The Battle For B.C.
Liberal Gordon Campbell and the NDP’s Glen Clark go down to the wire
Compared with anywhere else in British Columbia— anywhere else in Canada for that matter, to say nothing of the rest of the world—Kelowna does not look hard done by. Set in the lush greenery of the fertile Okanagan Valley 270 km east of Vancouver, the city’s prosperity is unmistakable. Clean, well-kept avenues bustle with traffic. Large, comfortable homes line leafy side streets. Beyond the city limits, expanding subdivisions rub shoulders with established orchards as well as new shopping centres, theme attractions and amusement parks, evidence of the Okanagan’s appeal to visitors and new settlers alike. All of which merely adds to the discordant note as Sindi Hawkins explains her reasons for running as the Liberal candidate in Okanagan West, an area once held by the legendary Social Credit premier W. A C. Bennett. A personable former nurse who recently received her law degree, Hawkins insists that she is motivated by despair, both for her city and her province. “We have been devastated,” she A says, “by 4 x/i years of NDP rule.”
Devastation, in fact, is hard for an c sider to spot in Kelowna. Hyperbole, on the other hand, is in ample supply—there and everywhere else in British Columbia, as the province entered the last full week of campaigning before a May 28 general I election. And while other CanadiI ans might envy Lotusland its earI ly spring, resilient prosperity and I famously relaxed lifestyle, Sindi ^ \
Hawkins is not alone in feeling that things are amiss in paradise. Unremitting rapid growth over more than a decade in British Co-
lumbia has strained government’s ability to keep pace with the demand for new roads, new schools and new hospitals. At the same time, personal taxes and the
provincial debt have both soared under the New Democrats, to levels that many find alarming. With that clearly on voters’ minds, how to balance the requirements of future growth against the limits of taxpayer patience has become the central issue in a campaign that last week turned suddenly and unexpectedly into a horse race.
For more than 500 candidates running under at least a dozen party banners for the 75 seats in the B.C. legislature, that development was just the latest lurch in what for months has been an emotional roller-coaster ride. As recently as last fall, Hawkins’s Liberals, behind leader Gordon Campbell, floated at the top of opinion polls, enjoying a 25-point lead over the scandal-ridden NDP government of then-Premier Mike Harcourt. But much of the public’s hostility towards the ruling socialists vanished with Harcourt’s surprise resignation in November. And by the time his successor, former employment minister Glen Clark (who won his
party’s leadership in February), dissolved the legislature last month, the NDP had pulled back into the lead—by as much as 10 percentage points according to several soundings.
new polls week, however, suggested Campbell’s Liberals had pulled even once again. Separate surveys conducted since early May by Vancouver’s MarkTrend Research Inc. and the Angus Reid Group Inc. found the New Democrats virtually at par with the Liberals at about 40 per cent in decided voter support. The Reform Party of British Columbia, whose leader is former Socred cabinet minister Jack Weisgerber, trailed badly with under 15 per cent support. At that, Reform was doing better than either the remnants of the once-powerful Social Credit party (now led by West Vancouver businessman Larry Gillanders) or the Progressive Democratic Al-
liance, the splinter party created in 1993 by former Liberal leader Gordon Wilson and MLA Judi Tyabji, after the couple’s heated affair prompted a revolt in the Liberal caucus. At under four per cent, neither party’s support could be distinguished from the margin of error in the latest polls.
Still, the evidence of a volatile electorate and an increasingly tight race served to heighten the pressure on all five party leaders as they entered a Vancouver studio last Thursday for the campaign’s only televised leaders’ debate. For Clark and Campbell, it offered a critical opportunity to break the apparent deadlock. For the other three leaders,
the debate provided perhaps the only opportunity to turn voters’ unsettled mood into an against-the-odds partisan advantage.
