CANADA/COVER

A WINNING WAY

RITA JOHNSTON WINS HER PARTY'S SUPPORT, BUT CAN SHE WIN AN ELECTION?

HAL QUINN July 29 1991
CANADA/COVER

A WINNING WAY

RITA JOHNSTON WINS HER PARTY'S SUPPORT, BUT CAN SHE WIN AN ELECTION?

HAL QUINN July 29 1991

A WINNING WAY

CANADA

COVER

RITA JOHNSTON WINS HER PARTY'S SUPPORT, BUT CAN SHE WIN AN ELECTION?

A conga line of Rita Johnston supporters—waving signs and chanting “R-I-T-A, Rita-J, all the way”—rode up one escalator and down the adjacent one at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre. What seemed like an aimless trek, however, was really an attempt to co-ordinate more than 100 supporters for a dramatic entrance into the centre’s spacious Exhibit Hall B, where 1,846 delegates had just cast their first ballots to elect the new leader of British Columbia’s governing Social Credit party. Then, as the Johnston supporters streamed off the escalator, they met hundreds of supporters of candidate Grace McCarthy, known even to her rivals as “Amazing Grace.” Minutes later, when the first ballots were tallied, the two candidates were as close as their competing cheerleaders had been outside the hall. McCarthy led Johnston by just seven votes—659 to 652. For McCarthy, it was as close as she would get to victory. The next and final ballot gave Johnston 941 votes, McCarthy 881. With that, the woman who had become Canada’s first female premier almost by accident, when the Social Credit caucus chose her to replace William Vander Zalm on April 2, could now claim the support of her party as a whole. And Johnston wasted no time in appealing for unity from the cheering delegates. Declared the winner after her victory: “We all join in uniting behind one cause, one philosophy, one great Social Credit party.”

Johnston’s appeal went to the very heart of the challenge she faces as she tries to consolidate her status by becoming the country’s first

elected woman premier in the provincial election that must be called in British Columbia this year. Despite the traditional call for—and show of—party unity at the weekend leadership convention, the close outcome of the balloting reflected Social Credit’s lingering schizophrenia over Vander Zalm, who was forced to resign over conflicts of interest. McCarthy broke openly with him by resigning from his cabinet in 1988 (page 14). Johnston, however, was a staunch Vander Zalm loyalist (page 15). Said Glen Clark, finance critic for the opposition New Democratic Party and a keenly interested observer at the Socred convention: “From our point of view, this is a perfect

scenario. The Socred party is split very clearly right down the middle.”

It was a result that all five leadership candidates had, from the outset of the campaign, said that they wished to avoid. For three of them—former cabinet ministers Melville Couvelier and Norman Jacobsen and backbencher Duane Crandall—the race ended when their total combined vote count did not exceed Johnston’s on the first ballot; under party rules, they were dropped from the second ballot. For his part, Couvelier—whom Johnston had fired as finance minister over a breach of confidentiality on May 7—may have played the role of queenmaker when he joined Johnston minutes

after he was dropped from the race.

The balloting at week’s end finally brought to life what until then had been a fairly uninspired leadership-campaign. Plainly aware of Social Credit’s low standing in opinion polls, all five candidates made a determined and, for the most part, successful effort to avoid publicly airing one another’s—and the party’s—dirty laundry. There were a few flashes of fire. McCarthy and Couvelier briefly attacked Johnston during the campaign for travelling in a private jet supplied free by the president of an

airline based in Yellowknife, N.W.T., while the other candidates paid for their own transportation. For her part, Johnston criticized McCarthy for announcing that she would not run in the next election if she did not win the leadership. And she accused Couvelier of planning to repeat the mistakes that produced the Meech Lake debacle by resolving constitutional issues “behind closed doors.”

Quests: Those minor skirmishes aside, all of the candidates pointedly avoided the lavish excesses of the last Socred leadership race in 1986. Then, the party chose the Whistler ski resort, a luxuriously appointed playground of the rich and famous, as the setting for its leadership convention, and 12 candidates— including McCarthy and Couvelier—struggled

to outdo one another in attracting delegates with bands, booze and handouts. Three candidates, including McCarthy and the eventual winner, Vander Zalm, spent close to $1 million in their quests for the brass ring.

In the latest campaign, the party chose a businesslike affair at the downtown Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre. And none of the camps estimated its expenses at more than $200,000. Gone were the candidates’ hospitality tents, raucous music and open bars. Instead, ah five'jointly hosted a reception for delegates at the centre’s utilitarian Exhibition Hall A. The B.C. wine was free; beer was $3.95 a can. Said Norman Stowe, the convention centre’s vice-president of marketing: “[First Socred B.C. premier] W. A. C. Bennett must be smiling in his grave. They were being very frugal.”

