Clark and NDP Win in BC | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Clark and NDP Win in BC

Well, perhaps. In fact, the contrasts displayed on election night last week in British Columbia were, for the most part, more apparent than real - as was Clark's claim to be leading the province of 3.8 million down a radically new road.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 10, 1996

Clark and NDP Win in BC

 The contrast could not have been more apparent. The money was gathered at the Hotel Vancouver - diamonds and business suits circulating politely around a cavernous ballroom on the third floor of what remains, despite an ongoing makeover, very much the dowager duchess of Vancouver's hostelries. Barely a stone's throw away across Burrard Street, the socialists - a noticeably scruffier crowd, favoring the blue-jeans-and-baseball-cap end of the fashion spectrum - overflowed the decidedly more contemporary glitziness of the convention floor at the Vancouver Hyatt. The moneyed had gathered in hopes of celebrating victory for the self-declared champion of free enterprise in British Columbia's election, Liberal Gordon Campbell. But it was not to be. Instead, it was the socialists who partied far into the morning hours of last Wednesday, noisily celebrating the re-election of an NDP government led by 38-year-old Premier Glen Clark. "The public wants change," Clark crowed in the wake of the voters' decision. "I represent change."

Well, perhaps. In fact, the contrasts displayed on election night last week in British Columbia were, for the most part, more apparent than real - as was Clark's claim to be leading the province of 3.8 million down a radically new road. In returning the incumbent New Democrats with a reduced majority to the 75-seat B.C. legislature, voters had, if anything, opted rather grudgingly to stay the course with a party that demonstrated in its first mandate an appetite for interventionist activism and social engagement at odds with most other governments in the country - most dramatically with Mike Harris's Conservative Ontario, which this week marks the first anniversary of its election. But, while that gave the NDP 39 seats to the Liberals' 33, the ballot count revealed that more British Columbians (by a margin of 42 per cent of the popular vote to 39 per cent) had voted Liberal than New Democrat. That was a potent reminder to Clark's new government that many citizens remain alarmed by the NDP's record of tax hikes, heavy borrowing and free spending. "On the debt and deficit," the newly re-elected premier acknowledged, "I hear that loud and clear. We have to bring that back on track."

Still, it was an election outcome that provided B.C. historians with a gratifying number of firsts. It was the first time that the socialist NDP had managed to win back-to-back majorities, for one, albeit with two different leaders. And the election also saw the province send its first Chinese-Canadian MLAs (New Democrat Jenny Kwan and Liberal Ida Chong) to Victoria, as well as its first two openly gay representatives. For pundits, one of the closest verdicts in British Columbia's electoral history offered rich entrails for analysis, as they sought to assess the impact of Clark's victory on the troubled fortunes of the Canadian left and on the shifting political dynamics of a nation increasingly at the mercy of its most powerful regions. For the rest of the country, it marked the confirmation in power of a premier who describes himself without reservation as "very much a B.C.-firster" - prepared to speak out loudly for his own region and step up the pressure on Ottawa for recognition and reform.

If the lessons of the vote were ambiguous, they made a fitting end to a campaign that was marked for all of its four weeks by ambiguity, contradiction and startling reversals of popular sentiment. Clark entered the campaign ahead by 10 points in most opinion polls - in itself an accomplishment, given that as recently as last November his party had trailed Campbell's Liberals by 25 points. But as Campbell dogged the New Democrat with reminders of Clark's multiple tax hikes while serving as B.C. finance minister between 1991 and 1993, that lead melted away. By the campaign's final week, polls put the two camps on an even footing.

In the end, however, Campbell's attempts to demonize Clark as an unrepentant, tax-and-spend neo-Bolshevik - a time-honored strategy for right-of-centre politicians in deeply polarized British Columbia - simply failed to stick. It did not help that Campbell's own economic plan, which promised across-the-board tax relief and deep cuts in government spending, developed credibility problems of its own after experts challenged several of its key assumptions. Campbell was further badly served by lead-footed tactical advice and his own awkwardness on the stump. By the time the final ballots were tallied, Liberal candidates had made inroads in several of the NDP's former Vancouver strongholds - particularly in polling districts with above-average family incomes. But while a few of Campbell's candidates piled up huge margins - as much as 12,000 votes in one riding - Clark's better-organized ground troops pulled out narrow victories in enough seats to retain their party's hold on power.

It was not a lavish victory. "It is a reasonably comfortable majority," Clark insisted. But in fact, he will have just three votes - two, after the election of a Speaker from government ranks - with which to assert his agenda in the provincial legislature. Sharing the Opposition benches with the Liberals will be two B.C. Reform party members returned by voters in the province's distant and disaffected Peace River country - party leader Jack Weisgerber and neighboring MLA Richard Neufeld - as well as Gordon Wilson, the brainy but politically maladroit former Liberal leader who lost his followers to Campbell in 1993. Judi Tyabji, Wilson's wife and the only other sitting member of his Progressive Democratic Alliance in the last legislature, lost her bid for re-election. Also shut out - and to most appearances finally expunged from any further relevance in the province - was the Social Credit party, which from the early 1950s until 1991 dominated British Columbia's political landscape.

