Last summer, when the Commonwealth Conference was being held in Vancouver, Nathaniel Nemetz, then British Columbia’s chief justice, hosted a formal dinner party for Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, most senior of the attending prime ministers, who has ruled his country with an iron fist since 1959. Much of the Vancouver Establishment was on the guest list, and Bill Vander Zalm was to propose a toast to the distinguished visitor. From outside the dining room, I watched the premier in action.
Molars: Despite his
Great White Hunter good looks, his face somehow lacks definition, as if it were painted on a balloon, and his eyes seem as unfocused as billiard balls. What’s remarkable is his body language—the semaphore signals sent out by his piranha-perfect teeth, always visible, the enigmatic duck of the head and the arms parked akimbo, signalling that this man will not accept anyone’s assessment of him except his own. Just before we were ushered in, the premier sidled up to me and whispered, as if to confirm a rumor he had once heard: “This Singapore—is it in the Commonwealth?” I allowed that it was. Aglow with this delicious secret (for which I was rewarded with a dazzling flash of molars), Vander Zalm took his place at the table and a few minutes later delivered a remarkably spirited toast to the Far East dictator.
I was reminded of that performance last week as the British Columbia premier, faced with a decisive challenge to his authority, tried to smooth away the wrath of his disillusioned followers with oily semantics. “I know a strong government will be challenged,” he declared. “But I would rather have a strong government that gets challenged than a weak gov-
Senior Contributing Editor Peter C. Newman has lived in Cordova Bay, B.C., since 1983
ernment that doesn’t get anywhere.” That constituted a curious defence, because no one in the Pacific province is accusing Vander Zalm of being weak. Dumb, insensitive, certifiable— certainly. But never weak. The current controversy over the resignations of Attorney General Brian Smith and former deputy premier Grace McCarthy has exposed to cold daylight the roots of Social Credit power. There are many misconceptions about the nature of the Socred movement (particularly outside British Columbia), none more prevalent than the belief that it is composed largely of marginal misfits, former and future talkshow hosts, used-up used-car dealers and rednecks from bumpersticker country who subscribe to the dotty dogmas of the party’s official founder, Maj. C. H. Douglas.
Mainstream: That was not true when W. A. C. Bennett first used the Social Credit label to break the political deadlock that catapulted him into office in 1952, and it is even less true now. The party’s followers include a majority of the province’s mainstream voters. The common bond holding them together is a determination to keep the Socialist hordes out of office so that the 1972-1975 NDP interregnum is never repeated.
But that is only the public face of the Social Credit phenomenon. Behind the scenes, the province’s business establishment has up to now supported Social Credit, providing funds, contacts with the national power sources and, above all, legitimacy. Vander Zalm was able to harness that support because, faced with the choice between the palavering left and the fanatic right, Vancouver’s power brokers swallowed the premier’s nutsy excesses. What they asked for in return was a policy voice, which was expressed through the departed ministers.
The real significance of the Smith and McCarthy resignations—and of the firing of Highways Minister Ste-
phen Rogers, the scion of a well-connected Vancouver family and a 13-year veteran of British Columbia’s political wars—goes well beyond the fact that the cabinet has lost the three most significant ministers with any effective long-term experience in government. The moves have irretrievably severed Vander Zalm’s links with the province’s business establishment.
Rift: Whether Vander Zalm can (or wants to) heal the rift between his office and the business community remains an open question. Whether he will change his kamikaze style of government is not even a question. He won’t. He shows no willingness to alter his ways, even as most British Columbians begin to agree with Oksana Exell, the director of provincial affairs for The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, who recently charged: “This government doesn’t seem to have an agenda. It has pissed away its goodwill.”
Ever since taking office, Vander Zalm has demonstrated the attention span of a squirrel, enunciating policies at the drop of a microphone with little benefit of forethought. This style of political surfboarding was best caught by former NDP premier Dave Barrett, who once described Vander Zalm’s operational code as “Ready! Fire! Aim!”
Rumors that Smith, McCarthy and Rogers will try jointly to revive a provincial Conservative party are circulating along Vancouver’s cocktail party circuit, but that remains unlikely. More probably, enough presidents of Socred riding associations will call for a leadership review to force the premier’s resignation.
Fantasy: Meanwhile, the province’s button salesmen are busy (one proclaims “Gay florists are against Vander Zalm”), and T-shirt merchants are flogging a model that has a smiling, hairy monster rising from a swamp, with the caption “It came from Holland!” The premier appears unruffled, continuing to push his gardening video, to host his Sunday radio phone-in show, to market authenticated copies of his wife’s headbands at Fantasy Garden World, his $7-million theme park—and to lecture the survivors in his cabinet room, which has become an echo chamber.
Hard days for the Zalm. Yet one achievement cannot be taken away from him: no one else could have made Bill Bennett look so good. □
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