It was not clear whether Premier Glen Clark was going to keep his job when he walked into a Vancouver hotel ballroom to meet his New Democratic Party caucus at the start of last week. He was still dealing with the furor involving an RCMP raid on his house, and questions concerning the granting of a charity casino licence to a friend. And he faced the prospect that some caucus members would demand his resignation. But it soon became clear that NDP anger was directed elsewhere. “If Christ came to Vancouver, you guys [the media] would crucify him,” sputtered backbencher Jim Doyle. “My premier has 100 per cent of my support,” said Finance Minister Joy MacPhail. After a four-hour meeting, caucus presented a solid front in support of Clark, and Clark—who said he had considered resigning—took a new tack. “I have done nothing wrong, there are no allegations,” he said. “It seems extremely hard to justify why I would resign.” But in the tumultuous world of British Columbia politics, nothing is static for long. Two days later, as more information surfaced about Clark’s relationship with neighbour Dimitrios Pilarinos, the casino operator in question, the premier faced new criticism, and renewed speculation about how long he can keep his job. “The perception is out there that there may be some wrongdoing, and in politics perception is often 100 per cent of the truth, whether it is or not,” said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gordon Wilson, who crossed the floor to join the NDP cabinet in January and is interested in Clark’s job. In fact, high party sources told Maclean’s that another scenario is being constructed—although it is not clear whether it has Clark’s approval. The plan, they say, is for Clark to stay on for several more months, take the heat for a series of perceived government gaffes and shortcomings, and then resign. “It’s not a question of if he is leaving—it’s a question of when,” says one party insider. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind thinks we have a chance to win the next election. If Glen leaves, we could hang all the mess on him.”
Not everyone agrees with that.
For one, it does not take into account Clark’s famed combativeness. Says Norman Ruff, a political science professor at the University of Victoria: “Nothing is inevitable in B.C. politics. One underestimates Clark at one’s peril.” After winning declarations of support, Clark turned his sights on the Liberal party, which had passed on information about the casino application to the RCMP. Then, he told the media that some party members were being investigated for revealing details of the search of his home.
That was not the case: in a statement, provincial assistant deputy attorney general Ernie Quantz said a criminal investigation “will only occur if the police consider it appropriate.”
But questions remain about why Clark’s friend, Pilarinos, a 34-year-old contractor, and Pilarinos’s partner received a conditional charity casino licence when they did not meet all the government criteria. Pilarinos—a neighbour of Clark who has done renovations on his home—has been charged with running an illegal gambling house at the North Burnaby Inn, a place frequented by Hells Angels motorcyclists who enjoy hanging out at its strip club. (Hie RCMP does not allege wrongdoing on Clark’s part.) It emerged that Clark and Pilarinos are much better friends than the premier initially indicated: Pilarinos spent two weeks last summer at Clark’s cottage with the Clark family. Clark removed himself from decision-making about Pilarinos’s application, passing the responsibility to Mike Farnworth, the minister of employment and investment. The revelation that Clark’s relationship with Pilarinos was deeper than first assumed seemed to startle Farnworth. But he tried to end the controversy by pointing out that the application for the casino had been rejected by the time the raid took place. Said Farnworth of the application: “It’s dead, it’s over.”
The opposition Liberals want Clark to step aside, with leader Gordon Campbell declaring, “This whole thing stinks.” Within the NDP, opinions are divided over how to get the controversy behind it as quickly as possible. In the short term, NDP insiders say Clark should stay on because there is so much crucial business ahead. That includes the precedent-setting Nisga’a Treaty, a controversial, long-negotiated treaty with the aboriginal group, which has not been formally passed by the legislature. And the deadline for a 1999 budget is March 31. Last week, the government was forced to ask Lt.-Gov. Garde Gardom for $169.5 million in spending warrants to keep the government operating. And it is not in Clark’s nature to walk away from a fight. ‘To have stepped down would give credence to all the innuendoes,” says Ruff.
But none of that translates into real enthusiasm for Clark to stay on
Doubts grow about the future of British Columbia’s premier, despite denials of wrongdoing and a caucus show of support
for long. Even before the casino-licence controversy, the NDP was beset by problems and languishing in the polls. Its woes include the controversial, over-budget fast ferries; an upcoming report on whether the government broke rules about recall legislation, which allows citizens to petition to unseat their local MLA; and controversy over gambling expansion throughout B.C. communities. This week, a report will be released examining whether Clark’s government deliberately misled the public when it promised a balanced budget in 1996.
Those problems lead some party members to observe that the annual NDP meeting scheduled for June might be transformed into a leadership convention. Already, speculation is building about candidates for the leadership if Clark steps down. The early list includes courtly Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh, feisty Finance Minister MacPhail, and the cerebral Wilson. Dosanjh could provide the image of integrity the party desperately needs, as it trails the Liberals in most polls by more than 30 percentage points. Dosanjh has, for the most part, avoided adverse publicity in his portfolio, and is considered a consensus builder. But some pundits say the Punjabiborn lawyer lacks the dynamism needed to lead the party into a bruising election campaign—which must be held by 2001.
For her part, MacPhail is respected for her combative edge and ability to maintain poise under fire. “I’d give an edge to MacPhail,” says Ruff. “She has an aggressive attack strategy and a strong base within the labour movement.” But some believe that MacPhail no longer wants the job. Her responsibilities as a single mother of a young son often leave her torn, like many parents, between office and home. Within cabinet, there is conflict between MacPhail and the garrulous Moe Sihota, who is the public service minister, and considered a Clark confidant.
Earlier this month, Sihota announced that he and Judi Tyabji Wilson —Gordon Wilson’s wife and a former MLA—would hit the road together to drum up support for the NDP That lends credence to the belief that Sihota is playing kingmaker for Wilson, a former leader of both the Liberals and the Progressive Democratic Alliance. Until 1993, Wilson led the Liberals, but was pushed aside after his relationship with his house leader, Tyabji, became public. (Both were married to others at the time.) Wilson then established the PDA which he led until switching to the NDP. Wilson has the highest approval rating of any politician in British Columbia, standing at 50 per cent in the polls. But some NDP insiders snort at the idea of him as their leader. “No way he’ll get the job,” says one. That’s because he is considered an outsider who has not yet paid his dues. But Ruff suggests that others may take a more pragmatic view, saying: “It depends how pessimistic the party is. If it matters more to win the next election than to pay one’s dues, then Wilson could emerge as leader.”
In the meantime, Clark is adopting a public posture of business as usual. At the end of last week, he announced plans to spend $74 million on expanding a clogged bridge over the Fraser River at Coquitlam. Pressed by reporters about the gambling issue, a smiling Clark said twice: “I’m getting on with government.” But the fate of his own predecessor, Mike Harcourt, provides a lesson on how hard that task can be in troubled times. Harcourt resigned as premier in 1995, taking responsibility when it was revealed that, without his knowledge, NDP workers were siphoning funds from charity bingo games and stashing the money in party coffers. Even as Clark continues to proclaim his own innocence, the example of Harcourt’s selfless act may be increasingly hard for him and other party members to ignore. □
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