By all the classic political scripts he was finished. Saturday’s hero. An engaging, flamboyant man who captured national attention and acclaim as British Columbia’s first socialist premier but who then, in the words of a still bitter member of the New Democratic Party, “went on to blow two generations of socialist work in this province.” December 11,1975, could well have been the date of his political epitaph, the day Dave Barrett’s three-year-old NDP government went down to defeat while he was clobbered in his own riding.
So why, nearly a year and a half later, is Dave Barrett smiling that cocky smile as he comes forward to greet a visitor? The grin gets wider as he casually acknowledges there’s not as much of Dave Barrett as there used to be: he has, in fact, lost 25 pounds, hopes to lose 10 more, and will, at the end of it all, be “in the best shape I’ve been in for 10 to 15 years.” (He keeps his actual weight a secret, but during his term in office there were indications he had passed the 200-pound mark.) Not only did he cut his eating in half, a regimen that leaves him hungry all the time, he also gave up drinking beer. “And that killed me.” Now, here he is, streamlined and compact, no longer ‘Til old fat Dave,” the butt of his own jokes. The sloppy edges have disappeared, leaving a firmer resilience in their place, the kind of resilience that drew wild cheers and hurrahs from a not-so-partisan crowd in the Social Credit stronghold of Dawson Creek recently when Dave Barrett told them: “I’ve never felt so right about staying to fight.”
His cocky smile, his newfound intensity after a lacklustre, dispirited reentry into the Legislature a year ago following a byelection, are the result of a growing feeling held by Barrett and his caucus that Premier Bill Bennett and his Social Credit government are digging their own political graves.
Average unemployment in BC is 9.5%, with a much higher rate in the hinterlands and no relief in sight. Since December, the public has been treated to a series of minor political scandals, with the government belatedly ordering inquiries on everything from questionable stock trading to the British Columbia Railway. In addition, there have been appalling displays of insensitivity by the Bennett government, one of which—the withholding of a federally endorsed $22.50 increase to each recipient of a handicap allowance—resulted in the embarrassing spectacle of 100 cripples demonstrating on the lawn of the Legislature earlier this year. “I’ve been around
politics a long time,” says Barrett, “but what I saw that day nearly choked me up.” Bennett’s cabinet, boasting no fewer than eight millionaires, is a government, says Barrett, “with no heart, no guts, no brains and no idea of what it’s all about—caught in the Dallas, Texas, nouveau riche plasticville syndrome.”
All of which does not necessarily signify
that the Socreds are in trouble. Political analysts say it is natural, with an election at least 18 months away, for the Socreds’ popularity to slip from 32% in 1976 to 30% (according to a public opinion survey conducted by University of Victoria professor Daniel Koenig). All the same, NDP types were heartened that their public support had climbed from 31.4% to 33.7%, with Koenig concluding that, even though the Socreds would probably scrape through if an election were held now, “the momentum is clearly with the NDP.” That was a bonus as the party held its annual convention late in May, with its membership doubled since its defeat in 1975, from 15,000 to 30,000.
During that same period, in spite of a consistently low profile in the Vancouver newspapers—the unfair result, he believes, of the seemingly deep and bitter feelings that both The Vancouver Sun and The Province have about him—Barrett has worked hard, “harder than I’ve ever worked before.” But there are still traces of bitterness and resentment toward Barrett in the party. One federal New Democrat, heading west for the convention, wryly remarked that he had been assured there would be peace in the family, “but of course what they call peace in the family we think of as blood in the aisles.” Even that remark, which might have rankled a once-defensive Barrett, simply brought a chuckle from his current sanguine self.
In his small office, simple in comparison to the Tiffany-lamped elegance of the suite he had as premier, he reflected that British Columbians have undergone a mood change. The electricity generated during his term in office is gone. Back then you couldn’t walk into a bar or get into a cab without hearing a passionate denunciation or defense of his government. Now, drawing on his social worker’s background, he says: “From a psychologist’s point of view, people are internalizing. There is an aura of uncertainty and, frankly, of fear.” For the sake of his ego, and perhaps his idealism, Barrett sees his stunning defeat not as a repudiation of socialism but as a gesture of uncertainty from an electorate still in the adolescent stage. They still have, he thinks, “a gnawing, yearning desire to have some common sense and gutsy courageous leadership.”
He also seems convinced that his own popularity is now increasing. Barrett, 46, says he finds it “impossible to separate the kind of idealism and enthusiasm and desire I had about doing [political] things from my own personal life.” He insists that there’s little cynicism in his outlook, but he does admit to some resentment at having resumed political life last year when there was a clear opportunity for him to make his exit, after being offered a $100,000-a-year radio talk show job. “This is a little bit of personal selfishness, but I really felt like taking it.” In answer to those old party stalwarts, who blanched at the unseemliness of a former NDP premier taking to the airwaves, Barrett laughs: “Hell, some of them thought I had no dignity as premier either.”
His flamboyance is still there: the offthe-cuff remarks, the salty language; all the hallmarks of a “PR man’s nightmare,” chuckles Barrett. But if he is adamant personally in not rearranging his style, he is grimly convinced that politically everything has changed. “All the old clichés are gone. The rules have all changed. When we were elected, people were pent up by the last eight years of Wacky Bennett [W.
A. C. Bennett, father of the present premier] doing his same old Wizard of Oz number, with the smoke pouring out of the closet. We were young, aggressive, excited. Now it’s a whole new political ball game. And the next election will be entirely different than any other in the history of British Columbia.”
Outside his own party, there are few who would put money on a Barrett comeback. According to BC Liberal leader Gordon Gibson, Barrett is exhibit A in the masterful case, which the Socreds spent their first year making to the public, about the financial foibles of the NDP. “I think people like Barrett, but they don’t trust him in an economic sense. They don’t know if they can afford him.” Still, no one can quite dismiss the possibility. “What I really want to know,” says Gibson, “is whether, in the middle of the night, Barrett really thinks he’s gonna be premier again. That is the key question.” JUDITH TIMSON
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