CANADA/SPECIAL REPORT

A TEST OF POWER IN LOTUS LAND

JANE O'HARA July 18 1988
CANADA/SPECIAL REPORT

A TEST OF POWER IN LOTUS LAND

JANE O'HARA July 18 1988

A TEST OF POWER IN LOTUS LAND

CANADA

SPECIAL REPORT

It was a meeting between the two most powerful people in British Columbia politics, but it was not a meeting of minds. Last Tuesday morning, a day before Premier William Vander Zalm announced a massive government reorganization and cabinet shuffle, Grace McCarthy, the grande dame of the Social Credit party, was ushered into the premier’s expansive corner office overlooking Victoria’s picturesque inner harbor. There, Vander Zalm informed his 60-year-old economic development minister—who has served in every Social Credit cabinet since 1966—that he planned to demote her in the next day’s shuffle. Instead, the street-smart McCarthy put her 22-year political career on the line and resigned

from the cabinet. Later, an emotional McCarthy told Maclean ’s: “He asked me to think it over, but it was no use. He even phoned me later to see if I had changed my mind. Of course, I had not.”

McCarthy’s defiant resignation—the second high-profile cabinet defection in as many weeks—plunged Vander Zalm’s beleaguered administration into a deeper state of chaos and crisis. As stunned Social Credit party members questioned whether their party could survive the latest blow, rumors circulated that party riding association presidents were organizing a review of Vander Zalm’s leadership. The premier himself seemed badly shaken by McCarthy’s surprise move. After staying closeted in his office for a full four hours, he emerged to tell waiting reporters soberly: “I certainly have a deep respect for Mrs. McCarthy and respect her decision.” But for many party stalwarts, the conciliatory words

came too late. Said a former highranking Social Credit cabinet minister: “None of this surprises anyone who has worked with Vander Zalm before. He is stubborn and single-minded.

He’s finished as a leader. The only question that remains is when.”

After 23 months in power, Vander Zalm is clearly under siege as the litany of his government’s miscues and misadventures mounts. Seven days before McCarthy’s sudden departure, veteran Attorney General Brian Smith— the second-most powerful figure in Vander Zalm’s party and cabinet, next to McCarthy—had stood up in the legislature following the afternoon Question Period and delivered a scathing attack on the premier along with his resignation from the province’s top law-enforcement job. Vander Zalm has also alienated many of the province’s voters with his tendency to make ill-considered, off-the-cuff remarks. Among the latest: in March, he caused a stir when he said that single mothers on welfare would be better off if they believed in Jesus Christ.

Lashed: Compared with the 49 per cent of the popular vote that Vander Zalm and the Socreds received in the last provincial election in 1986, only 29 per cent of decided voters now support his party, according to a poll by United Communications Research of Vancouver in March. The disaffection was palpable last month when the Socreds lost a byelection in Boundary-Similkameen, a riding in the Okanagan region that the Socreds had held for the past 22 years.

Both McCarthy and Smith were slated for demotions in last week’s cabinet shuffle: the premier offered McCarthy the position of provincial secretary and minister of tourism, while he downgraded Smith’s portfolio by siphoning many of the responsibilities of the attorney general’s office into a newly created solicitor general’s department. In their resignations, both Smith and McCarthy lashed out at what they said was Vander Zalm’s interference in the running of their ministries and his efforts to centralize power in the premier’s office.

Billionaire: But their complaints went beyond last week’s cabinet shuffle. Smith, who has been the province’s chief law officer since 1983, said that his major problems were Vander Zalm’s vehement anti-abortion policy and the premier’s attempt to intercede on behalf of his businessman-friend, Peter Toigo, during the bidding for Vancouver’s Expo 86 Crown lands. Vander Zalm and his chief aide, David

McCarthy and Smith; Vander Zalm (right): bitter complaints over interference

Poole, tried to present Toigo’s bid for the lands to cabinet and the B.C. Enterprise Corp., the Crown company responsible for selling off the site in Vancouver, after the deadline for receiving new bids had supposedly passed. In the end, the property went to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing for $320 million.