In the event, however, none of the five leaders found the breakthrough he had sought. Instead, the closely scripted 90-minute debate provided little more than a replay of the competing parties’ main themes. Echoing the stump speech that he has given several times a day since the start of the campaign, Campbell claimed that under the New Democrats, “government is taking more and more out of our pockets and giving us less and less in return.” By contrast, he promised B.C. voters that a Liberal government would deliver “more jobs and more money in your pocket.” Clark, too, repeated an attack he has levelled daily since the start of the campaign, accusing Campbell of plotting savage cuts to social programs in order to give tax breaks to the wealthy and large corporations. “Which leader,” Clark asked viewers to consider, “will consistently be on your side to build this province and build hope for the future?”
The answer that the remaining three party leaders in the studio tried to deliver to viewers was: “None of the above.” Weisgerber, working to capitalize on polls indicating that many voters consider him more credible than either Clark or Campbell, asked viewers to give their vote to the leader they most trust Wilson, whose grudge against Campbell for taking over the Liberals remains almost palpable, urged viewers to rally to his new Alliance in support of what he promised would be “a civilized revolution” marked by dramatic tax reforms. Gillanders, looking hesitant and very much the amateur that he claimed to be, based his appeal on a call for more law and order and the conviction that “we need to elect a few more business people to Victoria and few less professional politicians.”
But none of the men left the debate having landed— or suffered—a knockout blow. Instead, the B.C. election will be fought down to the wire this week in a riding-by-riding battle for support. And failing an unexpected gaffe by one of the front-runners, the trench warfare of the campaign’s last week seemed likely to rely on local concerns and British Columbia’s traditionally deep and visceral left-right political divide.
For Campbell and the Liberals, a critical battleground will be the 11 seats in the southern interior of the province—the region centred on the Okanagan Valley, liiere, dramatic economic growth has produced a growing shopping list of demands for new infrastructure and government services that runs contrary to the area’s long-standing distrust of free-spending socialism. Still, the Okanagan’s history as a Socred bastion should provide fertile ground for Liberal promises to sharply lower taxes even while increasing funding for such core services as health and education.
Once known mainly for its apples, the Okanagan has boomed in the decade since a new highway slashed the time it takes to drive there from Vancouver from five hours to just three. Vineyards that support wineries with a growing international reputation have edged aside many for-
mer apple orchards. New industries have sprung up, engaged in such eclectic activities as the refurbishing of cargo aircraft and the manufacture of bulletproof vests. And the region has become a magnet for both retirees in search of a gentle climate and young families looking to escape from the urban conflicts and crime of the province’s largest city. At 295,000, the valley’s population has grown by half since 1986—twice the rate of growth of the province as a whole (which now has 3.8 million people).
But that rapid growth has come with some costs. Kelowna residents complain that funding for the city’s schools has not kept up with increased enrolment, while its hospital has been forced by funding cuts to close beds. Another sore point is the bridge that for nearly 40 years has connected Kelowna, on the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake, with communities on its western bank: several studies over the years have recommended that the aging crossing be expanded or replaced, at an estimated cost of at least $65 million.
Despite those demands for more spending though, Liberal candidate Hawkins insists that voters in the staunchly free-enterprise region in
tact "want less government.” Even if that is true, however, it is not certain that Okanagan voters will choose Hawkins, who moved to Kelowna five years ago, to deliver the message to Victoria. In 1993, the same area elected federal Reform candidate Werner Schmidt as its member of Parliament, and several of Schmidt’s former supporters are now working to elect MLAs for Weisgerber’s similarly minded, if formally unassociated, Reform Party of British Columbia.
A wild card in the local political mix is Tyabji, who represents Okanagan East in the legislature. A first-time MLA when she was elected, along with 16 other Liberals, in 1991, Tyabji broke with the party two years later to remain at Wilson’s side. Now seeking re-election as a member of his Alliance party, she acknowledges that her high-profile divorce from her previous husband—and subsequent marriage to Wilson—have brought her notoriety. “For some people, it is an issue,” she concedes. “But I think my record in terms of service is strong.” And indeed, local observers say that Tyabji retains strong support in her constituency, an impres-
sion confirmed when the 31-year-old politician went canvassing door-to-door one day last week. “Don’t waste your time with me,” Tyabji was told at the first house where she called, “you’re going to get two votes here in any case.” Explained householder Carmen Zsolyoni after Tyabji moved on: “If you have any problem, you just write to her or talk to her. She’ll work at it till it’s taken care of.”
