Moments before the polls closed in British Columbia, Michael Harcourt was relaxing in a Vancouver Chinese restaurant with his wife, Wibecke (Becky), their 10-year-old son, Justen, and Harcourt’s parents, Frank and Stella. The dinner party, celebrating his parents’ 54th wedding anniversary on Oct. 17, was drawing to a close as Harcourt opened a fortune cookie. Reading aloud the message, the smiling leader of the province’s New Democrats said: “ ‘An official document may arrive soon.’ Well, the plot thickens. But we’ll have to wait for a few more minutes.” Harcourt did not have to wait long. Barely 40 minutes later, local TV stations projected an NDP majority. And by
SOCIAL CREDIT CRUMBLES, THE LIBERALS SURGE AND THE B.C. NDP SCORES AN IMPRESSIVE WIN
the end of the evening, not only had Harcourt officially been declared premier-designate with a massive majority, but the province’s political plot had thickened considerably. With the freeenterprise vote split between the resurgent Liberals and the scandal-ridden Social Credit—33 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively—the NDP’s 41 per cent of the popular vote was enough to give it a commanding 51 seats in the 75-seat house. Said a jubilant Harcourt: “You want me to sum this up in one word? How about ‘change?’ ”
In opting for dramatic change, B.C. voters turned their backs on Social Credit, the onceproud party first brought to power 39 years ago by W. A. C. Bennett. And in reducing the Socreds to a seven-seat rump, the electorate elevated the long-moribund Liberal party, under leader Gordon Wilson, to the status of official opposition with 17 seats, the first seats the party has held in the legislature since 1979 (page 17). It was a stunning judgment on five years of scandals, conflicts of interest, forced resignations and criminal charges under former Socred premier William Vander Zalm. And for only the third time in B.C. history, a sitting premier went down to defeat. Vander Zalm’s longtime ally and successor, Rita Johnston, the first woman to lead a provincial government in Canada, lost her seat, as did 14 of 17 other Socred cabinet ministers who ran in the election.
Indeed, historians may one day draw parallels between the election of 1991 and that of 1952 as watersheds in B.C. politics. The 1952 election ushered in the Socreds, who have ruled the province for all but three years since then. With Johnston’s crushing defeat and the resurgence of the Liber-
als as a viable political force, last week’s election may have weakened the polarization between right-wing free enterprisers and socialists that has marked B.C. politics for decades.
In the immediate aftermath of the election shock, some Socreds acknowledged that the political landscape of British Columbia may have changed permanently. Said Grace McCarthy, a former Socred minister whom Johnston defeated for the party leadership in July: “There are very deep problems in the party because the wounds which were created over five years of chaos and scandals have not healed. It may well be that the hurts are too deep and may not be fixable.” And former Socred attorney general Brian Smith, who like McCarthy resigned from the cabinet over disagreements with Vander Zalm’s leadership, put it more succinctly. Said Smith: “For Social Credit, it’s curtains.”
The electorate also expressed its desire for change in its response to two referendum questions accompanying the ballot. With the vote-counting continuing at week’s end, it was clear that nonbinding proposals to empower voters had won overwhelming approval. One would entitle them to recall legislators and call a byelection; the other would give them the power to propose their own policy initiatives through referendums.
In rejecting the Socreds, British Columbians .opted for a moderate New Democratic Party— and a premier known among his party colleagues as “Moderate Mike.” The day after the election, Harcourt was asked if he is a socialist. “I am a social democrat,” he replied with a smile. “I believe in a mixed economy, that there is a role for public and private enterprise. I have made it very clear that the mainstream, moderate social democrat that I am has rejected nationalizations, has said that we have to create wealth. That’s how you have the resources that are required to be able to bring about the quality education and health care that our citizens want.”
That even tone has marked Harcourt’s pronouncements since the 48-year-old lawyer and former mayor of Vancouver became the province’s NDP leader in 1987. And throughout the 28-day campaign, he successfully fended off attempts by Johnston and the Socreds to attach the legacy of David Barrett’s free-spending 1972-1975 NDP government to Harcourt. When he outlined the party’s 48-point election platform, Harcourt stressed that the planks were goals to be put in place when affordable, not policies to be instituted right away. And early in the campaign, Harcourt declared that an NDP government would practise fiscal restraint—a pledge that he repeated last week after his stunning victory. Declared Harcourt: “We have to live within our means.”
