Desperate journey

Tom Fennell August 2 1999

Desperate journey

Tom Fennell August 2 1999

Glen Clark Stands Firm


Jennifer Hunter

For a man who is under extreme pressure to quit his job as premier of British Columbia, Glen Clark is a virtuoso at masking any anxiety he might feel. Last week, nattily dressed in a grey suit with a red rose pinned to his lapel, he looked positively insouciant as he introduced four new members of his cabinet and smilingly told reporters “not to believe everything you read” about dissension within the cabinet and the ranks of the provincial New Democratic party. But his cautious cabinet shuffle, which brought in Clark loyalists while leaving some powerful dissidents in key positions, was clearly the act of an embattled man fighting to save his job. “You’ve got to hand it to him,” observes one Vancouver businessman. “He can take a punch better than any other politician in Canada.”

In the past two weeks, those punches have come fast and furious. The first was the abrupt resignation of the respected and influential finance minister, Joy MacPhail. Then Clark’s parliamentary secretary, Graeme Bowbrick, handed in his notice after just one year on the job. Finally, Sue Hammell, the women’s equality minister, said she had had enough. Adding to the damage was the public revelation of a letter written by two former NDP MLAs who called on Clark to resign. The missive was endorsed by about 20 other high-profile New Democrats. “I think he is doing a disservice to the party by staying on,” explains Bill Barlee, a former NDP MLA who supported the letter. “He’s not a visionary and he’s never had a coherent long-term economic strategy.”

Darlene Marzari, another former MLA who endorsed the letter, also concludes Clark should step aside for the good of the party. She says she is quite concerned by the NDP’s decline in public support, which is exacerbated by a flagging economy and scandals over expensive enterprises such as the province’s fast ferries project and a convention centre in Vancouver (the fast ferries are $240 million over budget; the convention centre plan, was recendy put on hold because of financing problems). Polls done by the Angus Reid Group in June show only 16 per cent of committed voters would cast their ballots for the NDP, and eight out of 10 British Columbians disapprove of Glen Clark’s performance as premier (the NDP currently holds 40 seats in the 75-seat legislature). “I worry that as Clark falls in the polls, and in the esteem of his colleagues, the party will be severely damaged,” Marzari says.

Clark, always the scrapper, says he is not kayoed yet, and is cheerfully deflecting the critics and the demands to leave office. “Many of those people never supported me and they don’t support me now,” he told reporters. “I intend to stay as long as I command the support of the caucus and the party.” But how much support Clark has is not clear. He is seen as autocratic and difficult, and internal rumblings about his leadership began in earnest last January. Clark pleaded for time to pass the Nisga’a treaty, the historic aboriginal land-claims agreement that he sees as one of his crowning achievements. Then, in March, came the

The B.C. premier clings to power in the face of one controversy after another

notorious raid on the premiers home by the RCMP, who

were investigating the granting of a charity casino licence to

Clark’s friend, Dimitrios Pilarinos. Although the RCMP

claimed no wrongdoing on the premier’s part, questions

arose about his relationship with Pilarinos—who was under

investigation for illegal gambling—and a possible conflict of

interest. At that point, no one inside the NDP felt they could

chase Clark out of office. “There was the sympathy factor,”

notes a party insider. “It’s very risky, in terms of internal politics, to look like you’re kicking the shit out of someone

when they are down. That raid had a chilling effect.”

Clark weathered the scandal, and began to rebuff renewed calls to step down. In fact, since a caucus retreat in early July

where several cabinet ministers asked him to leave office, he

has been working hard to shore up support and shut down

critics. He even recruited NDP heavyweights such as former

B.C. premier Dave Barrett and Burnaby/Douglas MP Svend

Robinson to lobby on his behalf. On July 8, Barrett was

seen leaving the office of Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh—

regarded as a credible successor to Clark—after questioning

Dosanjh about his leadership ambitions. “It was a very short

meeting,” Dosanjh snapped later. “I heard him and I’m

absolutely certain he heard me. It was a very frank exchange

of views.” A few days after MacPhail’s resignation, Robinson

made a foray into provincial politics, phoning NDP caucus

members in an attempt to win them over to Clark’s side. “I

am not going to watch my party be destroyed by a small

group of people who, in some cases, differ fundamentally from the policy direction in which Glen Clark and the party

want to take,” Robinson told Macleans.