If the Okanagan, apart from Tyabji’s seat, is must-win territory for Campbell’s Liberals, Vancouver Island is equally critical to Clark and the NDP. The party swept 12 of 13 Island seats in 1991. And the region, a haven for retirees on fixed incomes as well as for many backto-the-land types, remains promising turf for the NDP. The party can point to a record of reform in logging regulation that has largely defused the frequent tense standoffs between environmentalists and foresters in Clayoquot Sound, on the Island’s largely pristine west coast. Now, in a move designed to win back support from forestry workers—who have faced sporadic mill shutdowns in recent months—Clark has announced plans to tie timber-cutting rights to job creation. “Simply maintaining jobs in the industry isn't good enough for me,” Clark said during a campaign swing through the north half of
the Island. “We want more jobs.” In fact, Clark has said he expects forest companies to create 21,000 new jobs in the next five years— or face the loss of cutting rights. At the same time, the NDP has promised to reinvest $400 million a year, collected from stumpage fees, in reforestation, under a program called Forest Renewal B.C. initiated under former leader Harcourt.
Nowhere is that strategy under closer scrutiny than in the riding of North Island. There, NDP candidate Glenn Robertson, a logger with pro-environmental leanings, is facing off against Liberal Gerry Furney, the popular mayor of Port McNeill for the past 21 years. A longtime critic of NDP forest policy, Furney has attracted many woods-workers to his cause with the argument that “we need real jobs, productive jobs, not make-work jobs.” In addition, Furney accuses the NDP of playing into the hands of environmentalists with its reforms—a charge that Clark went out of his way to deny last week. He vowed to counter what he called a “disinformation” campaign by a California-based group of logging opponents whose full-page ads in U.S. newspapers carry endorsements from such celebrities as Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand.
The heavy overcast weather that shrouded the Lower Mainland through much of the week gave way to harsher conditions still in the Peace River region, 840 km due north of Vancouver. It felt indeed rather like a step back in time—at least as far back as winter. While the southern city basked in the floral splendor of rhododendron season, snow fell on the rolling hills and aspen forests that extend from the northern Alberta prairie deep into northeastern British Columbia. Sparsely populated and still raw with unpaved roads and the restless feeling of a frontier, the Peace River country is a place apart, even in a province that often seems remote from the rest of Canada. With an economy based on forestry, ranching, and oil and gas exploration, and closer ties to neighboring Alberta than to the distant south, “the relationship between the Peace River and the rest of the province,” suggests
Ian Forsyth, who manages a cultural centre in Fort St. John, the region’s largest town with 15,000 people, “is the same as the relationship that British Columbia has with the rest of the country. We’re on the other side of the mountains, we’re treated like a cash cow, unappreciated and forgotten.”
By some perhaps, but not by Weisgerber’s Reform party. The Peace River is where it must win if it is to win anywhere. In 1991, the region sent two Socreds to Victoria—Weisgerber, representing Peace River South, and Richard Neufeld, representing the region’s vast northern section. When Social Credit collapsed in the wake of y the party’s massive defeat in that election, however, both men bolted 1 to Reform. They now face a stiff challenge to retain those seats.
The region’s frontier ethic of rugged individualism makes the 1 area stony ground for the NDP. The New Democrats’ tax on corpo-
Some B.C. areas feel ignored—just as the province does by Canada
rate capital is especially loathed there, where companies servicing the oilpatch must fight for business against competitors based in Alberta, which has neither a corporate capital tax nor a sales tax. Also viewed with deep suspicion in the north is an NDP initiative to resolve the long-standing land claims of B.C. natives, which many non-native residents fear will establish special rights for aboriginal people.
