Canada

B.C.’s ‘Black Thursday'

Gordon Campbell takes a huge chunk out of the provincial public service

KEN MACQUEEN January 28 2002
Canada

B.C.’s ‘Black Thursday'

Gordon Campbell takes a huge chunk out of the provincial public service

KEN MACQUEEN January 28 2002

B.C.’s ‘Black Thursday'

Gordon Campbell takes a huge chunk out of the provincial public service

BY KEN MACQUEEN in Vancouver

By the end of “Black Thursday”—a union-made label not of the B.C. government’s choosing—Premier Gordon Campbell’s voice was reduced to a weak rasp. But he would not be shaken from his message track: the largest public service chop in the government's history last week was a) the fault of a $3.8-billion “structural deficit” caused by the previous, profligate New Democrats and, b) “It is reasonable, it is responsible, it is the right thing to do.”

Very right. These are not your father’s Liberals. The cutting over three years of 11,700 jobs, nearly one-third of the public service, signalled a hard turn to starboard, away from the squishy-left culture of entitlement the Liberals blame for running B.C. perilously close to have-not economic status. Say what you want about Campbell, the bland, buttoned-down former mayor of Vancouver, but His Greyness is one stubborn dude. No sugar-coating from

him—indeed, it can be argued he exaggerated the numbers to make a point. About one-third of the cuts, especially in areas like social services, will actually be shifted to regional authorities.

After attrition and early retirement, the number of public servants who will be fired is probably closer to 5,000. This wasn’t much consolation in government offices in Victoria, Vancouver or in the regions, which were especially hard hit. Workplaces were awash in tears as blackclad employees, some with 20 years senior-

UNKIND CUTS

B.C. plans to slash 11,700 government jobs31 per cent-in the next three years.

Civil service jobs lost in the last decade in selected jurisdictions:

GOVERNMENT JOBS CUT PROPORTION Alberta 12,000 34%

Ontario 15,000 23

Federal 37,000 13

Source: Statistics Canada, BM0 Nesbitt Burns Inc.

ity, received their termination notices. Some departmental cuts are huge. Transportation gets a 61-per-cent chop. Since roads must still be plowed, lines painted and potholes patched, many of these staff will also end up off the books, working for private, probably non-union contractors.

The result of a one-third cut in the public service is, in fact, a decline of just eight per cent in government spending over three years. What the grim body count does is signal a profound shift in thinking. To find the new British Columbia, the directions are simple: turn right, and keep going until you hit the 1950s. The mantra is small government, tough love and selfreliance. Inmates will be double-bunked to allow eight jails to close. Shuttered, too, are 24 courthouses, 20 legal aid and 36 welfare offices. Welfare rolls will be chopped by forcing single mothers back to work when their children reach age three. Employable recipients without dependent children can now collect welfare for only two out of every five years. Environmental, resource protection and emergency measures budgets are also cut, though monitoring of drinking water increases in light of the Walkerton tragedy.

Liberal polling shows the powerful public sector unions, for all their talk of massive protest and confrontation, have little public credibility. The election eight months ago reduced the unions political voice, the New Democrats, to a rump of two MLAs. And Campbell learned from the masters. Even before his election victory last May, his team consulted with the governments of Ontario and Alberta, where similar cuts caused more noise and thunder than political liability. He is also resuming the interrupted work of Social Credit premier Bill Bennett, who launched a sweeping restraint program in 1983. Those spending and employment cuts triggered massive protest from a coalition of unions and community groups, but they went ahead despite the din.

Union leaders are using the same ferocious rhetoric of two decades back. “If it’s confrontation this government wants, that’s what it will get,” thundered George Heyman, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union. But it’s not clear labour can deliver tens of thousands of protesters to the streets as it once did. It was no accident that Campbell attended a truck loggers’ convention after announcing the cuts. The forest industry alone lost 20,000 jobs in 2001. All told, the private sector shed 60,000 jobs. The Liberals expect most voters aren’t disposed to hold tag days for fallen public servants.

