February 12 1996
COVER

A VOLATILE POLITICAL MIX

CHRIS WOOD February 12 1996

A VOLATILE POLITICAL MIX

In keeping with British Columbia’s reputation for free-wheeling zaniness in politics, anyone eager to buy a piece of its next premier is welcome to do so—

virtually, that is. In fact, the market in political futures operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Accessible through the Internet, it resides on computers at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC’s) commerce department. Investors in the experimental market buy and sell “shares” in political parties at prices based on their expectations of parties winning seats, votes or a majority government in the next provincial election, which must be called by October.

After the election, the shares will be redeemed at values reflecting the outcome of the vote. Investors who buy, say, the Liberals at a low point in their popularity, stand to win big if the party rebounds to form the next government. The creators of the scheme claim that a similar market during the last federal election gave a more accurate forecast of the results than did most pollsters. If the market is right again this time, though, the Liberals have reason to worry.

What the UBC political stock market showed as February began was that levels of support for the governing New Democrats, the opposition Liberals and the third-place Reform Party of British Columbia have shifted dramatically in just two months. At the same time, the market index that coincides with “none of the above”— in other words, the undecided—has soared. In fact, ever since November, when NDP Premier Mike Harcourt announced his decision to resign— at a time when the NDP was running well behind the Liberals—it seems that British Columbians of every political persuasion have been taking a second look at their options. And with Harcourt’s party now about to choose his successor at a convention in Vancouver on Feb. 18, the next election “is anybody’s ball game,” according to Daniel Savas, an analyst with the Angus Reid Group.

The man likely to be least happy about that is Gordon Campbell. As recently as November, the youthful-

looking 48-year-old former mayor of Vancouver, who seized control of the provincial Liberal party from its hapless former leader, Gordon Wilson, in 1993, held the support of fully 49 per cent of decided voters—more than twice the number who voiced support for the NDP in an Angus Reid survey at the time. But by mid-January, several soundings of public opinion, including the UBC political stock market, put the Liberals’ diminishing lead over the New Democrats at somewhere between six and nine points. “A month ago,” observed Julie Winram, senior research director for Vancouver-based MarkTrend Research Inc., “I would have said it was in the bag for the Liberals. Now, we’ve

got the highest number of undecided voters that we’ve seen in five years.”

Suddenly, it is a horse race for the B.C. premiership

Two factors largely account for the change in political climate. The first was Harcourt’s decision to step down. The likable one-term premier made no secret of the fact that he hoped his retirement would defuse voters’ anger over a series of NDP scandals that erupted on his watch, although none touched him personally. The tactic appears to have worked. Noted Winram: “It was a very good idea to use Harcourt as a scapegoat and a cleansing thing for the party.” Harcourt’s sacrifice, in turn, set the

stage for the other development now eroding Campbell’s once-commanding lead. If, as most observers expect, NDP delegates choose Glen Clark, Harcourt’s 38-year-old minister of Employment and Investment, as the party’s new leader—and British Columbia’s next premier—this month, voters will face a strikingly clear-cut set of alternatives when the election is called. As likely front-runners in that campaign, which could begin as early as March and almost certainly before June, Campbell and Clark both project more than ample amounts of self-confidence—but differ strongly in almost every other way, from private background and personal style to their views on

public policy. Nor will voters have much difficulty distinguishing either one from Reform Leader Jack Weisgerber, a 55-year-old whitehaired former car dealer who represents the northeastern interior riding of Peace River South.

Unlike Lucien Bouchard and Brian Tobin, though—both of whom became premiers in January without the need to win party leadership campaigns—Clark faces several challenges. Former housing minister Joan Smallwood, from the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, has based her candidacy on an appeal to the party’s social conscience. Backbencher Corky Evans, a former logger who represents the central B.C. riding of Nelson/Crestón and possesses an engaging, articulate presence at the podium, has scored well at a series of leadership candidates’ debates around the province. (Two others, grocery store clerk and geography student Donovan Kuehn of Vancouver and Jack McDonald, a 39-year-old funeral director from Port Alberni, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, are also running.) Most analysts agree, however, that Clark leads in organization and party endorsements.

