Vander Zalm’s bold plans

JANE O’HARA November 2 1987

Vander Zalm’s bold plans

JANE O’HARA November 2 1987

Vander Zalm’s bold plans


When William Vander Zalm was running for premier of British Columbia last year, he revealed few specific plans or policies. Instead, the charismatic Netherlands-born politician wooed voters with a broad smile and governing generalities. For a province battered by economic troubles and bitter political confrontation, the prospect of calmer times was clearly appealing: Vander Zalm routed the opposition New Democrats, taking 46 seats to the NDP’s 22. But last week, as he marked the first anniversary of his election, Vander Zalm was anything but vague. Addressing his Social Credit party’s annual convention in Vancouver, he announced details of a sweeping plan to restructure the government and privatize many government services. The privatization measures, Vander Zalm said,

had a firm purpose: “to create an economic environment like nowhere else in Canada; to tell the world there is a place where free enterprise is being given real meaning.”

Indeed, Vander Zalm is moving forcefully to put his strong conservative views into practice. Last spring, despite an election promise to cool political discord, he took on the province’s powerful labor movement by introducing a series of radical labor law reforms. Now, Vander Zalm has turned his attention to reshaping government. Scorned by critics as an attempt to circumvent democratic processes, his restructuring plans are a huge political gamble that could permanently alter the way the province is governed. Said Terence Morley, political scientist at the University of Victoria: “Vander Zalm’s first year has been like a roller coaster. On the one hand, he still has that sunny, charming

personality that attracts people. On the other hand, there is real disquiet about his fantastic vision for this province.”

Vander Zalm’s style of governing is unique. Always a populist, he frequently holds town hall meetings in auditoriums and community centres, sitting on a stool holding a microphone and fielding questions from the audience. He also hosts a monthly open-line radio show called Premier Talk. Said Theresa Pearl, one of the 1,200 Socreds who wildly applauded Vander Zalm’s speech at last week’s convention: “I think he’s fantastic. It’s just great the way he’s moving ahead with the future in British Columbia. He’s a great, great premier.”

The 53-year-old millionaire horticulturist also has found time to make a Dutch Christian folk record and to star in a movie called Sinterklaas Fantasy, filmed partly in Holland. Based on

Vander Zalm’s life, the film tells the story of a poor emigrant who moves to Canada and makes his fortune.

For most of the year the hardworking Vander Zalm lives in Victoria, while his wife, Lillian, stays in suburban Vancouver and runs the family’s $8million theme park, Fantasy Garden World. The premier returns to Vancouver twice a month, on average, to spend time with his family at the park, where they have an apartment. Although the family is close, they are often forced to be apart because of the premier’s heavy schedule. Said his daughter, Juanita, 28: “I see him maybe 10 to 15 minutes a week, tops.

Where he is and what he’s doing, I find out by watching the news.”

Critics say that Vander Zalm’s folksy style hides an instinct for one-man rule. The premier, they say, has established a presidential-style administration that concentrates power in his office. Since taking power, his staff has increased more than sixfold—from 12 to 75. But Vander Zalm’s officials say that the increase in the size of the staff was justified. Federal-provincial relations, formerly handled by a separate minister, now comes under the premier’s office. And Vander Zalm has more mail and more appointments than his predecessor. The premier’s closest adviser is principal secretary David Poole, a former director of the Social Credit party. Poole travels everywhere with Vander Zalm and heads a committee that approves all senior government hirings.

Deputy ministers report directly to the premier, over the heads of ministers, and the premier vets any government contract worth more than $500. Caucus members complain that they first learn government policy after it has been announced in the media and that Vander Zalm’s shoot-from-the-lip statements are often wildly at odds with what his ministers have said. Declared Alan Twigg, author of the 1986 book Vander Zalm: From Immigrant to Premier: “Nothing he does surprises me. This is such a narrow-minded, egocentric person that he doesn’t listen to people much.”

Vander Zalm’s tendency to make offthe-cuff announcements has also landed him in hot water. Before a cabinet meeting last week Vander Zalm announced that the government planned to pay the $2.5-million debt of the B.C. Lions, Vancouver’s Canadian Football League team. The announcement angered health officials and hospital ad-

ministrators who have been pleading for more government funding. At the B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver alone, more than 700 sick children are waiting for treatment because a $2.7million deficit has meant a cutback in elective surgery. But during a threehour cabinet meeting Vander Zalm had changed his mind, deciding to give the province’s cash-starved hospitals a special grant of $20 million. To cover the cost, the premier said that he would have to renege on a promise to lower the provincial sales tax to five per cent from six per cent.

