British Columbia boils over

Jane O’Hara October 17 1983

British Columbia boils over

Jane O’Hara October 17 1983

British Columbia boils over



Jane O’Hara

When British Columbia Premier William Bennett hit the campaign trail last April 7 he promised a government of old-fashioned conservative restraint. To British Columbians, hurt more than most Canadians by the recent recession, the message had an appealing ring. Then, two months after his Social Credit Party won an overwhelming victory on May 5, voters were stunned by the premier’s fierce determination to implement his radical measures virtually overnight. What Bennett now is attempting to do is nothing short of totally redrawing the economic and social contours of his province. The heart of that revolution was a legislative program, containing 26 bills that did everything from cutting the civil service by 25 per cent to eliminating the human rights commission and the rent control board. Underlying the program was an almost messianic fervor. Bennett wants to virtually rewrite the postwar social contract, and change fundamentally the

voters’ expectations of what their government can do for them. Now after three months of demonstrations and protest, and with the threat of a general strike hanging over the province, Bennett’s “Holy War” is much more than a matter of provincial concern. It has become the focus of a nationwide debate.

Bennett’s massive restructuring has aroused profound fears and anger in a province already suffering from economic dislocation and 14-per-cent unemployment. Last week, as other provincial governments with heavy deficits studied the B.C. experiment closely, the signs of a deepening confrontation were everywhere. The forestry sector, the backbone of the province’s economy, was facing an industry wide lock-out as 500 loggers continued a wildcat strike. Contract negotiations with the province’s 250,000 public employees were stalled as 1,600 people were scheduled to lose their jobs on Oct. 31. The already rancorous relations between the Socreds and the opposition New Democratic Party reached a new low when NDP leader David Barrett was forcibly dragged off the floor of Victoria’s limestone legisla-

ture and ejected for challenging the Speaker during an all-night debate. At the same time, the Solidarity Coalition, a 950,000-strong protest movement representing labor and community groups, continued to threaten an Oct. 31 general strike after a meeting with Bennett last week failed to bring about any hint of reconciliation.

Controversial: Despite the all-out, head-to-head confrontations, Bennett, 51-year-old son of former premier W.A.C. Bennett and a successful businessman from the interior of British Columbia who is proud of his smalltown virtues, was determined to pursue his goal. There would be no more “government by Chargex,” he repeatedly told British Columbians (page 26). His government will be “lean, not mean,” the premier declared. As he told a luncheon for the Employers’ Council of British Columbia last week—in one of his rare public speeches since he introduced his controversial budget on July 7—it was time to apply a new philosophy to government services and size. “We are calling for layoffs the same way as they are in the private sector,”

he said. “We will bring the same factors to bear. No one should be guaranteed a job for life.”

Bennett’s attempts to put the public sector on the same footing as the private sector are spelled out in three bills now before the legislature which, according to the British Columbia Government Employees’ Union (BCGEU),

will completely rewrite the rules of bargaining.

Bill 3, the Public Sector Restraint Act, will unilaterally remove job security from civil servants. Bill 2, the Public Service Labor Relations Amendment Act, will strip the unions of the right to negotiate a variety of items, including work scheduling. It will also remove the responsibility of government to negotiate “the effect of layoffs.” Bill 11, the Compensation Stabilization Amendment Act, will limit any wage in-

cut crease possible and pave in pay. to the five way five-per-cent per for cent a

Apart from the legislation, the threatened 1,600 firings will almost certainly touch off strike activity throughout the trade union movement. Already, the 40,000-member BCGEU— which will be without a contract after Oct. 31—has promised it will strike.

Last week in an effort to show the seriousness of its cause, the BCGEU began taking a series of strike votes. B.C. teachers and ferry workers also promised to take strike votes soon. Said Cliff Andstein, the chief BCGEU bargainer: “Our brothers and sisters are out there and we’ll be joining them soon.”

Adding to the volatility of the labor

situation is the increasingly uneasy state of the forestry industry which accounts for almost 50 cents of every dollar earned in British Columbia. The three main forestry unions are negotiating a new contract, but those talks are jeopardized because of a recent strike by 500 loggers in the Nimpkish Valley on northern Vancouver Island who walked off the job over a dispute involving the contracting out of non-union workers. Industry

spokesmen then threatened a province-wide lockout if they did not return. They did, but it is that kind of unrest that

the Solidarity Coalition is trying to use. Said B.C. Federation of Labor president Art Kube: “Basically the proposition will be that no union in the province can stand alone if 1,600 of its members are fired. There is a possibility of a very wide job action in this province.

Time is running out and feelings are running very high.”

