Canada’s comic relief

Peter C. Newman March 6 2000

Canada’s comic relief

Peter C. Newman March 6 2000

Canada’s comic relief

Peter C. Newman

When I was editor of this magazine a couple of decades ago, I would meet regularly with my senior staff, just before finalizing the story mix for the next issue. Almost inevitably, one of them would suggest that the lineup of stories was too serious, that we should lighten up, include a touch of the absurd. Nothing more needed to be said. We all understood that meant assigning a story on B.C. politics.

Unlike most Canadians, who still comfort themselves with vestiges of faith in the political process, British Columbians have long since opted out of party politics and transferred their trust to special interest groups. The reason is simple: recent party leaders have blurred the distinction between entertainment and public policy. The erratic Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm’s operational code was best described as “Ready! Fire! Aim!” The past four years of Glen Clark’s thug-like rule have featured such monstrous boondoggles as wasting $463 million on inoperable fast ferries, spending $73 million on a Vancouver convention centre that was never built, and running the province’s finances into the ground, with this year’s deficit running at $ 1.4 billion. That will have to be added to the previous $2.3 billion in overspending by Clark since he took office in 1996.

No wonder the province’s voters regard politicians as fools and knaves, necessary evils to be cajoled and ridiculed but never respected. Part of the problem is the insecurity of most British Columbians, who never know whether the rain that almost constandy gushes from the sky is a sign that God is trying to cleanse the province of its sins, or wash it out to sea. Vancouver is aptly described as being 2,800 square kilometres, surrounded by reality. Its inhabitants expend most of their energy trying to get in touch with their inner child, and attending seminars on levitation to make sure they’re properly grounded.

The average dweller of Canada’s Pacific province is not very Canadian, if that means being willing to compromise while living a sensible life that’s as pleasant as it can be under the circumstances. The premiers of less militant provinces ride the hurricanes of rapidly changing social and political trends by tailoring policy and legislation to solidify their hold on the middle ground of public opinion. But B.C. politics has no middle ground. It’s mayhem all the way.

This makes for strange politics, particularly since last week’s bitter NDP convention split that party wide open. Ujjal Dosanjh was the best of a bad lot, but the socialists will keep tearing each other apart as they did during the past six months of leadership campaigning. Into this maelstrom now steps Gordon Campbell, the province’s Liberal leader. Campbell

seems vaguely out of place and time, since he still believes that good deeds are their own reward and that truth and honesty have a place in the abattoir that has become B.C. politics.

That’s a tough gig.

In British Columbia, being a Liberal doesn’t mean being liberal. Campbell’s party has no link with Jean Chrétiens government. Indeed, the Campbell agenda smacks more of Ralph Klein’s conservative approach. Campbell is less interested in ideology than trying to heal the damage of the NDP’s decade-long slash-and-burn treatment of the province’s economy. He is promising to drastically reduce personal income taxes from the highest to the lowest in the country, to protect property rights, balance the budget, and pass Truthin-Budgeting legislation, which is a novel idea in these latitudes. An interesting pledge is Campbell’s intention to do away with cabinet secrecy by holding some ministerial meetings in public, simultaneously televised on the legislative channel and broadcast live on the Internet.

Campbell’s main liability is the well-scrubbed establishment image he projects. While he grew up in Point Grey, one of Vancouver’s tony districts, that luxurious interlude ended at age 13 when his father, a prominent physician, committed suicide, leaving his mother with four children to raise. The family moved into a one-room apartment, supported by the mother’s earnings as a school secretary. People who don’t know him still believe that he lives in a mansion. Actually, it’s a modest house with a 10-m frontage. “Is that the mansion?” asked a disbelieving taxi driver who picked him up for a Helijet flight to Victoria recently.

Why the odds of his winning are so favourable is that Campbell has been able, since the last election, to put together a powerful anti-NDP coalition that has linked his Liberals with federal Reformers, Grits and Tories, as well as remnants of the provincial Social Credit and Reform parties, including past MLAs, candidates and party presidents. It has become as viable a coalition as the former political marriages that ruled this province under the Socred label for 36 of the past 48 years.

“Every once in a while,” Gordon Cambell told me during an interview just before the NDP convention, “you get the chance to really transform how institutions work, and I know we can do it. There’s a real opportunity for dramatic changes to be made because the public is ready for us to act. They’re not saying we’ll necessarily like it when you do it—it just has to be done. We must reverse the flight from politics as an honourable profession, and get good people involved again.”

Yes, it’s time for British Columbia to stop being the nation’s comic relief.