Boisterous Social Credit supporters began filling the ballroom of the Hotel Vancouver hours before the final tally of returns from the British Columbia election. But the man they had come to praise—Premier William Bennett—was 240 km away accepting congratulations in his South Okanagan riding headquarters in Kelowna. There, Bennett got a hug from his 83-year-old mother, May—widow of
W.A.C. Bennett, the premier of British Columbia from 1952 to 1972. As the votes rolled in, it was clear that Bennett had defied the pundits and the polls and had won his third consecutive provincial victory. His defeat of David Barrett’s New Democratic Party gave Bennett’s Socreds 35 seats to the NDP’s 22. But despite the mood of jubilation, Bennett had a stern and sober message that he aimed not so much at his loving supporters as at those British Columbians
who had not voted for him. Warning that tough economic times were not over, he declared, “There will continue to be people unemployed, and I will work for them; there will continue to be problems for our business community, and I will work for them.”
Voters heeded Bennett’s warning that the NDP would spend the province further into recession
In the end, British Columbians stayed with the devil they knew best. They returned the restraint-minded Social Credit government and, despite hard times, rejected a left-wing fling with the New Democrats. Barrett, in fact, largely sealed his own fate halfway through the campaign with the declaration that he would lift restrictions on government spending. The third confrontation between Bennett and Barrett in eight years may also have decisively settled one of Canada’s most heated political grudges. Premier Bennett, who has scored three straight wins over NDP leader Barrett since 1975, is likely to continue as a political force. For Barrett, who spent the past four years trying to make himself and his party respectable, the Socred gain of four seats was a crushing rebuke. It also may mean the retirement of one of the most energetic forces in B.C. politics.
In contrast, Bennett’s control over the Socreds—a coalition of former Liberals, Tories and right-wing populists— is more secure than ever. His grip was strengthened partly because of a wellorganized campaign run by Conserva-
tive imports from Ontario’s Big Blue Machine. But even the eastern pros such as Bennett’s executive director of the party, Jerry Lampert, were nervous early in the campaign when polls taken by federal Conservative pollster Allan Gregg showed the Socreds sagging. The NDP started strongly with a promise of jobs financed by $500 million in borrowed money. Bennett, meanwhile, was haunted by predictions that 200,000 would be unemployed in the once-prosperous province, and by charges that health-care costs were set to soar. But, in the manner of his father, Bennett sought to woo voters by promising more restraint and charging that an NDP victory would “be chaos for the whole country.”
The tactic worked again. Socred ads depicting Barrett as a socialist in pinstripes apparently convinced voters who might otherwise have been irked by months of Socred cutbacks aimed at doctors, nurses, teachers and union members. Lampert submits that the Socreds overcame their recent troubles by beating the NDP at its own game— canvassing and getting out the vote. “We took [the election] to the doorstep and we defeated them at the game they’re good at,” said Lampert. It certainly seemed to work. Social Credit
picked up 49.7 per cent of the vote, the highest total in at least 25 years, while the NDP slumped to 44.9 per cent. That Socred vote was apparently bolstered by Conservative and Liberal voters who abandoned their parties. The Liberals got 2.7 per cent, the Tories an abysmal 1.2 per cent.
But the Socreds certainly did not get much help from Bennett—at least at the beginning of the campaign. He seemed to stumble from one meeting to the next, fatigued and slurring his words. Then, halfway through the campaign, Barrett inadvertently handed Bennett a new lease on life. The NDP leader, who is nothing if not blunt, said that he would abandon the government’s wage restraint program on the public service. Until that statement, the Socreds had been defensively trying to explain away a series of well-timed leaks that showed the government was considering raising health-care fees. But with Barrett’s political blunder, Bennett’s 18-hour days suddenly started to count. The premier charged that the cost of eliminating what had been the first wage restraint program in the country during this recession would be great.
Suddenly Barrett faced an uphill struggle. Bennett’s warning that the
New Democrats were going to spend the province further into a recession fell on receptive ears in a province with a billion-dollar deficit. While the New Democrats promised to increase the deficit to create jobs, Bennett stressed his megaprojects: the northeast coal development project, the new domed stadium and the redevelopment of False Creek in downtown Vancouver. Barrett, in turn, tried to ridicule Bennett’s grandiose schemes. But he never managed to fine-tune the volume of his booming speaking voice. Said a confident Barrett two days before the vote: “I have been defeated and I have risen again. I am a political phoenix; I am back again.” By election night there was no more talk of political rebirth. Said Barrett during a gracious speech to party workers: “I’m not going to make an announcement of what I’m going to do except to go to bed soon.” The tears glistening in his eyes indicated that the former social worker will spend some agonizing weeks with his family and wife, Shirley, deciding his personal future. MPP Gary Lauk, who, like Barrett, succeeded in holding his Vancouver seat, expressed sympathy: “Dave did a tremendous job and the best he could in the face of a multimillion-dollar machine.”
But political parties can be ruthless
when faced with a three-time loser. It is now almost certain that Barrett will quit, although there are no obvious candidates waiting to replace him. Also, Barrett’s departure may ignite a fight between his moderate followers and the left-wingers who feel the ideological purity of the party has been tainted by the recent shift to the centre.
Meanwhile, the left-right splitshould it develop—would further weaken an already dispirited party. Barrett, for one, so feared division in 1975 that he turned down a $300,000 offer to host a radio hotline show in an attempt to keep his party together.
But if Barrett’s future plans were rudely disrupted by the election, there was another less obvious victim. William Vander Zalm, Bennett’s controversial education minister and the darling of the party’s right wing, decided not to seek re-election, fearing Socred defeat. His decision hinged on an NDP victory, after which he planned to emerge from his strategic retreat into the garden supply business to lead the shattered Socreds back to glory. Last week, his scheme in shreds, Vander Zalm declared, “I’ll be back but I’ll probably be out of provincial politics for four years or so.”
That leaves the top office in the province entirely to Bennett, who has already paid off old political debts that lingered after the Socreds’ 1975 win. With no promises to keep, Bennett can now fashion a cabinet entirely to his own liking.
The triumphant premier—long dismissed as “mini-WAC” after his largerthan-life father—turned up to receive the accolades of his followers last week sporting the unfashionably wide lapels he habitually wears on election nights. It was a kind of reminder that some things never change in British Columbia. But the imminent departure of Barrett and the entrenchment of the Tory professionals from Ontario could signal the end of an era in provincial politics. On the election trail Barrett had a speaking style that recalled the days of the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the socialist evangelism of Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth. That style will vanish, if Barrett does, as the two main parties devote their energies to canvassing, polltaking and organization. “We had perhaps 35,000 volunteers working across the province, a far greater effort than anything Social Credit has ever done before,” said organizer Lampert. The effort paid big dividends—and it sent a clear message to governments across Canada: voters uncompromisingly want restraint from their governments and their politicians. The free spenders face electoral doom.
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