BUSINESS WATCH

A stick of unstable dynamite

Peter C. Newman April 25 1988
BUSINESS WATCH

A stick of unstable dynamite

Peter C. Newman April 25 1988

A stick of unstable dynamite

BUSINESS WATCH

Peter C. Newman

The toothy smile and puppy enthusiasm have not been dimmed by his 18 months in power, but Bill Vander Zalm appears to be losing his grip. The British Columbia premier has behaved like a stick of unstable dynamite on so many issues that he has forfeited the goodwill of an increasing number of the province’s voters, many of the party faithful and much of his cabinet.

It was the abortion fuss that first made it obvious that the Social Credit leader was totally innocent of the notion that democratic government demands a process of consensual decision-making. (In his handling of that thorny question, he also lost sight of the fact that church and state have been separated for some time.) Instead of attempting to make the necessary possible by wooing public opinion, Vander Zalm’s operational code seems rooted in the simplistic belief that, as long as the ferries run on time, he can set policy by personal edict. His style of government is so very personal, in fact, that cabinet ministers frequently have first learned from his news conferences about new policy initiatives expected from their own departments.

The disillusionment with the premier is so widespread that, according to senior party sources, a secret petition making the rounds of constituency association presidents is calling for a leadership review. The party’s constitution is open to interpretation but, according to one reading of the document, it would require the dissent of only a quarter of the ridings to force a convention. At the same time, a senior minister is seriously considering resigning to launch a provincial Conservative party. He is hoping to take at least 10 Socred MLAs along with him to field a non-Vander Zalm, non-NDP alternative in the next election.

What has brought all this discontent to a boil is the proposed sale of 207 acres on the north shore of Vancouver’s False Creek—the former Expo 86 grounds. The transaction represents one of the largest potential urban redevelopment sites in North America. Construction required to take full advantage of the prime location would be so massive that it could shift the whole centre of gravity of downtown Vancouver. The land is now owned by the Crown corporation British Columbia Enterprise Corp. (BCEC), which has

been charged with marketing the property (plus other government-owned tracts, including most of the Whistler ski resort) as part of the province’s privatization program.

Details of BCEC’s methods of assessing the competing bids are secret and, although BCEC officials deny that a deal has been struck, leaked stories indicate that Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing’s rumored bid of $300 million has won. The most serious rival syndi-

cate, headed by Vancouver developer John Poole, includes a roster of nearly all of British Columbia’s big financial hitters: James Pattison (former head of Expo 86); Edgar Kaiser (former chairman of the Bank of B.C.); Samuel Belzberg (chairman of the First City group); Geoffrey Lau (president of Golden Properties Ltd.); Robert Lee (the ace realtor who heads the Prospero group); Kenneth Bream (chairman of Pan Pacific Development Corp.); William Sauder (of Sauder In-

dustries); and Charles (Chunky) Woodward (former chairman of the department-store chain). Although BCEC officials have complained that this domestic blue-ribbon platoon lacks the financial clout of the Oriental bidder, between them the Vancouver entrepreneurs control assets worth at least $13 billion and they currently have construction worth $3 billion under way.

The two bids are difficult to compare, partly because of the surrounding secrecy and partly because they are based on very different criteria. The Hong Kong offer has more cash up front and a much shorter payout period, while the Poole group stretches the cash injection but allows the provincial government to back in at favorable terms with little risk, so that the province’s taxpayers would gain significant long-run benefits.

A third contender, until he took himself out of the bidding late last week, was Peter Toigo, who owns about 100 restaurants in the lower mainland, including the local franchise for Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is uncertain whether he ever had access to the kind of big dollars required, and Toigo would not have been taken seriously, except that he is the best friend of (and chief fund raiser for) Vander Zalm. The premier personally took his bid to cabinet and had David Poole, his principal secretary, introduce it to BCEC’s board.

That move was sharply criticized by Grace McCarthy, the deputy premier, who is the leading government-appointed BCEC director and economic development minister in the Social Credit administration. (Vander Zalm had .tried to defuse her objections by suggesting to the feds that she be appointed to succeed Robert Rogers, whose term as British Columbia’s lieutenantgovernor expires on July 15. McCarthy, who alone is emerging from this unholy mess with her reputation for integrity intact, is said to have refused the offer.)

Another element in this explosive mix was speculation that the real reason Toigo wanted the Expo land was not to put up yet another Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, but to build a Las Vegas-style casino.

Politics in Canada’s Pacific province have never been tame, but the fragile bonds of common cause that maintain any British Columbia government in office have, at least temporarily, been broken.