A premier under fire

JANE O’HARA April 4 1988

A premier under fire

JANE O’HARA April 4 1988

A premier under fire


In happier days, British Columbia Premier William Vander Zalm would bound into the provincial legislature building in Victoria and stroll down a corridor where the news media were waiting for him. There, the telegenic premier, who thrives on being at centre stage, would relish the chance to hold forth on topics as diverse as agriculture and abortion. In his shoot-from-the-lip style, Vander Zalm would often make policy as he went along, leaving his cabinet ministers to play catch-up. But last week the premier seemed chastened by recent events—particularly the defeat of his anti-abortion policy that threatened to split his Social Credit caucus and cabinet. He entered the legislative chamber through a back door, avoiding reporters. And inside, Vander Zalm, who always appeared to enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, suddenly seemed weighed down by the burdens of office. “There has been a noticeable change in him,” observed Munmohan (Moe) Sihota, justice critic for the opposition NDP. “He used to be rather buoyant in Question Period. Now he gives a clear impression that he dreads it.”

After 19 months in power the Vander Zalm government last Thursday attempted to get back on track when it unveiled its second budget, which predicted a healthy 2.7-per-cent growth in the provincial economy this year and cut its deficit to $395 million from $800 million last year. But the budget followed a series of setbacks for Vander Zalm in the past month. He has been under fire from within his own party—and his popularity among voters appears to be declining. According to an opinion poll conducted on Feb. 29 and March 1 by Marktrend Marketing Research Inc., only 25 per cent of voters support his Social Credit party, compared with 31 per cent for the NDP.

It was his controversial approach to abortion that proved most difficult for Vander Zalm in recent weeks. A devout Roman Catholic, the premier had insisted that his government would not fund abortions—except in rare cases where the mother’s life was threatened. But after the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that his government did not have the power to enforce his policies, Vander Zalm reluctantly conceded that his personal views will not be provincial

policy. The government, he acknowledged, “will need to adopt a position that may not be my position.”

When Vander Zalm won the Social Credit leadership and became premier in August, 1986, many observers voiced serious concerns about his political style. Since he was first elected as a MLA in 1975, he had been a political maverick given to off-the-cuff comments. In his first cabinet appointment, as human resources minister in then-premier William Bennett’s government in 1975, Vander Zalm quickly

attracted attention when he said that welfare recipients should “pick up a shovel” rather than live on unemployment insurance or welfare benefits. In 1983, when he was education minister, he quit the government, calling his cabinet colleagues “gutless” for refusing to go along with a controversial land development policy. Three years later Vander Zalm failed to get the backing of any cabinet ministers in his bid for the party leadership. Still, his populist appeal brought him victory within the party, and in October of that year Vander Zalm led the Socreds to a resounding victory at the polls, taking 47 seats to the New Democratic Party’s 22. “I’ve watched him since 1975,” said Independent MLA Jack Kempf last week. “What I’ve found is that he’s a one-man show. He’s a man with a very large ego.”

VVIL,IL a V~LJ LaL~~ Vander Zaim has not changed his style in the province's highest office. Even members of his cabinet joke openly that they are not sure what the government's policy is until they have seen the premier interviewed on the evening news. But the ministers may also be annoyed by the fact that Van der Zaim has reduced their powers while greatly increasing the influence of his own office. The premier's per sonal staff, which numbered 23 when Bennett left office, has swollen to 84. And many observers maintain that the most powerful man in the government, after the premier himself, is his prin cipal secretary, David Poole, a 44-yearold former community college adminis trator. Now, deputy ministers report on departmental affairs directly to Poole, and all government contracts worth more than $500 must be ap

proved by the premier's of fice. That has led to com plaints from some disgruntled ministers that Poole has too much influ ence-but his power is still on the increase. In Febru ary he was appointed to the board of the B.C. En terprise Corp., a Crown corporation responsible for selling off Crown assets under the government's privatization plan. At the time, Vander Zalm said that he wanted to make sure that his message was getting through to the cor poration, and the NDP com plained that Poole is on the board simply to enforce the premier's will. The NDP's Robert Williams called Poole Vander Zaim's "political hit man."

