Wilson Joins BC's NDP
Gordon Wilson pushes open the screen door of his clapboard house, bearing groceries and a bouquet of roses - a dozen long-stemmed, ruby-coloured metaphors for love. "These are for you," he tells his wife, Judi Tyabji Wilson. "For Valentine's Day." The saint's day isn't until tomorrow, but the Wilsons, the most talked-about couple in B.C. politics, are celebrating early at their small seaside home in Powell River, B.C., 130 km north of Vancouver. The bay window Gordon installed in the back of the house allows for a panorama of the Strait of Georgia, and tonight, the charm of the setting will be augmented by his plans to cook a romantic repast: orange-glazed cornish hens with sausage stuffing. The amatory arrangements were made in advance because tomorrow Wilson, the governing New Democratic Party's newest recruit, is off to Ottawa to meet with federal ministers.
It has been a month since Wilson, 50, left his job as leader - and sole elected member - of the Progressive Democratic Alliance, the party he helped found in 1993, and signed an NDP card. He was immediately given a senior cabinet position with two contentious responsibilities: Aboriginal Affairs - with a pile of 51 treaties to be negotiated - and B.C. Ferry Corp., the troubled Crown corporation operating ferries along the B.C. coast. Since he walked across the floor of the house, pundits have had a field day trying to determine Wilson's motives and what role Tyabji, an articulate and opinionated 34-year-old, will play.
It was their publicly played out love affair back in 1993 that first seemed to derail Wilson's political aspirations. He had been the respected provincial Liberal leader, a father of two teenage children, whose wife, Elizabeth, said she was "still doing his laundry" while he was courting Tyabji. Tyabji was a 28-year-old Liberal MLA from Kelowna, with three small children and a husband. News of the passionate pas de deux between the idealistic Tyabji and the cerebral Wilson forced him to resign as Liberal leader and look for a new political vehicle (Tyabji lost her seat in the 1996 provincial election). Now, the left-of-centre politician says the NDP - which is 18 per cent in the polls - made him an offer he couldn't ignore. "What was the alternative?" Wilson asks candidly. "Given the PDA wasn't going to make it, given there was a genuine offer from the NDP to shift to the centre, why wouldn't I take the opportunity?"
It was not the first time the NDP had tried to entice British Columbia's most popular political leader, who in polls has consistently won an approval rating of 50 per cent or more. A year ago, the NDP asked B.C. Federation of Labour president Ken Georgetti to recruit Wilson. But Wilson remained convinced, at the time, that the PDA could gain more support. "Gordon always believed, until fairly recently, that he would become premier and bring the PDA to power, or that [Liberal Leader] Gordon Campbell would fall on a sword and he'd be asked back to head the Liberals," says one political observer who did not want to be named.
But a byelection last fall in Parksville/Qualicum - where the PDA candidate came in third, despite Wilson's personal popularity - convinced him it would be a long time before his 3,000-member, debt-ridden party made any real gains. As a result, the move to the NDP began to make sense. "This is an experiment where either the NDP moves to the middle or they are out of the game," says Tyabji, who often completes Wilson's sentences, as he does with hers. "The fact they made Gordon senior cabinet minister and handed him the two hottest potatoes tells me they're not only prepared to give him a profile but to also put him in a position where he can perform." Wilson adds: "If I don't do well in this portfolio, then the stakes are high for everybody."
NDP insiders say there were a multitude of bonuses to Wilson's recruitment: it gives them an extra seat in the house (there are now 40 NDP MLAs, compared with 34 Liberals and one Independent), stops the PDA from siphoning votes, and imparts to the NDP an aura of moderation. It also shifts two of the government's most controversial issues - the Nisga'a treaty and the ever more expensive fast-ferry project - away from tarnished players, like Premier Glen Clark, and onto the shoulders of a party newcomer. "This is a bold move by the NDP," says one political source. "It is a tired, demoralized party trying to create a sense of renewal. It has taken the calculated risk of bringing in someone like Gordon Wilson, who is difficult to handle."
