CONTROVERSY STALKS THE SOCREDS AS THE B.C. CAMPAIGN ENTERS THE FINAL STRETCH
CONTROVERSY STALKS THE SOCREDS AS THE B.C. CAMPAIGN ENTERS THE FINAL STRETCH
After almost five years of former premier William Vander Zalm’s stranger-than-fantasy administration, British Columbians have become accustomed to erratic behavior from the Social Credit party’s elected officials. Still, when Rita Johnston became party leader in the spring following Vander Zalm’s resignation over conflicts of interest, the province’s voters—who have handed the party power in 11 of the past 12 elections—may have been hoping for less of the same. But as the campaign for the Oct. 17 provincial election passed the halfway point last week, Johnston and the Socreds were lurching from one embarrass-
ment to the next. While the New Democratic Party, under leader Michael Harcourt, largely avoided mistakes—holding on to a 15-percentage-point lead over the Socreds in a survey by a Vancouver-based polling firm published at week’s end—the beleaguered Johnston herself posed the central question of the election. Addressing a Socred candidate nomination meeting, Canada’s first woman premier asked rhetorically: “How can I convince the voters that I will lead a government that will avoid the mistakes of the past and uphold the highest standards of conduct?”
It is an issue that Johnston and the Socreds were finding increasingly difficult to deal with.
Since the last election in October, 1986, 11 Socred cabinet ministers have resigned in breaks with Vander Zalm or over allegations of personal wrongdoing. That legacy continued up to the day of Johnston’s election call on Sept. 19, when Vander Zalm himself appeared in provincial court on criminal charges related to the $ 16-million sale last year of Fantasy Gardens World, his horticultural and biblical theme park and mall where he lived in Richmond, south of Vancouver. Since the election call, the party has dropped two candidates from its ticket after allegations of impropriety. A third Socred candidate claimed to have rejected an attempt to bribe him to resign. Later, the 56-year-old Johnston drew a round of applause from supporters in the remote northeastern town of Fort St. John when she commented wryly: “It has been two days without a crisis.” Unhappily for her, there were more to come. Last week, the premier found her_ self at the centre of a civil 2lawsuit. It claimed that there « was a widespread conspiracy I among some of Social Cred“ it’s most senior figures to block the development of a new ski resort.
The first controversy erupted just days after Johnston’s campaign launch. The Socred candidate nominated to replace Vander Zalm in the riding of Richmond East, John Ball, resigned after a report on his background appeared in The Vancouver Sun. The newspaper said that he worked on behalf of Toronto commercial artist Ernst Zundel during Zundel’s 1985 trial for claiming that the Nazi Holocaust was a hoax. (Zundel was convicted of spreading false information.) But the party’s efforts to replace Ball led to more unwanted attention. A nomination meeting last week acclaimed political newcomer Larry Blaschuk, a local lawyer, as the Socred candidate in Richmond. But another would-be candidate, local businessman Robert Eakin, cried foul.
Eakin had finished second behind Ball in the first nomination vote on Sept. 5. On the day of Blaschuk’s nomination, he accused the party’s head office of rigging the second contest against him. Said Eakin: “I was told the party didn’t want me on the ballot.” Party officials denied the allegation, but an angry Eakin declared: “The party is imploding. It is destroying itself from within.”
Two days after the Ball controversy, prosecutors charged Jack Kempf, a former Socred cabinet minister and the party’s candidate in the northern riding of Bulkley Valley/Stikine,
with breach of trust and theft over $1,000 for his handling of local constituency funds in 1987. Johnston swiftly requested that Kempf resign as Socred candidate in the riding. Unbowed, the 56-year-old Kempf bluntly refused, saying that, instead, “I would suggest that perhaps Rita Johnston should step down.” In response, Socred executives withdrew Kempf’s party membership and called a new nomination meeting in his riding.
That meeting, held on Oct. 3, proved to be a raucous affair. For one thing, it was interrupted when the RCMP cleared the meeting hall over what proved to be a false bomb scare. After the session resumed, Kempfs campaign manager, Clarion Rogers, won the Socred nomination. Then, the following morning, Kempf filed nomination papers to run as an independent candidate in the riding. But in an apparent demonstration of support for Kempf, Rogers failed to file her candidacy by the deadline the following afternoon, leaving the Socreds without an official candidate in the riding. Said Rogers: “The nomination meeting that we had last night was illegal. We have a duly nominated, elected and confirmed candidate for Bulkley Valley/Stikine—Jack Kempf.” Now, Kempf is considering legal action against the Socred party over the suspension of his membership.
If that were not enough, another Socred candidate, 47-year-old physician Rodney Glynn-Morris, finally elevated the party’s embarrassments to the realm of the bizarre. Glynn-Morris revealed last week that an unidentified individual had offered him a bribe to withdraw from the campaign for the riding of West Vancouver/Garibaldi. Glynn-Morris, who once worked as a doctor on the Pacific Princess cruise ship—television’s “Love Boat”—told the Vancouver Province that three weeks earlier, he had received a phone call from “someone I thought I knew very well.” He added that the caller claimed to represent a group of people “prepared to buy me a [medical] practice up to a cost of $125,000 if I would withdraw my candidacy.”
