Less than half an hour after Premier William Vander Zalm rushed out of the meeting room in Vancouver’s Pan Pacific Hotel at the end of his Good Friday resignation announcement, B.C. New Democratic Party Leader Michael Harcourt took his place. The bald, moustached 48-yearold lawyer had earlier cancelled plans to spend the afternoon bowling with his family in order to comment on the Social Credit premier’s departure. With an election call required by law in British Columbia by the fall, Harcourt struck a calm, deliberate note that he says he is counting on to win British Columbians’ confidence and electoral support. Concealing any satisfaction with his rival’s public capitulation, Harcourt described Vander Zalm’s announcement as “overdue.” He also criticized the premier’s party. Said Harcourt: “When you look at the real sin that Bill Vander Zalm committed, according to his caucus colleagues, it was the sin of being unelectable.”
But with Vander Zalm departing, some commentators say that Harcourt’s own electability
may suffer. Both he and his party have gained from the string of controversies that dogged the Socreds under Vander Zalm’s leadership. After winning only 22 seats out of a total of 69—but 43 per cent of the popular vote—in the last election, the NDP has led the Socreds in opinion polls by up to 15 points during the past year. Now, the party is poised at the brink of power in British Columbia. Still, it has stood on the threshold of the premier’s office once before—only to have the voters slam the door.
Tireless: Harcourt has worked tirelessly since he won the leadership in 1987 to move the historically hard-line leftist party closer to the political centre. Now, in the months before the next election, he will have to persuade voters that his newly moderate party is preferable to the familiar conservatism of Social Credit under a new and untainted leader. The son of an Edmonton insurance salesman and a schoolteacher, Harcourt moved to Vancouver as a teenager with his family and studied law at the University of British Columbia. There, he earned the nickname “Ho Chi Harcourt,” after
the North Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, when he startled acquaintances by delivering what fellow student and Vancouverbased political writer Stanley Persky now recalls as “a mild speech against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.”
Harcourt’s socialist convictions began to coalesce when he was 22 and worked for a summer as a dining-car waiter on Canadian Pacific Rail. On one trip, he met then-federal NDP Leader Tommy Douglas, a charismatic Baptist minister. Recalled Harcourt: “I was able to talk to him all the way from Winnipeg to Vancouver, between meals. He took the time to sit down and talk to this young law student and he got me thinking about politics. A couple of years later, I joined the NDP.” After he was called to the bar in 1968, Harcourt became director of the first socalled storefront law office in the country—in Vancouver’s seedy east end.
Teacher: In June, 1971, Harcourt married Mai-Gret Wibecke (Becky) Salo, a Norwegianborn teacher and counsellor whom he had met a year earlier at a friend’s birthday party in Vancouver. The couple currently live with their only child, Justen, 10, in a four-bedroom home overlooking English Bay in Vancouver. Harcourt, who had attended the University of British Columbia on a basketball scholarship, continues to play that sport, in addition to skiing, tennis and golf. He is also an eclectic reader, whose tastes range from history books to popular fiction. On the day after Vander Zalm made his dramatic announcement, Harcourt told Maclean ’s that he was relaxing with a P. D. James thriller, Death of an Expert Witness.
Harcourt’s political initiation took place in 1972, when he won election as a Vancouver alderman. He remained in municipal office during two failed attempts to win election to the provincial legislature in 1975 and 1979. Then, in 1980, Harcourt defeated incumbent Jack Volrich to seize the Vancouver mayor’s chair.
Harcourt turned out to be a ready conciliator who mediated between opposing political factions on city council and defused the suspicion of many in the city’s business community who had been wary of his socialist ties. Those achievements, said Norman Ruff, a political scientist at the University of Victoria, earned him a reputation as “a reflective, small-1 liberal who listens before he makes up his mind.” It also helped with his re-election in 1982 and 1984, the second time turning aside a challenge from a recently resigned Socred cabinet minister, William Vander Zalm.
Two years later, in 1986,
Harcourt finally entered the legislature—sitting in opposition to newly elected Premier Vander Zalm. But the
NDP’s election loss—its fourth in a row, beginning with the 1975 defeat of NDP Premier David Barrett by Vander Zalm’s predecessor, William Bennett—left others in his party badly shaken. Party leader Robert Skelly lost his own seat—and soon resigned. The following year, delegates to an uncontested leadership convention in Vancouver acclaimed Harcourt as Skelly’s middle-of-the-road successor.
Ripples: His drive to moderate the party’s positions continued—to occasional ripples of protest. In 1989, he startled many in the NDP’s labor wing when he opposed a demonstration by the powerful International Woodworkers of America (Canada). The union was fighting in favor of logging in the environmentally sensitive Carmanah Valley, on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. Harcourt led his party in opposing it. A few weeks later, he again raised eyebrows among the party faithful when he remarked to a gathering of executives that he understood that business “ensures the creation of wealth.” He added: “Don’t forget, I’m the son of an insurance salesman.”
By staking his position at the moderate centre of the ideological spectrum, Harcourt is plainly striving to overcome the traditional polarization of B.C. politics. In the process, he may leave little room for the province’s struggling Liberals, who have not had a member elected to the legislature since 1975. And indeed, the party’s leader, Capilano geography teacher Gordon Wilson, seemed both frustrated and uncertain last week. Said Wilson: “Surely to goodness now, the people of British Columbia are ready for another political party to come into the house in Victoria.”
Wilson has clearly been unable to seize as much political benefit from Vander Zalm’s setbacks as Harcourt. In one recent poll, the
Liberals stood at 12 per cent, compared with 49 for the NDP and 34 for the Socreds. The New Democrats have concentrated recently on consolidating that lead. Crisscrossing the province, Harcourt and other party members have portrayed the Socreds as radically rightwing, catering to the wealthy and opposed to labor. That campaign is aimed at making the NDP appear to be the province’s responsible, centrist party. But Persky claimed that Harcourt had proven that the NDP is a “freeenterprise party, too, and it isn’t even absurd.” But the strategy may not work as well in the absence of Vander Zalm’s own controversial actions and statements. Said UBC political scientist David Eirikson: “Without Vander Zalm as the premier, the next election is a whole new ball game. His departure is terrible news for the NDP.” Still, the party is in far better shape, organizationally and financially, than it was during the run-up to the last election. Harcourt says that it has retired its accumulated debt of $1.3 million. He added: “I told our troops that if we can’t run our own finances—setting an example for how the province should be run— then we don’t deserve to be governing.” Conflicts: Looking forward to the election, Harcourt has also issued his key policy positions. He told Maclean ’s recently that if he is elected premier, he will try to “reduce the conflicts” across the province. He added: “That includes settling native land claims, and adopting a balanced approach to providing a stable economy while recognizing the importance of protecting the environment.” He also said that an NDP government would double the amount of space allotted to park and wilderness areas, to 12 per cent of the province from six per cent, to have it set aside before the arrival of “the additional three million people who will be coming here in the next few years.” At the same time, he said that the party remains committed to such social issues as pay equity in the private and public sectors and the maintenance of the universal health care system. And all of that, he claims, can be done without increasing the deficit. He also says that the party is not considering any new taxes, with the possible exception of a minimum corporate tax.
Still, Harcourt remains studiously cautious. Said the inveterate jogger: “I’m from the Yogi Berra school of politics. I don’t count anything as won until I see all the votes in by 10 o’clock on election night.” In the turbulence of life and politics in British Columbia, that attitude seems more than prudent.
GREG W. TAYLOR with HAL QUINN and JOHN PIFER in Vancouver
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