‘Arrogant’: McCarthy’s complaints were equally pointed. She charged that unelected officials in Vander Zalm’s government were wielding increasing power. She cited Poole, an ironfisted, 44-year-old former community college administrator, who holds both the province’s top political job, principal secretary to the premier, and the topranking civil service post, deputy minister to the premier. After her resignation, McCarthy referred to Poole as “arrogant and interfering.” Later that day at a press conference, she explained: “I cannot serve in a government in which I am made to feel that my own commitment and judgment are not sufficient to operate. I will not go through another 18 months like that.”

In a striking symbolic gesture, Smith solemnly strode into McCarthy’s office and consoled her after her press conference. Looking like two stonefaced mourners at the wake of a dear friend, the two pillars of the Socred establishment kissed one another and then stood holding hands as the media recorded the event.

Hostile: McCarthy and Smith could try to rally the party to oust Vander Zalm at the Socred annual convention in Penticton in October. Indeed, the two former cabinet ministers both ran for the Socred leadership in 1986 to replace former premier William Bennett. Smith finished second, McCarthy third. For now, McCarthy and Smith plan to sit as backbenchers. Another former leadership contender and cabinet minister, Stephen Rogers, will join them. Vander Zalm dumped Rogers from his position as minister of highways in last week’s cabinet overhaul. Openly hostile to Vander Zalm, Rogers often privately and dismissively referred to the premier and his wife, Lillian, as “Zalm and the Headband”—a reference to her fondness for multicolored headpieces.

Weathered: Still, there is little agreement on whether a revolt against Vander Zalm would be successful. Said Terence Morley, professor of political science at the University of Victoria: “I think there is a real possibility that this could be the beginning of the end for Vander Zalm. If some new issue arises and the party gets fussed again, McCarthy and Smith will be a clear leadership alter-

native. But then, it is difficult to kill the king.”

Indeed, Vander Zalm is not the sort of politician who will gently submit. He has weathered numerous political storms since his election as mayor of Surrey, a Vancouver suburb, in 1969. Said Bruce Strachan, minister of the environment: “The parliamentary sys-

tern is nothing but a numbers game. If Smith and McCarthy have the numbers, they can be king of the castle. Frankly, I don’t think they will be able to pull it off.”

Power: A self-described free-enterpriser, Vander Zalm campaigned on a platform to get government off the backs of people. But since then, he has created a new level of government bureaucracy with his sweeping plans to decentralize power and create eight economic development regions within the province. Last week’s cabinet shuffle increased the number of ministers to 22 from 17—the largest cabinet in B.C. history. At the same time, it left Vancouver with no cabinet representation for the first time in 50 years. Meanwhile, under Poole, the premier’s office has amassed unparalleled power. The premier’s personal staff, which numbered 23 under Bennett, has grown to 90. Deputy ministers report directly to Poole—over the heads of their own ministers. As well, Poole has his hands firmly on the ministries’ purse strings: all government contracts over $500 must be approved by the premier’s office.

Poole first entered government at

the bidding of Vander Zalm’s political ally Elwood Veitch—now minister of regional development—after the two met while working for a Vancouver community college. He worked as Veitch’s campaign manager in the riding of Burnaby-Willingdon in 1983. Three years later, Poole became executive director of the Socred party under

Vander Zalm and then ran his 1986 election campaign. To Vander Zalm, who places a priority on loyalty, Poole is “unquestioning, dedicated and totally professional.” Poole is often at Vander Zalm’s side. At a news conference last October announcing the government’s decentralization plans, Poole scurried from the sidelines to whisper answers into Vander Zalm’s ear when the premier was stumped on details of the proposal.

But Poole’s sledgehammer style of management wore thin on those around him. In the spring, Vander Zalm’s longtime secretary, Dorothy Sage, took early retirement when Poole curtailed her access to the premier. Said Sage: “I was used to having more authority. All I can tell you is that I feel comfortable being out of the premier’s office. It’s a mess.”

