GUEST COLUMN

The premier of improvisation

Acting tough is important for Mike Harcourt, who is often mistaken by the public as a wimp

VAUGHN PALMER June 6 1994
GUEST COLUMN

The premier of improvisation

Acting tough is important for Mike Harcourt, who is often mistaken by the public as a wimp

VAUGHN PALMER June 6 1994

The premier of improvisation

GUEST COLUMN

Acting tough is important for Mike Harcourt, who is often mistaken by the public as a wimp

VAUGHN PALMER

It took a long time for B.C. Premier Mike Harcourt to get over his humiliation at the defeat of the Charlottetown accord. It wasn’t just that he’d signed something that was overwhelmingly rejected by his province, he was dubbed “Premier Bone-head,” for his inability to explain the contents. One of the more vicious political cartoonists drew a portrait of eight-year-old Harcourt’s first deal. It went like this. Mikey: “Look Mama, a man gave me these magic beans.” Mom: “Very nice Mikey. Now where’s your new bicycle?” Even today, the premier still bristles and blames dark forces—easterners, the national media, special interest groups— for misrepresenting his position.

Since the October, 1992, referendum, Harcourt has spent a lot of time trying to show provincial voters that he actually does know what he’s doing in the premier’s office. The big move came last September when he fired or demoted half his cabinet, including the deputy premier, the minister of finance and the heads of most big-spending ministries. The shuffle, more like an earthquake really, ended a period when the avuncular premier seemed to have delegated more power than he retained. “Harcourt seizes power in a surprise coup,” was the quip that circulated in British Columbia at the time.

The purge continued at the outset of this year’s session of the legislature, as Harcourt switched house leaders, pressured the Speaker into stepping aside, and announced a scaled-down legislative agenda that would focus on just a handful of issues—forestry, jobs and training.

No mention there of national or constitutional affairs, but his failure to represent his province on those issues lingered in his mind. Lately, in chats with friends, advisers and reporters, he seemed to be groping towards a position vis-à-vis Quebec that would be more in tune with the concerns of the

electorate. Yet for all the asides and foreshadowing, the premier’s remarks burst forth with considerable impact when translated, full-blown, into a pair of interviews.

The newspapers were still being dropped on front porches in British Columbia one morning recently when the telephone began ringing for the premier’s press secretary. Harcourt was quoted that day in The Globe and Mail as saying that if Quebec decided to separate, “we’d be the worst of enemies.” The Vancouver Sun had a similar threat: “If they think it’s going to be a polite and logical discussion to break up this country. . . . It’s going to create an anger in B.C. that will fuel a sense that you’re the enemy of Canada.”

What did Harcourt think he was doing, reporters wanted to know. With the impending showdown between separatists and federalists in the Quebec election, even the Reform party had been toning down the rhetoric. It was no time for western premiers to begin making up enemy lists.

The aide explained that the premier had not purposely sought a national platform. He was asked questions by local reporters (the Globe interview was conducted by the paper’s B.C. bureau chief) and he’d respond-

ed—that was all. To emphasize the absence of a grand strategy, another aide put out the word that there were no polls or position papers to back up the premier’s remarks— “This one is straight from him.”

All right, admitted Harcourt in subsequent interviews, he was improvising on this one. But he insisted that separatist-bashing mirrored the feelings of British Columbians: “Opinions have been expressed to me that are very passionate, very deep and right across the province and across party lines.”

The last comment tells you everything you need to know about the premier’s motivation. He wasn’t hailing Ottawa or challenging Quebec. He was tipping British Columbians that this time he’ll try to stand tall on their behalf on the national stage.

Acting tough is important for Harcourt, who is often mistaken for a wimp by the television audience, which is able to assess only his Milquetoast visage and tendency to utter mushy, evasive quotes. His actual height, six-feet, fourinches, surprises people who meet him for the first time. Once when a voter shook his hand and said, “Gee you’re taller than I thought,” Harcourt faced a nearby TV camera and pleaded: “Why don’t people think I’m tall?” In the effort to compensate for his absence of stature as a talking head, the premier goes too far the other way—attacking welfare “varmints” and “deadbeats,” to the horror of his politically correct colleagues; claiming he was issuing a “failing grade” to existing education programs when, in fact the New Democrats were mere ly tinkering with some minor changes.

Telling Quebecers they would become British Columbia’s “worst enemies” was another case of his rhetoric exceeding his intentions and he quietly dropped the characterization from subsequent comments. In the effort to avoid fallout, his office has also been turning down requests for interviews from most of the major shows on national TV and radio.

In the days after his splash in the headlines, Harcourt could take satisfaction that other leaders, from Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow to Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, were also putting separatists on notice that federalists would concede nothing in advance of any negotiations—not the currency, not national assets, not even existing borders.

For all that, the premier was taking his lead from a telephone call he received in the middle of the controversy from Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson. Johnson had read the papers and was calling to hear for himself what his fellow premier was on about. And having listened to the explanation, he asked Harcourt not to concede the election to the separatists just yet, because the polls in Quebec are far from decisive. Which was a nice, polite way of asking if the B.C. premier would please shut up. Advice which Harcourt, having spoken his piece, seems prepared to accept— so long as no one calls him Bonehead again.

Vaughn Palmer is a political columnist for The Vancouver Sun.

Allan Fotkeringham is on assignment.