Still, Vander Zalm’s supporters speak admiringly of what they see as a new, forthright style that he has brought to government in British Columbia. Now, they maintain, the premier is accessible to virtually anyone who wants to see him. But while his way of operating has provoked a blizzard of headlines, Vander Zalm’s government has in fact produced little legislation. Despite that, even critics admit that Vander

Zalm has won support. Said Norman Levi, a former NDP cabinet minister who has watched Vander Zalm closely for 20 years: “He’s no mental giant, but he generates a tremendous amount of activity—creating an impression that he’s really doing things.”

Vander Zalm’s major legislative initiatives have been controversial changes to the provincial labor code which British Columbia’s union movement opposed. There was a one-day general strike in June, 1987, to back union claims that the changes deprived workers of fundamental rights. The legislative changes curtailed union power by, among other things, limiting secondary picketing and union boycotts.

The Vander Zalm government’s main goals now centre on its wideranging policies of privatization and regionalization. Government spokesmen say that privatization will raise $3 billion through the sale of Crown assets. But that program has met legal roadblocks in a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that government employees can refuse to work for a new employer if their work unit is sold to a private company. Under the regionalization

program, Vander Zalm has divided the province into eight districts, with a minister responsible for each one, in an attempt to promote economic development in the regions. There has been some confusion over which minister is in charge of programs in a given area, but Vander Zalm’s allies maintain that voters like the approach. Said Municipal Affairs Minister Rita Johnston, a longtime Vander Zalm loyalist: “The people are happy to have a direct line to the cabinet.”

Vander Zalm’s worst defeat has been over the controversial abortion issue. Two days after the Jan. 28 Supreme Court of Canada ruling striking down the federal abortion law, Vander Zalm flew back from a vacation in Hawaii and immediately announced that his government would refuse to fund abortions unless the mother’s life was at stake. But on March 7, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the province was acting illegally in withholding funds for a medically required service.

At first Vander Zalm held firmly to his convictions, saying, “I would rather be remembered as a premier who did a lot and made some mistakes than as one who did just political things popular at the time.” But his position threatened to split his caucus and party. Three Social Credit members of the legislature broke ranks and spoke out in open defiance of the premier. Vander Zalm finally backed down. Last week his government announced that it would wait to see what approach the federal government takes on abortion before announcing its own policy.

But even the premier’s detractors give him full marks for effort. A tireless worker, the 53-year-old Vander Zalm has been maintaining a hectic pace, working at least 14 hours a day and rarely taking a weekend off. He has had little time to indulge his passions for fishing and gardening, and on his only vacation since becoming premier—his 10-day trip to Hawaii in January—he spent much of his time working. Vander Zalm’s voice is now permanently hoarse, a condition that developed during the 1986 leadership race and has never disappeared. Still, he appears to revel in all political tasks, from the most mundane-unveiling a plaque to mark the 25th anniversary of a shopping céntrete the most important, such as his participation in last year’s Meech Lake constitutional accord. “I wish he’d slow down,” said Johnston. “That’s my only criticism of him.”

When he came to power, Vander Zalm said that he planned to do the tough things in the first two years of his mandate and the good things in the next two years—right before the next election. Clearly, his first 19 months have been problematic. While his Socreds hold firm control of the legislature, the premier has created divisions within his party. And one veteran Socred, former highways minister Alexander Fraser, has predicted that the party could lose 15 northern ridings because of Vander Zalm’s plan to turn highway maintenance services over to private contractors. Indeed, since the 1970s, B.C. elections have been generally decided by a margin of just three to five per cent between the NDP and the Socreds—leaving Vander Zalm with little room for major changes. Said Kempf: “He has alienated a lot of people—and in this province, you don’t have to alienate many in order to lose an election.”

Throughout his political career, Vander Zalm has used the strong weapon of his personality to woo supporters and win votes. Whether that brand of politics will sell in the 1990s, when Vander Zalm faces re-election against a renewed NDP opposition under the strong leadership of Michael Harcourt, a former Vancouver mayor, is the question that his province and his party are now asking.

—JANE O’HARA in Victoria