In fact, one of the province’s leading businessmen, Jim Pattison—whose multifaceted Jim Pattison Group enjoyed gross sales of $2.5 billion in 1990—was clearly prepared to give Harcourt the benefit of the doubt. Said Pattison after the election: “The people decide who the government is. My job is to work with that government.” Pattison added that he does not expect any immediate problems—“if the government is reasonable and does not run up huge deficits. Business doesn’t like that kind of thing.”
Harcourt says that his plans for the current fiscal year will require a 1.5-per-cent increase in spending over the Socreds’ forecast, tabled in a budget this spring. That budget called for $16.3 billion in spending and a projected annual deficit of $1.2 billion. But last week, Harcourt repeated his campaign promise of a balanced budget. Although he acknowledged that his government will continue to run a deficit for the next two years, he added: “We’ll be in the black in the third year.”
Harcourt maintains that his government will be able to offset the increase in spending with savings through efficient government operation, including reducing the number of ministries from the Socreds’ 23 to “less than 20.” And to make up for the $ 1.2-billion reduction in annual federal transfer payments announced by Ottawa this year, the NDP plans to impose two new taxes. Individuals earning more than $100,000 a year will pay a so-called highincome surcharge. And profitable corporations will be called on to pay a minimum 7.75-percent tax on profits. Harcourt pointed out that taxes on profits in Hong Kong are 17 per cent and that a Statistics Canada study showed that $2.5 billion in corporate profits was not taxed in British Columbia last year. He then added: “We want fair taxes, not punitive taxes.”
The plan is to use the increased tax revenues—and savings through efficiencies—to pay for such NDP initiatives as a fully funded hot-lunch program for needy schoolchildren. The party also proposes, among other things,
to fund community-based healthcare services, including therapeutic abortions; exempt first-time home buyers from the one-percent property tax; double provincial park and wilderness areas to 12 from six per cent of Crown land; and provide incentives for construction of low-cost starter homes.
On the national constitutional front, Harcourt, a supporter of the failed Meech Lake constitutional accord, advocates recognition of Quebec as a distinct society. “I say no special status for any province,” he said. “But the people of Quebec have to be assured that their lan-
guage, culture, and Napoleonic civil code will be preserved.” As well, Harcourt maintains that British Columbia must play a greater role in future constitutional talks. Said Harcourt: “Historically, we have been almost manicdepressive. One minute we’re wrapping ourselves in the flag, and the next minute we are sort of semi-separatist, belligerent and threatening. We should play a more mature, positive and therefore more powerful role.” At week’s end, Harcourt, his caucus and party supporters were celebrating. The premier was not expected to take the reins of government officially and swear in his cabinet until the end of the month. Although he gave no indication about cabinet appointments, his
point men in the party’s dogged four-year attack on the conduct of the Vander Zalm administration—justice critic Moe Sihota and finance critic Glen Clark—are likely to play prominent roles. Harcourt said that the transfer of power would be accomplished “with a minimum of fuss and bother.” Harcourt also planned to meet with Johnston this week to discuss the transition. For her part, Johnston, who late on election night told her supporters that “the vote stinks,” said that she would not make a statement about her own future until she had talked with the party’s board. But Johnston did say that she was unlikely to lead the party into another election, adding that her time as premier was “six months of my life that I’ll never forget.”
The B.C. legislature, meanwhile, will not be recalled until next spring, when Harcourt’s New Democrats will table their first budget. In the meantime, Harcourt clearly intends to live up to his campaign pledge to ensure “a stable business climate for British Columbia.” In the near future, he will travel to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul and possibly Guangzhou (formerly Canton, the Chinese city twinned §.with Vancouver when Harcourt was mayor) to drum up business for the province. Last week, Harcourt said that the message he will carry to the Pacific Rim next
month is the same one his government has for local business. Said Harcourt: “We’re open for business, but the ground rules are very simple. Don’t mess up the environment, pay your fair share of taxes, treat your employees fairly, and we’ll get along just swell.” British Columbians now have four years to try to get along with Harcourt—and without the Socreds.
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