Clark subscribes to this view as well, arguing the dispute is not really over his leadership, but rather the policies of his

government. “There are differences on what we should be

doing and I prefer them to be kept inside, but now you’re see-

ing some of them being played out publicly,” he says. Still,

colleagues contend he is a leader unwilling to listen to points

of view outside his small circle of advisers, and they suggest

that insularity is having a devastating effect on the party. Since

Questions over Clark’s performance as premier and pressure on him to quit will likely continue to mount

Clark became premier in May, 1996, membership in the NDP has eroded by 30 per cent—down to 14,000 members from 20,000. The NDP convention last month was so poorly attended that political staffers were

brought in and provided with delegates’ credentials to flesh out the crowd.

Much of the traditional support enjoyed by the party, from environmentalists and the labour movement, for example, has also been severely undermined. “The premier has lost the moral ground in leading the party,” argues John Shields, who recendy stepped down as president of the 60,000-member British Columbia Government Employees Union. “People who traditionally stuck with the party through thick and thin won’t vote for it in the next election.” Shields points to an internal poll last March of BCGEU members that showed two-thirds of them do not support a Clark-led NDP.

The dissatisfaction and scandals that are dogging Clark seemed to start from the moment he was sworn in as premier on Feb. 22, 1996, taking over from Mike Harcourt. The Liberal Opposition threw cold water on the celebration by revealing, the day before, a conflict-of-interest problem at B.C. Hydro, which had been part of Clark’s bailiwick when he was finance minister. Some NDP insiders, their families, and B.C. Hydro executives had invested in a Pakistani power project partially owned by the public utility. Clark fired B.C. Hydro president John Sheehan, who later sued for wrongful dismissal, saying Clark knew he and others had invested in the Pakistani scheme. Last month, a B.C. Supreme Court awarded Sheehan

about $500,000 in damages, the judge noting he preferred “the evidence of Mr. Sheehan to the evidence of Mr. Clark.”

On the heels of Hydrogate came the budget fiasco. In the run-up to the May 28, 1996, provincial election, Clark’s government trumpeted the fact that its books would be in the black. A month after winning its narrow majority, the NDP was forced to admit there was no surplus, but rather a deficit of more than $200 million. Many voters felt the NDP had “cooked the books” and misled them about the provinces financial health. The ensuing ruckus led to a damaging report by the B.C. auditor and an upcoming lawsuit filed by a citizen named David Stockell, which claims three NDP MLAs committed fraud by misleading voters about the deficit.

Since then, one controversy has followed another: a promise of forest industry jobs gone up in smoke; the $280million bailout of the money-losing Skeena Cellulose pulp mill; disputes over the expansion of the Sky Train transit system in Greater Vancouver. More recently, attention has been focused on the fast ferry cost overruns; mounting provincial debt; the $900-million Vancouver convention centre, which may not get built due to conflicts over its cost and financing; and the RCMP raid on the premier’s home. “Everything Clark has touched has seemed to backfire,” says Norman Ruff, a political scientist at the University of Victoria. “Part of that comes from not looking into the future enough to see if the projects he is announcing can realistically be achieved.”

Clark says his new cabinet—which still features skeptics such as Dosanjh and Health Minister Penny Priddy—will try to “communicate more, deliver more and promise less.” But observers say there are serious roadblocks that could impede the premiers good intentions, including an upcoming report by the province’s conflict-of-interest commissioner that will examine Clark’s relationship with Piladnos in the casino affair, and the police investigation into the granting of the charity casino licence. Last Thursday, it was revealed Clark filed a secret application to quash the search warrants used to raid his home—which have remained sealed—a move that could keep the reasons for the police visit from public scrutiny.

Liberal Opposition Leader Gordon Campbell says it is regretful so much attention is being paid to the NDP’s disarray when the provincial economy is foundering. “It takes away the government’s focus on actually solving the problems of British Columbians,” he notes. But controversy over Clark’s performance as premier and pressure on him to quit will likely continue to mount. Whether the premier will listen is anyone’s guess. “He’s privately putting out the word that he’s not going to go, and if he leaves they’ll have to take him out feet first,” says one unhappy party member. That stubbornness could very well destroy what little public support the NDP has left. EH