The premier’s plans to restructure the government are almost as conten-

tious. Said NDP Leader Michael Harcourt: “It’s going to mean less services for more money.” But in his speech to Socred supporters, Vander Zalm’s audacious plans drew standing ovations.

Impressed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s privatization campaign, which has raised $21 billion since 1979 through the sale of governmentowned companies, Vander Zalm set up a committee last August to study all government ministries, agencies and companies. Headed by Intergovernmental Relations Minister Stephen Rogers, it made a list of $10 billion in government assets that might be privatized.

In the end Vander Zalm decided on a more modest program. In phase 1 of the twopart program announced last week, two Crown corporations and 11 government services worth an estimated $3 billion £ will be sold to the private sec= tor. The sell-off will affect 7,240 1 civil servants and save the government $25 million in operating costs in 1988-1989, Vander Zalm said. Items on the block include the gas division of B.C. Hydro, all or part of B.C. Systems Corp., which runs the government computer operations, all bridge and road maintenance services, and three government laboratories. In the second phase, the government will consider turning over 110 government-run liquor stores to private business.

Officials say that Vander Zalm’s plan to decentralize the government could have even wider effects than privatization. Under the proposals, announced in September, a variety of government offices would be moved from the capital, Victoria, and be relocated in communities throughout the province. British Columbia would be carved up into eight regions, each overseen by a senior cabinet minister and a parliamentary secretary who would co-ordinate economic development and decide which government services should be located in the region. Officials say that the plan will bring government closer to the people it serves.

Quick to condemn the decentralization plan, critics argued that it would create a costly, duplicate bureaucracy and would uproot thousands of civil servants in Victoria, hurting the capital’s economy. There were also fears that, rather than giving local governments more autonomy, the changes would end with Vander Zalm and his eight senior ministers running the province. Opponents charged that local MLAs who traditionally look after re-

gional interests would be cut out of decision-making. Said NDP municipal affairs critic Robin Blencoe: “As in feudal days, when you had lords of the manor, this inner sanctum cabinet will be all-powerful. It’s a classic power-grab.”

But many mayors of small towns welcomed the plan. Hoping, finally, to have a greater say in economic planning for their communities, the mayors said that the plan would speed up the government’s painfully slow decisionmaking processes. Said Garnet (Tiny) Shatosky, mayor of Fernie in southeastern British Columbia: “It sounds good so far. Obviously, the closer government is to us, the better.”

The best news so far for Vander Zalm is that, since he assumed office, the sluggish B.C. economy has slowly picked up. According to the B.C. Central Credit Union, the province will record a growth rate of two per cent in 1987. The forest industry, the province’s biggest earner, has emerged from the doldrums in spite of a new 15-per-cent excise tax on softwood lumber. Although the unemployment rate still hovers around 11.4 per cent, retail sales are expected to climb by 10 per cent this year. Still, economists are uncertain whether Vander Zalm can claim credit for the improvement. Said Richard Allen, the credit upion’s chief economist: “Put it this way: he has not had a negative impact on the economy.” Vander Zalm has been a strong supporter of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s two main initiatives: the Meech Lake constitutional accord and the free trade deal with the United States. But away from First Ministers’ meetings, Vander Zalm is quick to bemoan Ottawa’s treatment of his province. Although fed-bashing has been a popular political sport since the days of former Socred premier W.A.C. Bennett in the 1950s and 1960s, Vander Zalm has raised it to new heights. Shortly after coming to office he asked each ministry to prepare a list of grievances against Ottawa. Last month he threatened to pull British Columbia out of national dairy marketing boards unless the province’s production quota was increased. Said Vander Zalm: “We’re not getting a fair shake in Confederation.” With his privatization and government decentralization programs, Vander Zalm has taken his boldest step yet— and his most risky. Conceded the premier last week: “We are going where there is no path, and we’re blazing a trail.” But Vander Zalm’s willingness to push ahead shows his determination to implement his conservative agenda. The politician who once hesitated to talk about where he wanted to go now has a very vivid road map.

— JANE O’HARA in Vancouver