BUSINESS WATCH

Harcourt’s innovative plan for B.C.’s future

The NDP will cut its ties with Bob Rae’s Ontario. Harcourt will not allow radicals to hijack his government’s political agenda.

Peter C. Newman November 4 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

Harcourt’s innovative plan for B.C.’s future

The NDP will cut its ties with Bob Rae’s Ontario. Harcourt will not allow radicals to hijack his government’s political agenda.

Peter C. Newman November 4 1991

Harcourt’s innovative plan for B.C.’s future

BUSINESS WATCH

The NDP will cut its ties with Bob Rae’s Ontario. Harcourt will not allow radicals to hijack his government’s political agenda.

BY PETER C. NEWMAN

There’s a list that political junkies repeat to one another with a special kind of glee. It is passed among those trivia experts who specialize in keeping tabs on partisan leaders who have not only lost elections, but took their parties down with them to oblivion or at least lengthy sojourns in the wilderness.

Apart from the permanent place of honor reserved for Richard Hatfield, who lost every seat in the 1987 New Brunswick election, the roster of these Gong Show contenders includes: Walter Weir, the Manitoba undertaker who practised his profession on his own Conservative party in 1969; Harry Strom, who in 1971 permanently buried Alberta’s Social Credit party; and Frank Miller, who may have performed the same service for the Ontario Tories just six years ago.

To that list of never-beens must now be added Rita Johnston, who in a classic Monty Python campaign last month marched her followers backwards to a humiliating defeat, ending the province’s 36-year Social Credit dynasty. Even in the wacky world of British Columbia politics, the sheer stupidity and boorishness of her campaign defied rational explanation. She never missed the chance to display an unerring instinct of going for her own jugular, making every political mistake in the book, and inventing some of her own. Her tactics had the intellectual earmarks of Minnie Mouse trying to take over Disneyland—and losing to Goofy. Badly.

Not only did Johnston never even try to distance herself from the scandals of the Vander Zalm regime, but she behaved throughout the campaign as if voters would not only forgive but forget that on the very day she called the election, her predecessor was being arraigned in court on charges of criminal breach of trust. It was a good indication of how far she had slipped in the people’s regard that when she demanded the resignation of one Socred candidate, John Ball, a disciple of the Jew-baiter Ernst Zundel, cynics joked that she had just lost

the Nazi vote, one of the few blocs sure to stick with Social Credit.

In contrast, the NDP campaign rolled smoothly to victory, winning 51 of the province’s 75 seats, if not a majority mandate. (Well, maybe not perfectly smoothly. Jim Beattie, the NDP Okanagan/Penticton candidate, did introduce his leader to a local rally as: “And now, here he is, the hardest man in B.C., Mike Harcourt!”)

The Liberals, of course, put on the most bravura performance, surging from zero to 17 seats, on no platform, no budget and a leader described by a friend as “a real Dagwood Bumstead who’ll fall into every open manhole in the province.” They claim Gordon Wilson got elected mainly because he was the personification of British Columbia’s—and Canada’s—most popular political movement, which can only be categorized as “none of the above.”

And Mike Harcourt is no Dave Barrett, the last NDPer to govern British Columbia (19721975). He neither possesses his predecessor’s charisma nor is possessed by his ideology. It was while Harcourt was working as a waiter on the CPR’s transcontinental trains during his university summers that he met and got into a long conversation with a passenger named Tommy Douglas about Canada’s social inequal-

ities. From that day to this, he has been very careful to stress his precise political stance: social democrat.

What that means, now that he’s in power, is that Harcourt will cut the NDP’s ties with Bob Rae’s socialist Ontario and not allow the radicals in his caucus to hijack his government’s political agenda. Under Harcourt’s leadership, the NDP has tried so hard to appear moderate that as soon as the B.C. legislature’s sittings began to be televised, earlier this year, he ordered his front benchers to wear sombre suits and conservative dresses, to ask questions in a calm, even deferential, manner and never to raise their voices.

(The party even secretly hired a Washington-based political coach, a former Shakespearean actor named Michael Sheehan, to teach socialist MLAS how to be more effective on television.)

A few weeks before he won the election, I had a private interview with Harcourt and found him surprisingly specific on the five main pieces of legislation that he intended to implement once in office:

1. A new minimum corporate tax on profits (“I don’t know at what rate, but it will be lower than Hong Kong’s 17 per cent”).

2. A prohibitive new surcharge on capital gains made from real estate flips. (The levy will be 80 per cent on property bought and sold the same year; 60 per cent within two years.)

3. A series of drastic anti-pollution measures for B.C. pulp mills, setting stringent targets for pollution and emission reductions by 2005.

3. An immediate doubling of the land devoted to provincial wilderness parks to 12 per cent of B.C.’s territory.

4. A new law providing second mortgages of up to $20,000 for first-time house buyers.

5. A series of steps that will culminate in recognition of aboriginal title and the native peoples’ inherent rights to self-government.

Harcourt’s trickiest testing ground will be the size of his first budget deficit. “I believe in balanced budgeting,” he told me, “but over a business cycle, rather than every budget. The problem in Canada is that we’ve overspent in the good times so when the bad times came we had accumulated a huge debt. As mayor of Vancouver, I had a bridge built during the last down time. It came in 25 per cent under budget and seven months ahead of schedule. That’s the time to do your public projects. If you do that kind of planning, you don’t blindly say, ‘Thou shalt have a balanced budget every year,’ whether it’s good or bad times. The goal is to have a balanced budget cycle and hopefully put some surplus away for the low points.”

It all sounds economically orthodox and politically boring.

About the only radical remaining in any kind of power position in British Columbia is Harry Rankin, the old-line Marxist who still sits as a Vancouver alderman and occasionally erupts into an ideological temper tantrum.

Recent events have cleared up the difference between the city councils in Vancouver and Moscow. The Moscow city council doesn’t have any Communists on it.

And that’s B.C. politics, 1991-style.