It is Wilson's candour and individualism that could end up making him anathema to the NDP. Eleven days after being sworn in, he told reporters "a political agenda" was behind the ballooning costs and missed construction deadlines for the fast-ferry project. Clark responded by saying Wilson had been misinterpreted. "I don't think the NDP understand what they've gotten themselves into," says Liberal house leader Gary Farrell-Collins. "Gordon is very bright and very articulate, but he's very self-centred and oblivious to the damage he does to people along the way." Wilson asserts: "My nature is such that I like to get things done - but it doesn't mean I can't do it as a member of a team."
He has taken more than a few lumps for his switch. Rafe Mair, the voluble radio show host, chided Wilson for selling out "for 40 pieces of silver" - a reference to Wilson's salary hike of $40,000, to $109,000 per year. "How did you become a socialist?" Mair jabbed. "Was it a Damascus-like conversion?" (Wilson calmly deflected Mair's barbs: "Rafe, you're so cynical.") In Wilson's Powell River/Sunshine Coast riding, fisherman Cecil Reid hung a woollen-coated effigy outside his Pender Harbour home. On it was a sign: "Gordon Wilson Turncoat." "If I wanted to vote for the NDP, I'd have voted for them," says a feisty Reid, who supported Wilson in past elections and gave $200 to the PDA.
Many of Wilson's constituents, however, view the move favourably. In fact, the leap to the NDP did not seem that farfetched: the Sunshine Coast was represented by the NDP from 1973 to 1986. "I'm not a supporter of the NDP, but now that he's in cabinet, hopefully Gordon will be able to do more for his constituents," says Ron Moss, a Powell River businessman. Terry Kruger, editor of the Powell River News, says he has received few rancorous letters. "Some people felt betrayed and upset, but others feel this is the only way he could have an impact," Kruger explains. Even Daryl Clark, head of the local PDA, is pleased with the decision: "It enhances our chances of doing what we set out to do, to make Gordon Wilson premier."
Although towns in Wilson's riding, like Powell River, Gibsons and Sechelt, are on the B.C. mainland, they are highly dependent on ferry service because there is no highway link to the Lower Mainland. They are also in close proximity to First Nations groups, such as the Sechelt Indian band. As a result, Wilson's performance as minister responsible for aboriginal affairs and ferries may have a huge local impact. "It could be, in two years, the people in my riding say, 'You've sold us out,'" Wilson says. "But it could also be, in two years, I would have moved to a position where I can actually do something good for this province." Even some staunch NDPers believe if Wilson proves himself, he could run for the NDP leadership. Others say the party, more principled than pragmatic, could not accept an outsider as leader.
Asked about Wilson as a possible successor to Clark, a twinkle comes to Tyabji's eye and she smiles - without saying anything. She may be opinionated, but she is trying to keep her ambitions for her husband in check. The past five years have been punishing for the couple. In 1994, Tyabji lost custody of her three children - Kasimir, now 10, Kiri, 9, and Tanita, 6 - to her former husband, Kim Sandana, and sees them only once a month. (The judge acknowledged she was a good mother, but based his decision on her peripatetic political life.)
Last summer, Tyabji lost her job hosting a show on CHEK TV in Victoria and is suing for breach of contract. Her own legislative aspirations, meanwhile, have been shelved in favour of film production - an animated version of a play Wilson wrote about a poor child at Christmas. She has signed an NDP card, is trying to recruit new members - and figure out ways to pay off the PDA's $80,000 debt. "People either say I've sold out my inner strength to follow 10 paces behind my husband, or they say, 'She's a mettlesome wife, the one who's really in charge,'" Tyabji allows, as she smells the Valentine's Day roses. "But I'm not a mouthpiece for Gordon - I'm here to protect him." Given the potential pitfalls in his new position, that may prove to be a full-time job.
Maclean's March 1, 1999