The British-born Glynn-Morris, who gave up his medical practice to run in the election, said that he had refused the bribe offer. But he declined to identify the caller publicly, other than to say that he was not associated with the Social Credit party. Still, he did disclose the name to the RCMP. A police representative said that they would not take any action because it was not immediately clear whether the offer constituted an offence. The RCMP spokesman noted that the call took place before the election campaign began and that, in any case, Glynn-Morris was not an elected official at the time.
During the brief respites between embarrassments, Johnston has focused her campaign attack on the claim that Harcourt and the NDP would cause economic problems similar to those besetting Bob Rae’s NDP-led Ontario. Last week, Socred Finance Minister John Jansen derided the NDP’s promise to balance the provincial budget within five years as “Harcourt’s hoax.” Jansen further asserted that the
NDP’s campaign promises to expand nonprofit day care and improve pay-equity protection for women would cost the average taxpaying family $314 per month during the next five years, destroy jobs and create a $15.3-billion provincial deficit. Picking up on that theme, Johnston added: “It is a cruel hoax when [Harcourt] says to people he will be doing something for them when, in fact, it is clearly impossible.” She added: “The truth is,
British Columbians cannot afford Mike Harcourt’s program or the NDP.” The Socreds have acknowledged that they, too, will increase spending, but they have not specified how the funds would be raised. And while the NDP has promised to balance provincial spending and revenue by 1996, the Socreds forecast a $300million surplus at the end of the same period.
Harcourt dismisses the Socreds’ projections. While campaigning in central British Columbia, Harcourt reacted to Jansen’s predictions of an NDP government’s deficit by asserting: “This just confirms that they are getting more and more desperate; therefore, the distortions are getting larger and larger.
It’s unbelievable.” Later, speaking to supporters in Nelson, Harcourt addressed Jansen’s charges more directly. “That’s the biggest whopper yet, and they are going to get bigger,” he told the gathering. “But I say to you, we are only going to do what you can afford.” In fact, Harcourt has acknowledged that his government would raise provincial spending by $275 million a year—an increase of 1.5 per cent—in order to make up for cuts in federal transfer payments. According to the NDP, the money would be raised by eliminating the current government’s inefficiencies. As well, an NDP government would impose a 7.5-percent minimum tax on profitable corporations—which Harcourt claims would produce $900 million in revenues—and increase taxes on individuals earning more than $80,000 a year. Declared Harcourt: “The bottom line is, if the funding is not there, we won’t spend it. We are going to have a balanced budget.”
While the Socreds struggle to shake off their cloak of scandals and duel with the NDP, two smaller parties are fighting to rise above their status as political footnotes. Liberal Leader Gordon Wilson— whose party has not elected an MLA since 1975, but has nominated candidates in 71 of the province’s 75 ridings for this election—has attracted little attention to his quiet campaign. But last week, he turned up the volume—and won a spot in a televised leaders’ debate. CBC television stations in the province had invited just Johnston and Harcourt to participate in the Oct. 8 event as the only leaders of parties with members in the legislature.
Calling his right to participate “a fundamental part of democracy,” Wilson threatened a
court challenge against his exclusion. Said the Liberal leader: “The rules for inclusion are the same across the country. If you have an annual convention, established membership and you run candidates in more than half of the ridings, then statistically you could form the government and you should be part of a debate.” The
stations relented and Wilson was allowed to take part. But the leaders were up against strong competition for viewers that night— their debate was scheduled at the same time as rival CTV’s coverage of the Toronto Blue Jays’ first game in their American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins.
BETWEEN THE FREQUENT EMBARRASSMENTS, THE SOCREDS WAGE WAR ON THE NDP’S ECONOMIC AGENDA
The CBC was on more certain ground in declining to issue a similar invitation to Peter Macdonald, leader of the moribund British Columbia Progressive Conservative party. Until last week, the B.C. Tories, who attracted less than one per cent of the popular vote in the last election, were running candidates in five ridings. But the number dropped to four when the 53-year-old Macdonald, who moved to Canada when he was 10, had to withdraw his own candidacy in Burnaby/Willingdon after he discovered that he had never become a Canadian citizen.
But at week’s end, yet another quixotic turn
of events threatened to envelope the Socreds in a positive avalanche of new embarrassments. On Oct. 4, lawyers for Powder Mountain Resorts Ltd. filed a 22-page claim in the B.C. Supreme Court seeking unspecified damages from a list of defendants that read like a who’s who of the Social Credit establishment. Among those named were Johnston, Vander Zalm, former Socred cabinet minister and runner-up to Johnston for the party leadership Grace McCarthy, Attorney General Russell Fraser, former environment minister John Reynolds, former forests minister David Parker, deputy attorney general Robert Edwards and three other senior bureaucrats.
In the claim, lawyers for the West Vancouver-based development company stated that the defendants and the Socred government had illegally delayed the company’s attempts to develop a ski resort 15 km south of the worldfamous Whistler Mountain since February, 1987. They also asserted that the company had won the interim development rights to the project through a public proposal call issued by the province. The defendants stand accused of civil conspiracy, abuse of public office and
unlawful interference with Powder Mountain Resorts’ economic interests.
As the campaign progressed, Johnston’s rhetorical question looked increasingly like one that does not have an answer. At the same time, the opinion poll that placed the Socreds 15 percentage points behind the NDP also underscored the central importance of standards of conduct to B.C. voters. Asked which issues would affect their voting decision, respondents in the survey ranked integrity in politics as their top priority.
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