Canada

Vanishing Act

In the wake of Ujjal Dosanjh’s pending electoral debacle, B.C.’s NDP faces a long, wet walk in the rainforest

Ken MacQueen May 21 2001
Canada

Vanishing Act

In the wake of Ujjal Dosanjh’s pending electoral debacle, B.C.’s NDP faces a long, wet walk in the rainforest

Ken MacQueen May 21 2001

Vanishing Act

In the wake of Ujjal Dosanjh’s pending electoral debacle, B.C.’s NDP faces a long, wet walk in the rainforest

Ken MacQueen

Strange as it may seem, even by the loopy standard of British Columbia politics, the finest moment of Premier Ujjal Dosanjh’s dismal election campaign was his last-minute admission that all is lost. Until conceding defeat a week before the May 16 vote— generally not a wise political tactic—the campaign was dominated by his tragicomic inability to acknowledge the New Democrat’s demise after nearly a decade in power. This left Dosanjh with the Monty Pytho nesque task of selling a party that’s, ah, just restin’, when poll after opinion poll had long declared it, like Python’s parrot, to be stone dead, bereft of life, part of the choir invisible. It is, in short, an ex-government.

His statement of the obvious, “I will not form another NDP government,” seemed to lighten his burden in the campaign’s

final days. It was meant to salvage some semblance of a New Democrat opposition by letting the party focus on a few key ridings, though polls suggest his own seat of Vancouver-Kensington may not be among the survivors. Still, he draws strength from his single, if pathetic, message: we can’t possibly beat Gordon Campbell’s Liberals, please vote for us.

Such humility comes dangerously close to judgment day. British Columbians enjoyed a similar farce in 1991, when thenpremier Rita Johnston marched to the polls as head of the right-wing Social Credit government—leading a party that was alive only in the sense that the corpse’s hair and fingernails were still growing.

That election killed the once-mighty Social Credit dynasty, a party that—under the erratic leadership of Bill Vander Zalm —frittered away a natural governing coali-

tion in the pursuit of narrow special interests. Substitute a reckless and ideologically blinkered Glen Clark for Vander Zalm, replace left-wing for right, and you have what Dosanjh faces: an alienated and embittered electorate who have opened a fresh grave in British Columbia’s political boneyard.

What this means for the left, if recent history is a judge, is a long, wet walk in the rainforest. Much brooding. Plenty of acrimony. And, if Dosanjh’s frantic final days on the campaign bear fruit, a caucus that may fit around a table for four in the legislature’s restaurant. The notion is almost inconceivable. This in a province where the labour vote won the eight-hour workday almost a century ago. The left in British Columbia is used to losing, but never to being decimated. What next? An end to the B.C. blood sport of polarized

union-management politics? Wasn’t the loss of professional basketball enough for the province to bear?

Still, those straining to interpret a probable Liberal victory as a sea change in British Columbia politics are likely overreaching. “Everything doesn’t come crashing to an end, were a party with history,” says Dave Barrett, who led the New Democrats to an upset one-term win over the governing Social Credit powerhouse of W. A. C. Bennett in 1972. “British Columbia will always have polarized politics. It’s not a tea-cup party, there are real issues about power,” says Barrett, warming to the subject. “This is raw politics, real politics. This is frontier politics.”

New Democrats need look no further than the slick political machine of former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell to know redemption is possible. He is heir to the long-lost Social Credit dynasty. Though he blanches at the notion, he has included among his candidates such jowly Socred retreads as Claude Richmond and Graham Bruce.

Campbell finally reconstituted the “grand coalition of the centre and the right,” says Jerry Lampert, a former principal secretary to two Social Credit premiers and now head of the Business Council of British Columbia. “It would seem from the polling analysis they are also attracting a lot of union and traditional leftwing support.” Bill Tieleman, a political consultant and former New Democrat adviser, admits as much, with grudging admiration. He calls the Liberal banner a Socred “flag of convenience.

What happened is our coalition has shattered and their coalition has reformed.”

Coalitions, however, are as dynamic as the tides. The near-past holds lessons and cautionary tales for both parties—but little hop< for ideological peace in our time. “I’m one of those who doesn’t feel the left is going to disappear from B.C. politics,” Lampert says “Maybe it’ll be a newly constituted NDP or maybe

‘British Columbia will always have polarized politi There are real issues about power’

it’ll be something that looks a little bit different, uniquely B.C.”

Though Campbell has shifted his party from the right to the centre-right, there is always an element of Krazy Glue holding a B.C. coalition together. Push too hard for his ambitious agenda, even with a legislature frill of Liberals, and any number of fissures can appear.

After eight years in opposition, Campbell is in a hurry. Within the first term, he intends to cut personal income taxes on the first $60,000 to the lowest rate of any province. He plans an inquiry into the $463 million the New Democrats wasted on three “fast” ferries, should voters need a reminder of the NDP legacy. He wants a referendum on negotiating native land claims, a policy that has angry First Nations leaders threatening to shut the province down. His plan for the first 90 days owes much to the pro-business agendas of Ontario’s Mike Harris and Alberta’s Ralph Klein. High on the list: a “dramatic cut” in personal income taxes; limiting the right to strike of education workers; requiring a secret ballot for union certifica-

tion; opening public tendering to nonunion contractors.

If tax cuts are seen to imperil the unionized sectors of health care, education or the public service, Campbell is certain to be reminded that labour may have strayed from an unpopular NDP government, but it hasn’t up and died. “They’re angry at this government, they’re going to throw them out, but the things that they care about are still core values of the labour movement,” says Jim Sinclair, head of the 450,000member British Columbia Federation of Labour. “I don’t think Campbell has the mandate to take us to Ralph Klein country because he didn’t run on that.”

A bit of black humour making the rounds in NDP circles is that the party’s best hope for renewal is a public pledge to never again win power. There is some truth to this. The NDP might take a lesson from the strong campaign by the Green party: it is way more fun to join a movement than a political party. Mark Leier, a labour historian at Simon Fraser University, says the NDP must earn its place as the inspirational home of the province’s clamorous cadre of the disaffected: labour, environmental and aboriginal groups, the poor and disenfranchised. “It needs to get lively,” Leier says. “I’m not talking about riots, I’m talking about demonstrations, about organizing drives, about creating an extra-parliamentary opposition.”

For Campbell, political popularity is no guarantee of peace. There’s a real enough chance that a legislature packed with Liberals will be his one refuge from dissent. Even that will depend on his ability to keep an overflow caucus busy, and his unruly new coalition together. E33