CANADA

Vander Zalm besieged

Pressure grows for the premier to step down

BRIAN BERGMAN October 2 1989
CANADA

Vander Zalm besieged

Pressure grows for the premier to step down

BRIAN BERGMAN October 2 1989

Vander Zalm besieged

CANADA

Pressure grows for the premier to step down

Wednesday, Sept. 20, was not William Vander Zalm’s best day. His tourism minister and provincial secretary, William Reid, 55, resigned, the seventh departure from cabinet since British Columbia’s chronically embattled Social Credit premier was elected in October, 1986. Reid stepped down after The Vancouver Sun reported that he directed public funds to a company partly owned by his campaign manager. Then, the Socred candidate contesting a byelection in the central B.C. riding of Cariboo lost a seat that the party had held since it was created in 1952. It was the fifth straight byelection defeat for Vander Zalm. Said Socred MLA Grace McCarthy, a former cabinet minister and a Vander Zalm critic: “The time for soul-searching is over. We know the byelection was about leadership.”

The two events prompted widespread pressure from party dissidents for a formal Socred vote on Vander Zalm’s continued leadership. The premier has felt that pressure often during his three controversial years in office. His reputation for making overly hasty policy decisions, sometimes against cabinet advice, has led to confrontations with such party stalwarts as McCarthy and Brian Smith. They both resigned from his cabinet last year after criticizing the premier for interfering in their ministries, and McCarthy has called repeatedly since then for a review of his leadership.

Vander Zalm’s uncompromising stands on such sensitive issues as abortion—which he opposes—have also alienated many voters. One pre-election poll of voters in Cariboo showed that one-third of respondents said they would be “more likely” to vote Socred if Vander Zalm were not the party leader. Still, Vander Zalm’s defenders point, among other accomplishments, to British Columbia’s balanced 1989 budget—one of only two provincial budgets not to show a deficit this year. (The other was in P.E.I.) Noted Social Services Minister Claude Richmond, a Vander Zalm loyalist: “He has done all the right things. The province is in real good shape. It is hard for me to understand this kind of loss.” And after last week’s setbacks, the premier declared that he

was not contemplating resignation. Instead, Vander Zalm said that he would immediately call a general election—when his leadership is questioned by people “other than the media, politicians and people unhappy with a single issue, if the state and the good of the province really comes into question.”

The prospect of a general election clearly concerned some party members after last week’s byelection loss. Vander Zalm had cam-

paigned actively in the 34,000-square-mile Cariboo riding, announcing development projects worth about $300 million in the region, most of them in the lumber industry. But the premier’s involvement may actually have hurt the party. Many riding residents said that they were still angry over Vander Zalm’s 1986 decision to fire MLA Alexander Fraser—whose death in May from throat cancer led to last week’s byelection—as highways minister after he was diagnosed as having the disease. Fraser, who had held the seat for 20 years, was popular locally and was known as the “King of the Cariboo.” Fraser’s 74-year-old widow, Gertrude, for one, said that she voted against

the Socreds. She declared: “Not voting Socred makes me kind of sad. I hope we will get a new leader who will once again make us proud.”

In the end, the NDP’s David Zirnhelt, 42, a local rancher, outpolled Socred candidate Joseph Wark, 60, an auctioneer, with 13,743 votes to Wark’s 9,056 votes. That left the standings in the legislature as Socreds 43, NDP 25 and one independent.

But Van der Zalm has had other problems recently. Three days before the byelection, James McLean, a Social Credit regional director in Vancouver, publicly announced his resignation “under extreme discomfort,” claiming that the party leadership was imposing policy on its members. Then, on the eve of the byelection, former Socred MLA Harold Lloyd also publicly turned his back on the party. His stated reason: Vander Zalm’s administration was a “dictatorship.” The same day, the premier launched a libel suit against The Vancouver Province newspaper and journalist Brian Kieran over a column comparing Vander Zalm’s pre-1986 election promises of “open government” with his performance in office.

There was also an emerging scandal over Reid. His resignation followed the Sun’s report that a $277,065 grant originally promised to the southern city of White Rock for a recycling program went instead to a nonprofit group called the Semiahmoo House Society. Then, on Reid’s recommendation, the funds were used to purchase recycling equipment from EcoClean Waste Systems Ltd. That firm is owned by Reid’s campaign manager, George Doonan, and family friend William Sullivan. For his part, Reid acknowledged that Eco-Clean belonged to his friends, and said, “What’s wrong with that?”

Zirnhelt said that Reid’s resignation did not help him, but he added that the incident illustrated a pattern of favoritism in Vander Zalm’s government. By week’s end, Vander Zalm had ordered Richmond to investigate the affair. He, in turn, ordered a freeze on new payments from the $262-million provincial program. Meanwhile, Vander Zalm said that he had not ruled out a broader investigation.

But those actions did not appease the premier’s caucus critics. Indeed, four Socred MLAs—McCarthy, caucus chairman Carol Gran and backbenchers David Mercier and Douglas Mowat—demanded an emergency caucus meeting to discuss the Socreds’ future leadership. Said Mercier, who represents a riding in suburban Burnaby: “I am concerned that the party support we need to win a general election is no longer there.” Added Mowat, also a Vancouver-area MLA: “That things have to change has come out loud and clear.” As the dust settled in Cariboo, it began to look as if another challenge to Vander Zalm’s leadership will dominate the Socreds’ annual convention in Vancouver at the end of October. One item on that gathering’s agenda: a report on the party’s procedures for initiating leadership conventions.

BRIAN BERGMAN in Toronto with correspondents’ reports