Despite the strong talk from the unions, Bennett has shown no sign of tempering his tough legislation. For him, it is the only way that the province can recover from the recession. Historically, British Columbia—with its almost wholly resource-based economy— is usually the last province into, and the last one out of, recession. This year, the government will be saddled with a $1.6billion deficit after increasing government spending by 12.3 per cent. With almost two-thirds of the B.C. economy dependent on exports, the future is uncertain. The forestry industry is still reeling after a year of record losses and Bennett’s $2.5-billion northeast coal megaproject is running into problems in its initial development. Although the first trainload of coal will be moving out of the Quintette Mine early next month, forecasts are gloomy for the short-term export market. According to the B.C. coal industry, producers will have to face cutbacks in the price and quantity of their contracts, while desperately trying to hold on to their market share. Unemployment is also high: 33 per cent in the forestry industry; 25 per cent in the resource industries; and close to 20 per cent in the service and manufacturing industries. In many ways, Bennett is trying to reverse the economy in time for the 1986 Expo transportation fair that Vancouver will host. He also hopes that the fair will be a boon to the economy. Said Bennett: “The hosting of Expo 86 will provide billions of tourist dollars and technology and industry for us and the world.”

Empty-handed: Last week, Bennett made one major concession to those opposed to his plan when he agreed to meet with Kube, and his Solidarity Coalition co-chairmen Renate Shearer, a former member of the B.C. Human Rights Commission, and Rev. James Roberts, a Catholic priest and religious studies professor, to discuss the unions’ concerns. For the coalition, the meeting was a calculated gamble. Since the budget restraint package was brought down last July, the coalition and Bennett have dealt with each other primarily through the media. The coalition had demanded a meeting with the premier for months on the precondition that Bennett withdraw his controversial program. But that was totally unacceptable to the premier. And when the two sides finally came together for 90 minutes in Bennett’s legislature office, there were no preconditions. Bennett also turned down a request by the coalition to suspend the legislature during the talks “as a sign of good faith.” In the end, when Kube and the other coalition leaders walked out of Bennett’s office, they left empty-handed. Later it became


clear that Bennett had completely outmanoeuvred the group. Following the meeting, Kube announced that the coalition would meet with Bennett once again this week. But Bennett said that he was not aware of any scheduled meeting, adding that he planned to visit Toronto for much of the week.

One of the few proposals to come out of the meeting was Bennett’s suggestion to the coalition leaders that they meet with various cabinet ministers to discuss the finer points of the legislation which they disagree with. But Kube said that discussion of bills in very narrow terms was not what the coalition wanted and that Bennett’s “one on one” suggestion to meet with cabinet ministers was simply an attempt “to divide and conquer” the coalition. Said Kube: “Because there are fairly divergent groups in the coalition, the government could start an atmosphere of distrust. We are going to stick together.” Added Shearer: “I cannot say I am necessarily overjoyed at the outcome.” For his part, Bennett quickly resorted to a tough stance when he accused the coalition of posturing by its refusal to accept his offer to meet with cabinet ministers. Said Bennett: “I am sorry they have not chosen to respond to that offer. The ball is in their court.”

Despite Bennett’s skill in handling the Solidarity Coalition, he cannot ignore the wide and deepening range of

protest from British Columbians who are frightened by his radical vision. The Solidarity Coalition was formed more than two months ago as a response to Bennett’s legislative plans. Its numbers grew steadily as the labor movement, citizens’ groups and the religious community joined in the protest. Its strength is in its numbers: Solidarity rallies in Victoria and Vancouver drew unprecedented crowds of 40,000 alien-

ated British Columbians. But for all the speechmaking, petition-signing and threats against the government on open-line radio shows, Solidarity has been unable to make the Socreds either retreat from their position or even rethink it. Under the strain of failed expectations, the coalition is showing signs of crumbling from within. Already various factions have accused it of being too moderate. And although a recent sit-in at Bennett’s Vancouver office by a group of militant labor and community activists was not sanctioned and Kube simply described the event as being “out of step” with the mainstream, he refused to condemn it because he feared he would undermine the coalition’s unity. Others within the coalition have even begun attacking their political

ally, the NDP, for its strategy of fighting legislation in the House. According to Michael Kramer, a solidarity spokesman and secretary of the B.C. Federation of Labor, the NDP’s insistence that it will fight only the “dirty dozen” out of a total of 26 bills is unacceptable to the coalition as a whole. Said Kramer: “It will not sit too well inside the coalition. I would like to see them be strong on all the bills and stymie all the legislation.” So far, the NDP has been unsuccessful in its attempts to derail even those bills. For the past three weeks, the B.C. legislature has been the scene of bitter outraged debates. Using the unusual tactic of closure and round-the-clock sittings—a tactic called “legislation by exhaustion” during the reign of former premier W.A.C. Bennett—the 35 Socred members have effectively stifled the dissenting voices of the 22 NDP members. For their part, the New Democrats have tried to stall the passage of legislation by filibuster and by tying up the legislature in procedural arguments.

