CANADA

BACK ON TRACK

B.C. SOCREDS DREAM OF VICTORY AS PARTY VETERAN GRACE McCARTHY STIRS UP THE RACE FOR A NEW LEADER

BRIAN BERGMAN July 15 1991
CANADA

BACK ON TRACK

B.C. SOCREDS DREAM OF VICTORY AS PARTY VETERAN GRACE McCARTHY STIRS UP THE RACE FOR A NEW LEADER

BRIAN BERGMAN July 15 1991

BACK ON TRACK

CANADA

B.C. SOCREDS DREAM OF VICTORY AS PARTY VETERAN GRACE McCARTHY STIRS UP THE RACE FOR A NEW LEADER

Even one of the leading contenders could not summon a lot of enthusiasm. The race for the leadership of British Columbia’s ruling Social Credit party had become, in the words of Premier Rita Johnston, “about as exciting as watching paint dry.” Poor attendance at delegate selection meetings in preparation for the July 18 to 20 leadership convention, and lacklustre performances by the declared candidates, including Johnston, contributed to the appearance of a party on the brink of ruin. Then, on June 26, just one day before nominations closed, the campaign received an injection of old-fashioned political drama. Veteran MLA and former cabinet minister Grace McCarthy, one of the best-known politicians in British Columbia and a longtime critic of disgraced former premier William Vander Zalm, ended weeks of speculation by formally entering the race. McCarthy, 63, promised to restore the party’s fortunes after five scandal-plagued years under Vander Zalm. Armed with a recent opinion poll suggesting that she was the only potential leader capable of taking the Socreds

to victory over the resurgent NDP, she was clearly the woman to beat at last week’s first all-candidates meetings. Observed University of British Columbia political scientist Donald Blake of her wide appeal: “There is a bit of a love affair between this province and Grace McCarthy.”

Within her own party, however, that love affair is far from universal. Her leadership opponents—Johnston, former finance minister

Melville Couvelier, former social services minister Norman Jacobsen and MLA Duane Crandall—may benefit from lingering resentment among some Socreds over her actions during the past three years. McCarthy resigned as minister of economic development in 1988 to protest against Vander Zalm’s alleged interference in the running of her department, and then sniped at the premier from the sidelines. Her opponents claim that she never got over her defeat by the charismatic Vander Zalm in the 1986 Socred leadership race. Still, most analysts were predicting that the anticipated 1,900 delegates to next week’s Vancouver convention would do what the Socreds usually do—choose the candidate with the best chance of beating the NDP. That tradition has kept the party in power continuously since 1952, except for an NDP government from 1972 to 1975. Said University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff: “You don’t achieve something like that without understanding what it takes to win elections.”

Speculation about a possible Socred victory seemed unthinkable only three months ago. On

April 2, Vander Zalm resigned as premier after B.C. conflict-of-interest commissioner Edward Hughes ruled that Vander Zalm had breached his own cabinet guidelines when he sold his Fantasy Gardens biblical theme park last year for $16 million. Allegations that Vander Zalm also violated the B.C. Real Estate Act by accepting commissions related to that sale are now being investigated by the RCMP’s commercial-crime unit under the direction of a provincially appointed special prosecutor. Their findings are expected to be made public later this summer. Vander Zalm’s departure capped a stormy and scandal-ridden 56-month leadership marked by 13 cabinet resignations and six straight byelection defeats. The Socred caucus selected Johnston, then the province's deputy premier and a longtime Vander Zalm loyalist, as interim party leader and premier until a leadership convention could be held.

But in stark contrast to the 1986 Socred race, which attracted 12 candidates, there were few contenders. On May 20, Couvelier became the first declared candidate, followed

by Johnston, Crandall and Vancouver Island teacher Barrey Blow. But Blow dropped out of the race on June 27, unwilling to post the $9,000 candidate’s entry fee. While Johnston emerged as the early favorite, voters showed little enthusiasm for the race. Indeed, one midJune party meeting in Richmond that featured Johnston as guest speaker failed to attract the quorum of 50 people needed to select leadership delegates.