The out-front position is one that Clark, formerly a union organizer as his father was before him, clearly relishes. “I’m super-aggressive,

you know,” Clark once admitted. That quality, in fact, has served him well over

the years—from the gridiron in working-

class east Vancouver, where he was a dogged if somewhat undersized high-

school football linebacker, to the provincial legislature. Named finance minister in 1991 at age 34, Clark produced two assertively left-leaning budgets that raised both British Columbia’s taxes and its debt, before being transferred to Employment and Investment. In that portfolio, he has spent the past two years committing billions more taxpayers’ dollars to a series of major public works, including a highway on Vancouver Island and a commuter rail corridor intended to ease Greater Vancouver’s traffic congestion. They are expenditures he defends easily. ‘We get the population of Prince Edward Island added to British Columbia every year and a half,” he observes, adding: “You don’t build a successful economy by not investing in infrastructure.” Clark’s blue-collar roots and blunt espousal of activist government are in telling contrast to Campbell’s background and style. Although his childhood was far from idyllic—his father, Dr. Charles Campbell, a prominent Vancouver physician, committed suicide after years of

alcoholism when young Gordon was 13—Campbell has always been well-connected in the city’s establishment. His experience in the private sector was in the executive suite—as a developer during the late 1970s and early 1980s—rather than the union hall. As Vancouver’s mayor from 1986 until he resigned to take over the faltering Liberals in 1993, Campbell continued to enjoy good relations with the city’s business community. Since his move to provincial politics, the smooth doctor’s son has-found many in the same community willing to back him as a pro-business alternative to the New Democrats. “I think Glen Clark happens to believe you can spend more and tax more and borrow more,” Campbell asserts. “I believe we have to cut the cost of government, cut public debt and cut taxes.”

The depth of Campbell’s beliefs, however, is the subject of wide conjecture in B.C. political circles. Many of his views appear only sketchily thought out: he would solve the constitutional crisis, for instance, by having Ottawa convene a constituent assembly of citizens chosen by lot, “kind of like a jury,” he says, to rewrite the country’s fundamental law. Even among his supporters, there are many who concede they are not sure what Campbell stands for or what, beyond personal ambition, motivates his political involvement. His own mother, Peg Campbell, admitted to one journalist: “Who knows Gord? I don’t know Gord.” Author and independent MLA David Mitchell, a former Liberal who left the party after Campbell took over its leadership, observes: “You have to ask, why is Campbell in politics? He

doesn’t seem to enjoy it and he doesn’t seem to have any purpose.” Adds Mitchell: “No one could ever ask those questions about Glen Clark.” Nor would they likely be asked about Jack Weisgerber. A minister in the Social Credit government of former premier Bill Vander Zalm, Weisgerber was one of only seven Socred MLAs to survive the NDP’s 1991 electoral sweep. In the wake of its defeat, Social Credit effectively collapsed as a functioning party. But when one faction, including four of its MLAs, re-emerged under the Reform banner, Weisgerber was elected the new party’s first leader at a convention in January, 1995. Since then, he has staked out clear positions calling for the provincial budget to be balanced before any cut in taxes (Campbell, on the other hand, much like Ontario Premier Mike Harris, is offering tax cuts before the deficit is eliminated), and a much harder line than Harcourt’s government has taken towards resolving British Columbia’s long-standing dispute with its native population over land claims.

The land-claims issue, in particular, may deliver many of the roughly

20 seats in the province’s interior and along its northern coast to Reform. But the party seems unlikely to make much headway in the more urban—and more ethnically diverse—ridings of the Lower Mainland. That, rather, will be the battleground where the New Democrats must pit their message of public investment in British Columbia’s future against the Liberals’ fiscal conservatism, and where Campbell will match personalities with whoever succeeds Harcourt. With the two parties running nearly neck and neck in Vancouver and many of its surrounding ridings, says MarkTrend’s Winram, “the game has changed” since the Liberals’ lopsided advantage last autumn. For investors in UBC’s election stock exchange, at least, that is good news: it means there is still money to be made from a volatile political market.

CHRIS WOOD