Another NDP Government? Reflections on 35 years in British Columbia

I arrived in British Columbia in the fall of 1978 and was quickly made aware of the politics of the province. There was something close to caricature in the divide between left and right. – the NDP, led by social worker and democratic socialist Dave Barrett, and the Social Credit government, with its focus on public sector restraint, led by Kelowna businessman Bill Bennett.

The election of 1979 was close, but the result was not unexpected. The Social Credit government maintained its majority, and Dave Barrett continued as leader in opposition. But the election of 1983 was different. On the morning of the election I had happily proclaimed to anyone who would listen that this was the last day of Social Credit government in the province.  The 1982 recession and investigations of both insider trading and securities fraud were taking a toll.

But I was completely wrong. Bill Bennett’s government won a majority, and brought in a restraint program, cutting a wide range of public sector programs. The Solidarity Crisis and the Solidarity Coalition was like nothing I had ever experienced. I recall walking in a crowd of 50,000, past the Hotel Vancouver, many in the crowd shouting “shame” at Social Credit supporters on the sidewalk.  One of my colleagues left the province to return to Ontario, convinced that the conflicts within British Columbia would never abate: that extremism of one kind or another was endemic.

At some point during the 1980s I joined the NDP, convinced that there must be a better way forward. The election of 1986 pitted Bob Skelly, with clearly apparent anxiety and discomfort at press conferences, against the charismatic Christian conservative businessman Bill VanderZalm. The result was becoming depressingly consistent, another Social Credit government.

But everything changed in 1991, after a series of scandals rocked Bill VanderZalm, and by extension, the Social Credit government. I can still remember standing with my wife at the back of the Hotel Vancouver, clapping, as a smiling Mark Harcourt took to the stage to celebrate the first NDP government in 16 years. “Start the music and let’s Boogie”, he said, and so we did.  And it certainly began as a progressive government  — new parkland and protected areas, and a policy agenda that was moderate and thoughtful.

But during the 1990s Mike Harcourt gave way to Glen Clark, and my affection for the NDP had begun to wane; a series of cutbacks and restrictions on eligibility for social assistance seemed inconsistent with a principle of helping the less fortunate in society. And a series of political errors among those in government – “Bingogate” and the fast ferries that didn’t work – also served to bring an end to the staying power of this government.

It was difficult to be too enamored of the first Gordon Campbell government. I suppose that on a selfish level I should have been pleased with the tax cuts that they dished out – for those with above average incomes our paycheques increased by several hundred dollars each month. But the second Campbell government, with thoughtful moderates like Carole Taylor and Wally Oppal on board, was quite different.

The carbon tax and the HST, oddly reviled by many within the NDP, were both progressive initiatives. The carbon tax was a small step in the right direction on an important issue affecting the planet, and the provincial economic benefits of the HST were enormous (not to mention that as a tax on consumption, it was actually less regressive than the tax it replaced). Add to these accomplishments the  Finance Minister Carole Taylor’s  effective and moderate negotiations with public sector unions and the government’s actions on building more supportive housing for those with mental illness. It was a pretty good government, not that different in some important respects from the Harcourt government of 1991.

After 35 years, I’ve become much less partisan. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the dynamics of aging, but I think that the better explanation is that I’ve seen good ideas and bad mistakes on both sides of the aisle. I’m most afraid of ideologues, of the various ways in which attack ads serve to demean representative democracy, and of those who see the world as black and white, rather than the grey mess that it is.

I still hope for a world and a province in which the gap between the rich and poor is smaller than it is today, and in which the disadvantaged and disabled find more respect and support than they do today. And I know that there are folks in most of our political parties who want the same things.

So tomorrow I will cast a hopeful vote for the seemingly shy and thoughtful Adrian Dix and the New Democrats, mindful that they too may disappoint. We shall see.

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