Secret: Despite the NDP manoeuvres, the government appears intent on pushing through its legislation as quickly as possible. A memo released by the NDP and written by Science Minister Dr. Patrick McGeer to the caucus last week made it clear that the government objective was to conclude the present sitting by Oct. 29—which would mean passing at least one bill and one set of minister’s estimates each day. NDP

House Leader Frank Howard charged that the privileges of MLAs were being infringed because of the government’s “secret master plan.”

When the government moved to allnight sessions on Sept. 19 to get its program through, both sides prepared for the new way of doing business. Bennett showed up at the legislature with a suitcase of freshly packed clothes. NDP MLA Barbara Wallace camped in her van, parked in a lot at the back of the legislature. And other MLAs dragged in sleeping bags, air mattresses and blankets. One Socred cabinet minister brought his teddy bear into the house. Forestries Minister Thomas Waterland brought his Sony Walkman and Speaker Walter Davidson had a dimmer switch put on corridor lights which were shining into his office and disturbing his sleep. All-night poker games have become a favorite activity in caucus rooms off the chamber. During one week the legislature sat for a record 82 hours.

Challenge: The pace is hardest on the government side. It must be able to field a team of 23 MLAs in case the New Democrats have all 22 members in the House, which would be enough to defeat the government. In a well-calculated move, the NDP has divided its members into three teams, each working eighthour shifts. At the opening of the allnight sessions, the NDP had buttons made up which read: “A”, “B” and “C” teams. Not to be outdone, the Socreds got buttons of their own marked “The Winning Team.”

Button wars aside, tempers began to wear thin last week. On Tuesday, during a 13x/2-hour session, the government invoked closure an unprecedented four times in order to curb NDP clause-byclause debate of two contentious bills, one of which would wipe out regional land-use plans. The growing NDP outrage over the inability to stop the Bennett juggernaut culminated in the early morning hours last Thursday when Barrett was bodily dragged from the chamber and banished by the Speaker of the House for the rest of the session. It was the second time in a month that Barrett had been ejected. Last week the incident began innocently when Barrett challenged a ruling by acting Speaker John Parks—a rookie Socred. Challenging a ruling is one of the many tactics the NDP has used to delay passage or to force the ringing of the division bells and rouse sleeping.

The Speaker disallowed Barrett’s challenge and, after being chided by the opposition leader, he asked him to leave for the remainder of the day’s sitting. Barrett refused, telling the Speaker: “I have a right to challenge rules and I’m not leaving. If I give up that right I give up everything that this place stands for.

People have died for this right.” Undetered by Barrett’s Churchillian oratory, the Speaker invoked Standing Order 20 of the B.C. legislature—which covers gross disorderly conduct by members— and asked two security guards to forcibly remove Barrett. MLAs watched in stunned silence as blue-jacketed security men dumped Barrett out of his chair and then pulled him on his back across the chamber and out through a revolving door. Said Barrett after dusting himself off outside the chamber: “It is an absurd abuse of the freedoms of the parliamentary democracy.” Technically, Barrett’s banishment means that he is not permitted to sit in the public gallery, or even go to his own office at the legislature. As well, he is

liable to have his $64,809 pay cut by $250 a day for every day after 10 that he is absent from the legislature. Parliamentary law expert Edward McWhinney quickly came to Barrett’s defence. A professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, McWhinney said the expulsion was against the legislature’s rules and that Barrett’s constituents could resort to the courts for a declaration that the Speaker was wrong in depriving them of representation. But, by week’s end, Socred MLAs were saying privately that they might pass a motion to have Barrett reinstated quickly, in order to cool any public sympathy that he might gain. Said one cabinet minister: “We don’t want to make this guy a martyr.”

Uncharted: Barrett’s reinstatement may hearten the opposition in its struggle to fight Bennett, but it is clear that not even his disruption will stop passage of the legislation. Bennett, for one, remains convinced that the majority of British Columbians still support him, despite a province-wide poll published by the Vancouver Sun two weeks ago which said that, although a majority of British Columbians support restraint, close to 75 per cent said that they disapproved of his heavy-handed methods. Bennett responded to the poll results by saying that rather than change the legislation, the government will merely try to counter its bad press. In his speech to the B.C. Employers’ Council, Bennett made a clear attack on his enemies who

have “deliberately misunderstood” him.

In many ways Bennett is to Canada what Margaret Thatcher is to Britain: a political crusader taking his province on an uncharted course. For the time being, Bennett himself remains the most certain that his radical remodelling of British Columbia is necessary and will ultimately be accepted by the public. And above all, one thing is clear: other provincial governments will be anxiously awaiting the outcome. Said Ontario Treasurer Frank Miller: “I am watching with trepidation. If Bennett succeeds every government will be trying the same thing in its own way. If he fails, the cause of government restraint will be set back a decade.” 'v?