CANADA

Racing to break from a crowded field

JANE O'HARA July 28 1986
CANADA

Racing to break from a crowded field

JANE O'HARA July 28 1986

Racing to break from a crowded field

Both are self-made women who have excelled in the male-dominated world of politics. Both espouse firm conservative views. Consequently, it was no surprise that Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, 60, established an instant rapport with British Columbia’s Provincial Secretary Grace McCarthy, 58, the frontrunner in the tight race to succeed William Bennett as premier and head of the B.C. Social Credit Party. During Thatcher’s July 12 visit to Expo 86, the British prime minister spotted McCarthy coming down the receiving line at a private reception in the Hotel Vancouver. Quickly opening her black handbag, Thatcher rummaged around and pulled out one of McCarthy’s red, yellow and blue campaign badges. Then, pulling McCarthy to her side, Thatcher held the “Grace” badge to her collar and motioned impatiently for a photographer to take their picture. For McCarthy, the gesture by Britain’s first female prime minister was an encouraging fillip to her campaign to become Canada’s first female premier. Said McCarthy: “I hope they got the picture.”

As the contest entered its final stages, McCarthy seemed closer than ever to achieving her ambition. A recent newspaper survey of delegates to the July 28-30 leadership convention showed the onetime florist leading eleven other candidates—at least on the first ballot. With 49 of 50 delegate-selection meetings completed, The Vancouver Sun said McCarthy had the support of 250 delegates who will attend the convention at the Whistler Conference Centre, 65 km north of Vancouver. Kamloops lawyer Douglas (Bud) Smith, 40, Bennett’s former principal secretary, was in second place with 200 committed delegates; former Socred cabinet minister William Vander Zalm, 52, was third with 190; and B.C. Attorney General Brian Smith, 52, was fourth with 95. The other eight would-be premiers claimed fewer than 40 delegates each.

However, Socred organizers warned that the race was still volatile and could break wide open at the convention. With about 30 per cent of the

1,300 delegates still uncommitted, some party officials predicted that five ballots might be necessary to select a successor to Bennett, who announced on May 22 his plan to resign after 10 years as premier. Said Vancouver delegate Lonnie Neufeld: “It’s a mug’s game trying to figure out the numbers. Everybody’s got their own.”

Although Vander Zalm’s campaign

organization was the smallest of the front-runners—200 people compared with about 600 working for McCarthy—the charismatic campaigner, 52, was attracting support from Social Credit’s fundamentalist right wing. In an attempt to give himself a more contemporary look, Vander Zalm— founder of a chain of nursery gardens— shaved off his long sideburns. Meanwhile, candidate Robert Wenman, 46, Conservative MP for the B.C. riding of Fraser Valley West, was spending up to five hours a day on the phones talking to delegates. And Bud Smith, a political pragmatist with links to the federal Conservatives and Ontario’s Tory Big Blue Machine, planned to visit 42 constituencies in the last 19 days of the campaign. Said Zäher Meghji, Smith’s communications director: “Most of us get exhausted by his schedule. He gets energized by it.”

The intensity of the campaign has led to charges of irregularities. Some

delegates said organizers for certain candidates had offered to pay travel and accommodation expenses—more than $1,000 in some cases—in exchange for votes.

For Socred delegates, the choice of leader will be critical. The new premier must overcome the nine-point lead in public opinion polls held by the New Democratic Party under the low-key Robert Skelly and lead the

party to victory in the next election, due by 1988. “Anyone of them could be leader,” said Wayne Dahlen, 47, a delegate from the province’s South Peace River. “We have to elect someone who can beat the NDP.”

Whoever wins, the outcome of the Whistler convention will change the face of the Social Credit party. Should the old guard win under McCarthy or Vander Zalm, it will purge the premier’s office of the eastern-trained operatives who dominated the Bennett administration for the past six years. If Bud Smith’s forces take power, they will foster closer links with the federal Tories—and old-line Socreds will find a party they no longer know. In the end, the convention may choose a compromise candidate. One possible choice: Brian Smith, a member of Bennett’s cabinet since 1979 who is well liked by the Socred caucus.

JANE O'HARA