From the outset, there was strong pressure on McCarthy—known to her supporters as

“Amazing Grace”—to enter the race. First elected in 1966, the former florist is the only sitting MLA to have served in cabinet under British Columbia’s three previous Socred premiers—W. A. C. Bennett, his son William and Vander Zalm. Her years in cabinet included stints as deputy premier and as the minister responsible for human resources, transportation, and tourism and economic development. McCarthy’s stock in the party—and the province—soared during the Socreds’ brief hiatus in opposition in the early 1970s. As a caucus assistant and party president, she spent three years crisscrossing the province, helping to boost party membership to 70,000 from 5,000. Now, apart from Vander Zalm himself, she is easily the best-known Socred in British Columbia, famous for her fiery-red hair, her penchant for bright clothes and her breezy manner. Said political scientist Blake: “She is a B.C.-booster, a glad-hander, always an advocate of positive thinking. That appeals to a lot of people here.” Despite her broad support, McCarthy came slowly to her decision to run. In February, she announced that she would not run for re-election. And as late as May 3, one month after Vander Zalm resigned, she declared that she would not be a leadership candidate—claiming at the time that she did not want to add to the party’s divisions by running against an incumbent premier. What changed her mind, said McCarthy, were the results of an Angus Reid poll commissioned by The Vancouver Sun and published on June 22. It placed the NDP with 39-per-cent support among all voters, compared with 23 per cent for the Socreds, 18 per cent for other parties and 12 per cent undecided, in numbers that the pollster calculated to be accurate within 4.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. But when asked their opinion of the Socreds if McCarthy were at the helm, the 500 respon=? dents put the party in a dead £ heat with the NDP, at 36 per % cent each. By comparison, a “ Social Credit party led by Johnston or Couvelier continued to trail the NDP by eight and 10 points, respectively. Four days after the poll appeared, McCarthy entered the race—and immediately added much-needed excitement. More than 600 supporters, chanting “Say Grace,” packed the Vancouver church hall where she made her announcement.

But political analysts say that several unpredictable factors could still thwart McCarthy’s ambitions. For one thing, Vander Zalm loyalists—“Zalmoids,” in B.C. political jargon— may be able to mount a successful anyone-butGrace movement. That could enable a candi-

date like Jacobsen, who resigned as social services minister on June 27 to become the fifth and final contender for the leadership, to slip up the middle. Jacobsen, 61, is well regarded in party circles and last week received five endorsements from caucus colleagues—including Women’s Programs Minister Carol Gran, a previous Johnston supporter. Also unknown is the role that Vander Zalm himself will play at the convention. The former premier has said that he is uncommitted. But Johnston, for one, insists that her longtime political ally “could be a kingmaker, or a queenmaker, at the convention.”

Still, most Socreds may accept the reasoning of former cabinet minister John Reynolds, who was himself touted as a possible leadership candidate before he threw his support behind McCarthy in late June. Calling McCarthy the only candidate with a real opportunity to beat NDP Leader Michael Harcourt, Reynolds added: “There are certain people who, when they walk into a room, command attention. Grace is one of them, who has consistently shown an ability to lead.”

For his part, Harcourt, a popular former mayor of Vancouver who became provincial leader of the NDP in 1987, told Maclean ’s that his party has been preparing for a tough, competitive election for the past two years— regardless of who led the Socreds. To that end, the NDP has already nominated candidates in 74 of the province’s 75 ridings. By comparison, the Socreds had by last week nominated only 52 candidates. At the same time, Harcourt dismisses McCarthy, who at age 63 is the oldest candidate in the leadership race, as a “nostalgia candidate” through whom some Socreds hope to relive their glory days. Declared Harcourt: “The Socreds are thrashing about and prepared to do anything and say anything to try to keep power.”

According to the University of Victoria’s Ruff, the image of McCarthy as “yesterday’s woman” could hurt her in the general election that party insiders say may be called as early as next month. But Ruff added that the NDP should take note that the Angus Reid poll shows the Socreds within challenging distance of the NDP under two other possible leaders besides McCarthy. Said Ruff: “Frankly, given what has happened in B.C. politics over the past few years, one wonders why the NDP is only scoring at that level.”

Fellow academic Blake predicts that the Social Credit party will try to appeal to its traditional free-enterprise base by once again focusing the next election on the issue of economic management. To that end, McCarthy and the other Socred leadership candidates repeatedly cite Ontario’s NDP government and its record $9.7-billion provincial deficit as a dire example of what could happen if the NDP returns to power in British Columbia. The ability of Socreds to make that charge stick may be the key to the party’s fortunes in what promises to be a hot political summer.

BRIAN BERGMAN

JOHN PIFER