Gap: But the reduced circumstances of the convention reflected the fortunes of a party with much to be modest about. Throughout the last two years of Vander Zalm’s fractious and scandal-ridden time in office, the Socreds trailed the New Democratic Party by an average of 15 percentage points in popular opinion polls. An Angus Reid Group poll published on June 22, which gave the New Democrats a lead of 39 per cent to 23 per cent over the Socreds, indicated that the gap had not closed. Indeed, University of British Columbia political scientist Paul Tennant, for one, said that he doubts that the Social Credit party can overtake the NDP before the next provincial election, which has to be called by Dec. 5. Added Tennant: “Academics and political observers in this province are so used to mistaken predictions of NDP victories over the past two decades that our Pavlovian £ response now is that it can’t happen. 1 But every sign indicates that it is going ^ to happen this time.” Declared TenI nant: “If the Socreds win, it would be a “ miracle.”

The opposition NDP is clearly deterg mined to deny the Socreds that miro acle. Michael Harcourt, the party’s “■ leader since 1987, has devoted himself to recasting the party’s image from one positioned on the radical left to a place closer to the moderate centre (page 16). “With our slate of candidates, including small businessmen, entrepreneurs and one chamber of commerce president,” said Harcourt, “we are now far more mainstream. We are now the majority party in British Columbia.” And with candidates already nominated in 74 of the province’s 75 ridings and an election campaign team in place, the 48-year-old Harcourt said that he is eager for the election call. “We have been ready for a year and a half,” he declared.

As formidable a challenge as the revitalized NDP poses, the premier now has to deal with the deep internal division in the party left behind by the departed Vander Zalm. Despite his unpopu-

CANADA’S FIRST WOMAN PREMIER FACES AN EARLY ELECTION CHALLENGE

larity among many voters and some elements of his own party, many Socreds, particularly in small-town British Columbia, remain fiercely loyal to Vander Zalm. And bad feeling between proand anti-Zalm factions is strong. With an election call most likely after the premiers’ conference at Whistler on Aug. 26 and 27, said UBC’s Tennant, “There will only be time to put a veneer over the divisions.”

At the same time, Tennant noted that, coming out of the weekend, the winner will have little time to place a distinctive stamp on the party. Instead, he said, she will have “to campaign on promises, not performance.” That outlook is one that Harcourt clearly welcomes. Said the NDP leader: “The campaign will boil down to the Socred record over the past 4V2 years under Vander Zalm, and the desire by British Columbians for honest and open government.”

Tainted: But the tainted association with Vander Zalm’s government is not the only challenge facing Johnston. Social Credit membership has also fallen dramatically. The party—which Bennett first led to power in the province in 1952 as a free-enterprise coalition of liberals and conservatives opposed to socialism—does not release exact figures. But analysts’ estimates peg Social Credit membership in the 30,000 range, a fraction of its peak of more than 100,000 in the mid-1970s. And party insiders express concern that longtime Socreds discouraged by the party’s current state, as well as Vander Zalm loyalists upset over his rejection, will choose not to volunteer their labor in the upcoming campaign—leaving

many essential tasks undone. Said Tennant: “The disaffected may decide to vote with their feet and walk away from it entirely.”

And as preoccupied as she will be with her party’s internal problems, the newly confirmed

premier will need to persuade voters that she has the ability to address British Columbia’s mounting economic and social problems in order to win the general election. In a poll that supporters of McCarthy released last week, the provincial economy was the top priority

among the 650 people surveyed. Indeed, the province’s top two industries—forestry and mining—have been hammered by the recession. More than 5,000 logging and sawmill jobs have been lost in the forests in the past two years. And last week, the B.C. mining industry reported collective 1990 losses of $95 million—with no return to profitability likely in 1991. The recession’s toll on the provincial economy has been lessened by billions of dollars of investment from the Pacific Rim— principally from Hong Kong. At the same time, the forest industry is under siege from environmentalists intent on eradicating pulp-and-paper-mill pollution and preserving old-growth forests. In addition, more than 19 overlapping native land claims, encompassing virtually the entire province, remain unresolved—to the growing frustration of an increasingly militant aboriginal population.

Break: Like her Socred predecessors, the weekend victor maintains that those challenges can best be met by an unswerving free-enterprise government. By contrast, the NDP’s Harcourt emphasizes the need for open and honest government after the Vander Zalm era. And for his part, provincial Liberal Leader Gordon Wilson, whose party has not had an MLA elected since 1975, says he is confident that he can convince voters that a complete break from both former governing parties is in order. But even if the Socreds’ post-convention optimism prevails, the challenges facing the next provincial government—whatever its stripe— will ensure that the weekend’s leadership celebration will be short indeed.

HAL QUINN in Vancouver