A combative and intensely partisan campaigner, Clark was magnanimous in victory. "There is talent on the Liberal side of the House, talent in the Reform party. Gordon Wilson surely has some talent," he told journalists crowded into a tiny meeting room to record his first postelection news conference. And Clark invited his defeated rivals to play a role, through all-party committees of the legislature, in developing new approaches to such nonpartisan issues as combatting child prostitution. But observers not so flushed by victory were skeptical that Clark's olive branch would be taken up. "My sense," said Simon Fraser University visiting political scientist Alan Whitehorn, a former researcher for the late federal NDP leader David Lewis, "is that the Liberals came so close, they will be even more aggressive in the legislature."

That may depend, in part, on Campbell's future as leader of the self-described forces of free enterprise in British Columbia. In the immediate wake of the vote, some observers speculated that there would be pressure on Campbell to expiate the Liberal defeat by stepping down. Others argued for him to stay - pointing to the Liberals' near miss in the final standings, their first-place finish in the popular vote, and the danger of further dividing right-wing feeling in the province. "At the moment," warned Norman Ruff, a University of Victoria political scientist, "this is a fragile coalition. One of the dangers, if the critics push too hard, is that the Liberals fragment." Such an outcome, he noted, would serve only to weaken the right's ability to coalesce around a single party in time to unseat the New Democrats at the next opportunity.

While Campbell weighed his long-term options, Clark's focus shifted quickly to the need for immediate action on several fronts. He must rebuild his cabinet, for one thing, finding successors for several key ministers who went down to defeat. The most difficult to replace will be Elizabeth Cull, the levelheaded and widely respected former NDP finance minister, who lost her Victoria-area Oak Bay/Gordon Head riding to the Liberals' Chong. Other ministers who retained their seats may also be due for reassignment - among them Constitutional Affairs Minister Andrew Petter. Clark has also promised to recall the legislature before the end of June, in order to reintroduce the budget that Cull tabled, but did not have time to win passage for, in the dying hours of the last government.

Clark's concentration on those preparations will be tested this week and again later this month by debut appearances on the national stage. This week, he is to travel to Whitehorse to join other western and territorial leaders for their annual conference. And on June 20 to 21 he will meet Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the other First Ministers in Ottawa.

Those appearances will give Canadians outside British Columbia their first opportunity to take the measure of the brash young man who now leads the country's third largest - and for much of the past decade its fastest-growing - province. At 38, Clark is three years junior to the next-youngest provincial leader, Newfoundland's Brian Tobin. Married to a teacher, Dale, and the father of two children, the former union organizer's firsthand experience outside British Columbia is limited. That has not noticeably inhibited his impressive self-confidence, as Clark prepares to claim a larger role for his province in national affairs. "We are going to say," he promised last week, "that British Columbia is an economic engine of the country, that we have lots to contribute to the country, and we're tired of the federal government not responding to our needs and aspirations."

Clark makes no secret, either, of his contempt for much of Ottawa's handling of the country's fractious unity debate. "What we have in this country," he told Maclean's in an interview, "is not a national vision - of anything. We have a kind of bean-counter mentality pervading. And if you reduce the Constitution simply to this distinct society question, then I'm not so sure you'll be successful."

Whatever British Columbia may contribute to the restructuring of Canada during Clark's watch in the months ahead, many analysts appeared to believe that the New Democrat's election had already altered the balance of forces between the political left and right in the country. "This bucks the right-wing, neoconservative trend in Canada," exulted New Democrat MP Svend Robinson, who represents the Vancouver-area riding of Burnaby/Kingsway. Agreed political scientist Whitehorn: "The results here suggest that the neoconservative tide may have peaked in Ontario last year." And Clark himself told New Democrats in the rest of the country to take comfort from the party's victory in British Columbia: "It says to New Democrats elsewhere that we have to be proud of our roots, proud of where we're from and what we've built in this country, proud of medicare. And you should never, ever back away from that."

But even in the sweet afterglow of victory, Clark was careful not to overstate the lessons the left should draw from events in British Columbia. Rejecting what he called "the myth" that New Democrats are reflexive supporters of big government, Clark observed that right-wing leaders like Ontario's Harris and Alberta's Ralph Klein "are tapping into a certain alienation with government, a concern that government is not working well, which I share." And, he added, "clearly that means we have to respond to that concern."

As unusual as it was to hear a career New Democrat voice any doubts at all about the merits of government, the B.C. vote contained moral lessons that plainly deserve a hearing at both ends of the political spectrum. The NDP may have been sharply reminded that voters have real concerns about debt and taxes. For the right wing there was an even sharper reminder: that voters, at least in prosperous British Columbia, are not willing to risk the sacrifice of valued social programs simply in order to reduce the public debt. "It sends a message to both the left and right," suggests Ruff, "that the electorate are looking for more convergence in terms of priorities."

If that is so, then the conventional reading that most West Coast media pundits quickly applied to the outcome of British Columbia's vote is probably flawed. According to that popular analysis, Glen Clark and the NDP won solely because Gordon Campbell and the Liberals failed to bring the province's pro-free-enterprise voters together under one tent. That no doubt had a bearing. But at least as likely is that voters, in British Columbia as elsewhere, are indeed looking for a new choice on the political scene: a Ralph Klein with more heart; a Bob Rae with more discipline on the bottom line. In Clark, British Columbians - or enough of them to return the NDP to power - seem to believe that they have found a leader who can breathe life into that new model of political virtue. Success for the scrappy young premier will mean living up to his election-night promise to be a symbol of change - not only for British Columbia but for the country as a whole. To fail, by contrast, Clark will need to do no more than act like just another old-fashioned politician.

Maclean's June 10, 1996