Stunning: Clearly, Vander Zalm’s actions and the resignations of Smith and McCarthy have sorely tested the loyalty of many of the Socreds’ most devoted followers. Party president Hope Wotherspoon said that McCarthy’s departure shocked her. “When I heard it on the radio,” said Wotherspoon, “I said to myself, ‘My God,

what could happen next?’ ” Some former Vander Zalm loyalists in caucus were also unable to maintain their silence. Last week, in another stunning development, two Socred backbenchers, Graham Bruce and David Mercier, refused to accept lucrative appointments as parliamentary secretaries. Said Bruce: “The premier and I

don’t see eye to eye on government.”

Even small-town newspaper editorial writers who were traditionally the premier’s staunchest supporters are beginning to take a more critical stance. Jeff den Biesen, publisher and editor of the Bridge River-Lillooet News in Lillooet, B.C., has qualified his formerly strong support for Vander Zalm. “I like him as leader,” he told Maclean's. “But I personally don’t like the controversy that he has created.”

Toxic: The disarray in Vander Zalm’s party also poses potential difficulties for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s federal Conservatives. With a federal election expected soon, the Tories would like a united Socred party to help them campaign against New Democrats in British Columbia, as many Socreds have done in previous federal campaigns. The Tories hold 19 of the province’s 28 seats. But federal Tory organizers now express concerns that if Vander Zalm continues to alienate his own conservative constituency, it will have a negative effect on the Tories. Said Environment Minister Strachan: “If I were the PM I would be worried, too. He would like to

have a strong Socred party that isn’t hanging its dirty linen out to dry.” Some Socred supporters say that Vander Zalm’s troubles have also spawned financial woes for the party. Although party officials will not comment on reports that contributions have dwindled, one longtime contributor conceded, “The well has gone dry.” Stanley Rowe, the wealthy owner of the resort Sundance Guest Ranch in Ashcroft, in the Interior of the province, has been a Socred member since the 1930s. But now, he says that Vander Zalm’s style of leadership has prompted him to stop contributing.

When Vander Zalm took office, Rowe contributed $1,000 to become a member of the Premier’s Circle—a club whose members receive periodic updates on government plans and the promise of easy access to the premier. Since then, Rowe says that he has written the premier three letters about a toxic dump that municipal authorities are proposing for his home town, but he has not had a reply. For Rowe, the recent Socred casualties portend the collapse of the party. Said he: “It is a little like watching your mother-in-law drive your new Cadillac over the cliff.”

Political analysts maintain that, if Vander Zalm continues on his present

course, he may run the risk of losing the next election—although it does not have to be called until 1991. Said Jack Kempf, a former Socred cabinet minister who now sits as an Independent MLA from Omineca, in northern British Columbia: “The Socreds couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in my riding right now.”

Meanwhile, the NDP, under the cau-

tious leadership of former Vancouver mayor Michael Harcourt, will be the major beneficiaries of Vander Zalm’s difficulties. At the grassroots level, the NDP is taking a stronger hold on the

province after an effort to play down its previously socialist policies. In the 1987 municipal elections, 19 out of 20 NDP members who ran for mayor across the province won. Harcourt, who in the 1984 Vancouver mayoralty race became the only politician ever to defeat Vander Zalm in an election, has maintained a congenial image in an effort to distance the party from the controversy that plagued the last NDP government from 1972 to 1975 under David Barrett. Said Harcourt: “We need an election to clear the air. This government is in crisis. It is crumbling.” Roiling: Late last week, McCarthy’s wellwishers inundated her legislative offices with bouquets of flowers. For his part, Vander Zalm met with the Socred party executive to try to calm the atmosphere of dissent roiling around him. He told the executive that he will write an open letter to all party members explaining his version of the resignations. But for Vander Zalm, the real writing may be on the wall, and pen-pal politics may not be enough to save him.

JOHN PIFER

DIANE LUCKOW

HILARY MACKENZIE

-JANE O'HARA with JOHN PIFER in Victoria, DIANE LUCKOW in Vancouver and HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa