The cast of contenders spans the political spectrum: four current and two former Social Credit cabinet ministers, two backbench MLAs, two former aides to retiring Premier William Bennett, one Progressive Conservative MP—and even one Liberal mayor, Saanich’s Mel Couvelier. In public meetings across the province the candidates appear friendly and collegial. But behind closed doors a bitter struggle is being waged for the soul of the Social Credit party. And the stakes are high. The winner of the July 28-30 leadership convention in Whistler, B.C., will instantly become not only party leader but premier of British Columbia.
With a month to go, no clear frontrunner has emerged from the dense pack of 12 candidates. But the race to succeed Bennett has become a divisive contest between party insiders and outsiders. Already, an unofficial coalition of old-line Socreds is shaping up to stop the upstart campaign of Douglas (Bud) Smith, a 40-year-old Kamloops lawyer. Largely unknown outside the party, Smith worked on Bennett’s election campaign of 1983 and served as his principal secretary for two years before resigning—in anticipation of a forthcoming election—to run as a Socred candidate in Kamloops. The brains behind Smith’s leadership campaign is Tory John Laschinger, a veteran strategist of Ontario’s Big Blue Machine. But Laschinger is only the
most recent of a series of political imports from Eastern Canada who dominate Socred policy and decision-making, alienating many party loyalists. Since 1981, Bennett’s Ontario-bred advisers have included deputy minister Patrick Kinsella, principal secretary Jerry Lampert and deputy minister Norman Spector.
Within the ranks, party loyalists say that Bennett’s May 22 resignation announcement—and his call for “renewal”—was an indirect anointing of Bud Smith. That perception has caused an open revolt among many of Bennett’s oldtime supporters in caucus and cabinet, some of whom have been Bennett disciples since he was first elected in 1973. Said Minister of Human Resources Jim Nielsen, himself a leadership candidate: “I didn’t shovel shit in the stables for 10 years to have someone else come in and ride the pony.”
The leader of the anti-Eastern alliance, dubbed “Bud Busters,” is 58year-old Grace McCarthy, now provincial secretary and the grand dame of Social Credit politics. A junior minister in the cabinet of the premier’s father, W.A.C. Bennett, McCarthy backed Bill Bennett’s 1973 leadership campaign, and when the Socreds replaced the New Democrats in 1975 Bennett made her deputy premier. But in 1983 he stripped McCarthy of her title and began relying increasingly on his high-priced, out-of-province advis-
ers. The final humiliation came when Bennett sent chief aide Lampert to inform the cabinet of his decision to resign just minutes before he announced it publicly. “I don’t believe in nonelected officials leading the party,” said McCarthy recently. “That power should never be placed in someone who has never sought the electorate’s approval. My biggest competition is the big guns from the East who think they can come in here and create an image of what they think is the best thing for the party. That kind of arrogance the party does not need.”
Other candidates are equally opposed to Bennett’s style of government and are seeking grassroots support. Among them:
• Former minister William Van der Zalm, 52, a wealthy businessman who owns the $7-million Fantasy Garden World tourist park outside Vancouver. A charismatic populist, Van der Zalm spent eight years in provincial government before taking a sabbatical in 1983.
• MLA John Reynolds, 44, a West Vancouver businessman and former open-line radio show host. Once a Tory MP, Reynolds boasts one of the best campaign machines, and for the past three years has been shoring up dele-
gate support. Like many others in the race, his main target is Smith and the Big Blue Machine. Said Reynolds: “They’re not unbeatable.”
• Former energy minister Stephen Rogers. At 44, Rogers is the youngest elected official in the race. According to party insiders, he has been planning a run for the leadership for years. A commercial pilot and the scion of a Vancouver sugar fortune, Rogers has been piloting himself and longtime cabinet friends into remote parts of the province to woo delegates. But earlier this year Rogers resigned from the cabinet amid charges of failing to disclose his financial holdings, as required by provincial law. Pleading guilty, he received an absolute discharge but was not taken back into the cabinet.
• Attorney General Brian Smith, 52, a rumpled, silverhaired lawyer with a clean record in government. But in many minds Smith’s campaign, backed by Big Blue Machine expatriate Kinsella, is linked with Bud Smith’s candidacy. Although not related, they have been dubbed “The Smith Brothers.” Still, Brian Smith insists: “I am my own candidate. Not anybody’s backup.”
In the event of a stalemate, federal Tory MP Robert Wenman could emerge as a compromise winner. In contrast to the Big Blue Machine, Wenman’s organizers call themselves “The Little Green Machine.” A Socred MLA from 1966-72, Wenman has roots in both camps and acknowledges his unique position in the race. “I’m both an insider and an outsider.” Each of the 50 provincial ridings will choose its delegates by July 9. Then, the real work of the campaign will begin—building a coalition to claim the leadership of a party that for 35 years has never been run by anyone but a Bennett. During that period, the party has been a precarious alliance of Liberals and Conservatives—banded together for the express purpose of keeping the New Democratic Party out of power. A divisive leadership race could cause rifts that might affect British Columbia for decades to come. But if the party manages to heal its divisions, the political outlook may be more promising. Said candidate Reynolds: “After this thing, selling yourself to the province will be easy.”
JANE O’HARA with DIANE LUCKOW in Vancouver and SID TAFLER in Victoria
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