When David Anderson ventured into the Chinatown section of Vancouver the other day, he surprised his audience by speaking Chinese. When he accepts invitations from Quebec campuses for pollution seminars in his role as the Mr. Clean of the ecology movement, he addresses students in French.
A trilingual politician from British Columbia is a rare enough breed, but for David Anderson, who has abandoned his short, spectacular sojourn in Ottawa to lead the BC Liberal party, the only question is whether he can talk the language of voters casting about for a new messiah now that Premier W. A. C.
Bennett, 71, is nearing the end of his hegemony.
The Liberals hope he can. Anderson, who shares John Kenneth Galbraith’s belief that modesty is a highly overrated virtue, thinks he can. Why else would he give up his very promising role as the dashing young Galahad of the Liberal backbench, the MP who has singlehandedly taken on Washington over the Alaska oil tanker threat and who was one of the narrowing Liberal few in BC whose seat seemed safe in the next election?
It would seem an unusual risk, but David Anderson (it’s always David, never Dave) is a rather unusual 34-year-old. When he arrived in Ottawa in 1968, he was described as being a more attractive bachelor than Pierre Trudeau. Anderson acquired that dubious title not through his blond, outdoorslooks but because of his cosmopolitan background. He hau part of his schooling in Hong Kong and Switzerland and he’s visited China several times. As an External Affairs officer, he was Canadian legal adviser with the International Control Commission in Vietnam and then assistant Canadian Trade Commissioner in Hong Kong. He’s been a pilot with the RCAF reserve, won an Olympic silver medal with the Canada rowing crew at the 1960 Rome games and spent the parliamentary recess last summer sailing his 30-foot yawl around Newfoundland outports.
In all, Anderson appears to be a most marketable political commodity. The only problem is that he’s venturing into the strange land of British California. It is a land of political extremes. Caught between the evangelical expediency of the Social Credit right and the trade union-NDP left, the old-line parties in BC have practically disappeared. The Tories have not had a member in the legislature for years. The Liberals that Anderson inherits have been hived into an affluent ghetto of only five seats, the executive belt of Vancouver, where tennis clubs outnumber beer parlors. Besides, over me years. Premier Bennett has killed off 11 different oppositio leaders who have assaulted his castle, including three former MPs — E. Davie Fulton from the Tories, BC Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger from the NDP, and federal Public Works Minister Art Laing from the Liberals.
Anderson is not unaware of what he is trading: a safe federal seat and a well-publicized “maverick” role in Ottawa as one of the brightest Liberal backbenchers for the BC leadership role where it is not even certain he can win a riding of his own. But Anderson’s short career has been marked by seemingly impetuous but calculated risks. “He always gave the impression of knowing exactly where he was going,” recalls a friend from Anderson’s university days.
He became an MP in the first place almost on a dare, abruptly resigning his External Affairs post in Ottawa and rushing home to Victoria to contest the Esquimalt-Saanich Liberal nomination after the first nominating convention was ordered wiped out because of voting irregularities. His astonishing action, as an individual MP, of launching a suit against the U.S. Department of the Interior to force it to consider Canadian risks involved in a supertanker route from Alaska has gained him international attention and made him a hero to BC environmental groups. The Liberal government, which kicked him off the Canadian-American Inter-Parliamentary Committee On Arctic Pollution, because “he doesn’t know how to play ball with the team,” lost votes in BC as a result. Anderson wasn’t surprised. He knew better than his party superiors where public opinion was going.
For someone who seems to have spent most of his life abroad, he has very genuine BC and Canadian roots (not always the same thing). His great-grandfather, J. H. Todd, a Cariboo Gold Rush figure who kept his money, was the Conservative in 1878 who gave up his seat so that Sir John A. Macdonald, rejected by his Ontario riding, could get back into the Commons. Anderson’s mother is a Todd, who are to Victoria what the Cabots are to Boston. His father is a doctor. David’s brother, Malcolm, a Victoria stockbroker, is the one who assured him in 1968 that, if he would rush home, the required votes in that second nominating convention would be lined up.
The only issue is whether David Anderson’s rather patrician tastes will be to the liking of BC’s horny-handed voters. (His accent could be described as Victoria-South-of-England and it is a moot point how it will go down in the logging camps around, say, Salmon Arm.) Anderson has the job today because the scholarly Dr. Pat McGeer decided after three years as Liberal leader that his academic career at the University of BC was more important than being a foil for Bennett. His approach was too intellectual for the voters, who can apparently forgive Bennett his government’s scandals so long as the primary resource pay cheques keep rolling in.
The BC Liberals seem stuck at 20% of the popular vote and the mere five seats it gives them. What Anderson has inherited is the fact that in 46 of the 55 ridings, Liberals are in third place behind both Social Credit and the NDP. Anderson himself will have a struggle to be elected among voters who consistently abandon their federal thought processes when they vote provincially. Anderson concedes that winning is “a pretty long shot,” but what he has going for him is that he is the first BC Liberal leader during Bennett’s 20-year reign who is not from Vancouver. Perhaps he can make some ground in convincing the unconvinced in Bella Coola and Cache Creek and Dawson Creek that all Liberal decisions are no longer made in the Vancouver Club. He has valuable Ottawa allies: Senator John Nichol, who was federal Liberal party president during the Pearson years, was instrumental in persuading him to switch from Ottawa to BC.
Anderson, whose independent ways and unorthodox background have had him compared with Trudeau, sees another comparison with the PM. He says there’s a similarity between his decision to leave Ottawa to fight against a one-man regime in his own province and the PM’s career. Trudeau, he reminds interviewers, left the Privy Council office in Ottawa to fight as a lawyer and journalist against Duplessis’ regime in Quebec.
A rude observer might point out, to continue the analogy, that Trudeau, with his patrician tastes, had to get back into the federal field to gain election. ■
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