BACKSTAGE: B.C.

An instinct for the potholes

They did it to the father — now to the son?

Thomas Hopkins December 29 1980
BACKSTAGE: B.C.

An instinct for the potholes

They did it to the father — now to the son?

Thomas Hopkins December 29 1980

An instinct for the potholes

BACKSTAGE: B.C.

They did it to the father — now to the son?

Thomas Hopkins

Face blazing with a new Mexican tan, B.C. Premier Bill Bennett recently allowed that the press isn’t the reason his programs were meeting with bone-rattling opposition, it is him—he’s not getting the message across, and he resolved to do better. Perhaps. It would be nice to be charitable, to argue that Bennett’s government is generally made up of well-meaning men and women doing their scout’s-honor best, but too often in the past year the government of British Columbia has come to be used as a blunt instrument. In a reversal of the Midas touch, everything, it seems, the Social Credit touches turns to steaming bull flop, leaving former NDP premier Dave (“Fat ’ol Dave”)

Barrett to practise acceptance speeches in his mirror.

Regardless of Bennett’s sales job, the Socred disasters

have unreeled in dreary succession. Early in December, Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Vander Zalm infuriated the mayor of Vancouver, the Greater Vancouver Regional District and the federal government by announcing their purchase of an Ontario lightrapid transit system for Vancouver-before any of the others had made up their minds on the deal. The same week, the provincial government, which last year had noisily dismissed the tubby VictoriaSeattle cruise ship Princess Marguerite as unfit for women and babies, said it had been illinformed and now would refit it. The truncated session of the

legislature that ended Dec. 12, called abruptly while Bennett was on vacation, had even cabinet ministers shrugging in bemusement about its significance. As it turned out, its putative purpose was to wing to Ottawa a unanimous B.C. objection to unilateral patriation, on the occasion of the early December end of the special parliamentary committee on the constitution. The ploy rebounded embarrassingly when the committee’s life was extended by two months and when the provincial NDP refused to endorse the Bennett motion. Other gaffes, such as the huge rise in government auto insurance rates to B.C. seniors (the Socreds subsequently backed off), the messy take-over by the Bennettsired B.C. Resources Investment Corp. (BCRIC) of Kaiser Resources Ltd. and BCRlC’s resultant declining market value, have even Socred supporters shaking their heads heavily. Recent polls place the Socreds at least 10 points behind the panting NDP.

Those diagnosing the Socred malady point to Bennett’s increasing isolation. The rudimentary staff he gathered after victory in 1975 was riddled by last year’s “dirty tricks” scandal and aftermath. Despite the recent addition of a front-man executive assistant, it has remained largely unreplaced, leaving Bennett with little organized system of access for special-interest groups, officials or backbenchers. The other major culprit is lack of government

organization. Ironically, the socialists Bennett ousted five years ago this month were lousy planners, and Social Credit vowed it would be different, but even that has gone awry. Witness the recent embarrassing ignorance on the part of the provincial environment minister about a provocative U.S. oil supertanker test off the B.C. coast while his energy minister colleague cosily sat on the information. Even the civil service has become demoralized, the bright young things have fled or been forced out, leaving behind cautious lifers and snappish mandarins. It is increasingly a minimalist government, made worse by the fact that cracker-barrel day-by-day politics is viewed—when Socreds talk to their pillows at night—as a virtue.

It’s B.C. populism, and it might have been fine in another age, perhaps with Will Rogers at the helm, but in the 1980s it appears to lead from one boot in a sump hole to another.

Across the floor of the B.C. House, Dave Barrett, only five seats away from vindication, watches like a big daddy slowly rocking on his front porch. His troops have recently elected new Vancouver Mayor Mike Harcourt, overturning the Socred-backed incumbent. He has taken the Trudeau-supporting high road on the constitutional debate in contrast to Bennett’s strident Ottawabashing. Barrett and his shadow cabinet have also been holding quiet meetings with B.C. business leaders, and it is a testament to the Social Credit malaise that it is almost universally conceded Barrett will form the next government.

But it is a bloodless form of opposition. Gone is the fire and the conviction of black feminist Rosemary Brown, in favor of the coy if successful vacuum of the wait.

The single most potentially explosive element in the fascinating board game of B.C. politics, however, is the wouldbe rebirth of the B.C. provincial Tories under new leader Brian Westwood, a talented, pint-sized Surrey florist. Traditionally, Tory and Liberal votes in B.C. have dissolved into Socred support (neither party currently holds a seat). Yet, despite some alarmingly right-wing followers, Westwood says he is prepared to play the happy saboteur of Social Credit.

But if Bill Bennett doesn’t appear unduly ruffled by speculation about the fate of his leadership, it is because he has at least two years of his mandate left in which to improve his smile and set the Socred train aright. And, in Fantasia on the Pacific, that is a very long time indeed. Despite that, he must have felt a chill recently when 3,500 B.C. teachers, protesting the limited indexing of their pensions, paraded through downtown Vancouver. These are the teachers who were instrumental in the 1972 crushing of W.A.C. Bennett by Dave Barrett, and their slogan this year read, “We did it to the father, we can do it to the son.”

Thomas Hopkins is Maclean’s B.C. bureau chief.