At the same time, Campbell’s Liberal program, tailored to appeal to southern voters, has struck some sour notes in the Peace River area. Campbell has sworn to reduce the number of seats in the legislature—a step that many believe would slash the region’s political representation. In addition, Campbell is counting on the sale of provincially owned B.C. Rail for $1 billion to make his rosy financial projections work out.
In the Peace River country, however, the Crown rail line is an economic mainstay. Notes Neufeld: “We need B.C. Rail to move our sulphur, our wood, our grain out to markets. I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have a railroad.” Indeed, neither does local Liberal candidate Ben Knutson: so unpopular is his party’s plan to privatize the railroad that Knutson has publicly disavowed it.
Reform’s performance in its northern heartland—as well as in the rest of the B.C. interior—
will be closely watched by both parties at the head of the pack. In a province that historically has elected the NDP only when the right-ofcentre so-called free-enterprise vote, long dominated by Social Credit, has splintered, Clark’s strategists pray that Reform and Wilson’s PDA will bleed enough support from the liberals on May 28 to deliver victory to them. Reflecting
an identical analysis, Campbell and his candidates repeatedly hammer home the warning that voters who do not want to see a second NDP term should cast their ballots for the Liberals. “Remember,” Campbell declares at least once during virtually every campaign stop in the interior, “a vote for Reform is a vote for the NDP.” Still, it is in the Lower Mainland, in Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs, that the decisive battle will be fought this week. More than half the available seats—38 in all—lie within the limits of the city itself or those of bedroom communities like Langley, Surrey and Richmond, which spread east along the banks of the Fraser River and south to the U.S. border. It is there, where the lion’s share of the 60,000 new residents coming to British Columbia each year settle, that the central issue in the election— finding the right balance between cuts in government spending and meeting the needs of growing communities—strikes home with the greatest force.
Here, too, there are local issues not widely shared in the rest
of the province—most notably the question of public safety. While statistics may indicate that violent crime is on the decline in Canada, that is not how many residents of Greater Vancouver see it. To the contrary, voters were reminded last week of a particularly gruesome shooting spree that took place two years ago in the political backyard of NDP attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh. In separate incidents, assailants shot and killed two brothers also named Dosanjh (no relation to the politician) in what police described as a gangland rivalry. Last week, prosecutors charged a woman who served on the jury that acquitted a man accused
of the murders of interfering with justice by having an affair with the defendant during the trial. All parties rushed to promise to beef up the region’s police forces.
Like Kelowna’s demands for a new bridge, however, hopes for additional cruisers on city streets hang on the next government’s ability to pay for them. And, as with many of the other promises that the leading candidates have made so far, critics found much to doubt in the detailed economic plans that both the Liberals and the NDP have put forward as centerpieces of their platforms. Both plans promise tax relief: the NDP focus is on those earning less than $80,000, the Liberals propose a deeper cut across the board (meaning that in practice about twothirds of the foregone revenue will stay in the hands of those earning more than $110,000 a year). Both also
undertake to shrink the province’s debt and balance its budget while preserving funds for health, education and public safety.
The similarity in the targets set by the two plans points up a central irony in British Columbia’s scramble to the polls. Despite the plethora of parties pursuing their support, voters have little real choice about their province’s direction. Like all other governments in Canada, British Columbia’s must do more with less. The only question remaining for voters is which leader, and which party, is best equipped to make the difficult decisions that will be required.
With a week of campaigning still ahead, many voters plainly had yet to make up their minds on the matter. In Weisgerber’s Peace River riding, a large NDP campaign sign stood alongside the Alaska Highway. But its presence in homemaker Jan Schwenk’s front yard indicated little about how she intended to vote. Union colleagues of Schwenk’s husband, a carpenter, placed the sign there. But the lively former Montrealer admitted that she has reservations about all the parties, and their leaders. “I look at them,” Schwenk said, “and none of them looks trustworthy.” Still, in an election to determine which party’s program will best preserve British Columbia’s enviable lifestyle without bankrupting its taxpayers, the decision will come down, finally, to exactly that: a question of trust.
in Campbell River, B.C.