BUSINESS WATCH

Touching the right-wing bases

Peter C. Newman March 23 1987
BUSINESS WATCH

Touching the right-wing bases

Peter C. Newman March 23 1987

Touching the right-wing bases

BUSINESS WATCH

Peter C. Newman

This week one of the world’s only surviving Poujadist regimes tables its first budget, unveiling the fiscal intentions of Bill Vander Zalm, the first Canadian politician ever elected solely on the basis of body language.

The British Columbia government still officially carries the Social Credit label denoting its voodoo origins, but it can more usefully be compared to the protest movement led by a French shopkeeper named Pierre-Marie Poujade in the mid-1950s, whose party briefly held the balance of power in the French National Assembly.

The mood of that weird political phenomenon was mirrored in Vander Zalm’s throne speech last week. Its message was simplistic enough to make Reaganomics sound like a dissertation by Albert Einstein: “Job 1 is to get government off the back and out of the way of the private sector,” heralded the premier. “My government will act to let business get down to business—and rekindle the spirit of enterprise across our province.”

Vander Zalm touched all the rightwing bases, appointing a private-sector task force charged with privatizing everything that carries the provincial imprint, including the B.C. ferry fleet and the parliament buildings, vowing that “nothing is protected. Everything is up for consideration.” Significantly, he left out any mention of the usual Social Credit route to economic stimulation-provincial sponsorship of megaprojects, excluding the currently contemplated Site C power dam development in northeastern British Columbia.

The man charged with translating the Vander Zalm edicts into reality is Mel Couvelier, a 56-year-old former whaling-station worker, general-store owner, former chicken magnate and municipal mayor who moved into the Finance portfolio five months ago. Couvelier is a former president of the B.C. Liberal party and a supporter of federal Tory MP Pat Crofton, and his own political philosophy settles somewhere between Peter Drucker, the reactionary guru of American business, and Jane Jacobs, the radical community planner now writing out of Toronto.

“Drucker once declared,” Couvelier told me in a prebudget interview, “that governments can do only two things well—print money and wage war, and

anytime they try anything more than that they’ll likely make a mess of it. Well, I believe that’s true, though I do understand governments have to provide safety nets for people who are temporarily handicapped in one way or another. But the fact remains that we in government have not done very many things very well.”

Couvelier objects to vain attempts by governments to try and make uneconomic enterprises economic and,

like most free enterprisers, he argues that “all of us feel self-fulfilled when we are independent of outside influences and able to make our own decisions about protecting ourselves.” He is most excited by the small-business incentive programs currently being implemented in Europe, especially a British scheme that Couvelier says allows people getting social assistance to apply for advance payments, providing they are willing to go into business for themselves. So far, the success rate of

those enterprises is far higher than regular entrepreneurial activities.

What sets Couvelier apart from other conservative politicians is that instead of merely expressing knee-jerk reactions, he has thought through his position and is willing to weigh ideas from any ideological quarter. Jane Jacobs, the world-renowned town planner, is one of his idols. Using her techniques, he has subdivided the province into separate, manageable economic entities, and is bent on formulating grassroots growth incentives instead of top-down, provincewide edicts.

At the moment his most pressing assignment is to bring in a budget with a shortfall lower than the current fiscal year’s deficit, which was projected to be $875 million, but which hit the $812-million mark after just nine months. Given the government wage increases and tax reductions negotiated before he came to office, and the fact that the B.C. economy is still trying to recover from the four-monthlong International Woodworkers of America strike in that industry, Couvelier is facing a near-impossible challenge—particularly because he has already said that he does not want to raise income or sales taxes. “What I have to do now,” he told me, “is target revenue increases as selectively as I can to minimize their social consequences, and at the same time focus in on the expenditures side very harshly, which may mean that some ongoing programs will be reduced or eliminated.”

He intends to promote employee stock ownership and do everything he can to enhance the Vancouver Stock Exchange as North America’s premier venture-capital market. About the only good news the B.C. Treasury has had in the past few months was the stumpage-fee pact with the Americans, which could add about $375 million to provincial revenues.

The good politician that he is, Couvelier remains optimistic about British Columbia’s precarious economy. “The old truism about economies of scale is being reversed,” he insists. “As people demand more and more diversity in products and services, we will move into an era of diseconomies of scale, which will mean that you won’t need huge markets to create jobs or opportunities. What you have to do is create a market niche, then go for it—and that’s exactly the process I’m hoping to push with this budget.”