But a poll in early December showed that Liberal support had already fallen by 22 points over three months to 49 per cent. Now, a greater test of public forbearance will come as details of program cuts emerge in the Feb. 19 budget. While the big ticket departments of education and health weren’t slashed, their budgets were frozen. The result will likely be a profound erosion: tuition hikes, crowded schools, increased surgery backlogs and hospital closures. Former NDP premier Glen Clark, now facing charges of breach of trust, blamed Campbell’s cash crunch on the Liberals’ first filled election promise: personal and corporate tax cuts that drained about $1.5 billion in annual revenue. But Campbell clung to his mantra: “We were elected with a clear mandate to restore sound fiscal management and revitalize economic prosperity.” And in the premier’s vision, realizing that involves some painful choices. E3

Clark’s days of reckoning

A former premier is on trial for breach of trust

His hair is greyer and he’s a few pounds over his playing weight, but fallen B.C. premier Glen Clark still has his political moves. During breaks in his criminal breach of trust trial in the provincial Supreme Court in Vancouver, he pastes on a smile and chats with reporters who have come to record his greatest humiliation. And, as he predicts, his eventual vindication. About the only person Clark ignores is former friend, neighbour and coaccused, contractor Dimitrios Pilarinos. They sit on opposite sides of Courtroom 67. Each seems locked in his separate orbit of misery as special prosecutor Bill Smart lays out the Crown’s evidence of the “insidious evil” of political corruption.

The case is exceptional even by the soapoperatic standards of B.C., where modern-day premiers have the career trajectory of Canada Day fireworks: a quick ascent, a vivid explosion, a flutter of charred fallout. The stakes go beyond a singed political career—the maximum penalty for breach of trust is five years imprisonment. Clark is accused of accepting an estimated $ 10,000 in free home renovation work by Pilarinos in 1998. Pilarinos, a partner in an application to operate a casino in North Burnaby, is charged with offering a benefit to induce Clark to award him a licence worth a projected $60 million in the first 10 years.

Smart contends the case has ramifications far beyond the relatively small cash benefit of Pilarinos’s labour in renovating the Clarks’ home and cottage. The fabric of democratic society is undermined by corruption, he told Justice Elizabeth Bennett. “Mr. Clark allowed himself to be compromised,” Smart said. Clark contends he avoided the casino file because he knew the applicant. And he says he paid Pilarinos for his labour but the contractor tore up the cheque.

The men and their families once shared a social life marked by the vibrant informality of their modest east Vancouver neighbourhood. Clark speaks fondly of the Greek community of which Pilarinos is part, where a goat on a spit turns an al-

leyway into the site of an instant party. But in the Greek social clubs word spread of Pilarinos’s ties to the premier. Stirring the pot was another Greek-Canadian, Dimitri Vrahnos, who leaked details of the ClarkPilarinos link to then opposition leader Gordon Campbell’s office in August, 1998, triggering an RCMP investigation.

Months later, Vrahnos inexplicably warned Clark and Pilarinos of the investigation he’d started. “Premiere [sic] This is urgent if you want to save your ass,” began a fax he sent on Feb. 10, 1999, to Clark’s constituency office. “ ‘Clean’ your home and all offices of any evidence IMMEDIATELY,” he wrote, under the pseudonym Karmelita. “Careful how you use your telephones and faxes.”

While Clark forwarded the letter to senior provincial bureaucrats, the Crown says it was only then that the premier distanced himself from his friend’s application, which had received tentative approval. By that time, however, an RCMP surveillance unit was already weeks into a remarkable assignment: placing Pilarinos and a sitting premier under watch and tapping their telephone calls. In phone intercepts read in court, Pilarinos bragged to others that Clark was “my man,” the “shark” who would win him the casino licence. Within days of the warning to Clark, however, the province moved to scuttle the proposal. Pilarinos grew frantic. He considered others who might influence the bid, complaining to a friend, “I don’t know who to buy, or not to buy.”

There were other bruises for Clark last week as Premier Gordon Campbell slashed the civil service—and pinned the blame for the restraint program on a decade of fiscal mismanagement by the New Democrats. Back on familiar turf, Clark defended himself with an almost scholarly analysis of the fallout the cuts will generate. Then, almost late for court, he laughed at his windy response. Out of practice, he explained, and added, “I’m not as quick on the quips for you.”

Ken MacQueen