British Columbia's Unique Politics
Surrey, Vancouver, March 11, 2013
British Columbia’s politics is fascinating and a great political theatre. No wonder people in other parts of Canada call BC the Lotus Land. The Eastern media often takes a great deal of pleasure in teasing and ridiculing BC’s political leadership. I have always been fascinated by this since my arrival in Canada from India in 1966. W.A.C. Bennett was the premier of BC at that time. I was very impressed with his vision. Bennett was a builder who opened up this province like no other leader. He was the longest serving premier of BC who occupied the premier’s chair for 20 years (1952 to 1972). However, even he couldn’t escape criticism of the Eastern media at times.
After receiving my teacher training at Simon Fraser and Notre Dame Universities, I accepted a teaching position in Hudson’s Hope, BC in 1968.Hudson's Hope is a small community about 90 kilometers south west of Fort Saint John in the Peace River area in northern BC. This historic town is located on the banks of Peace River. Only a few kilometers upstream, the Portage Mountain dam was just getting its finishing touches when I arrived there. Later on, it was renamed the Bennett Dam. This is the largest earth filled dam in the world and is a major tourist attraction. To formally inaugurate the dam, W.A.C. Bennett, along with most of his cabinet members and lumber barons like H.R. MacMillan arrived there in the fall of 1968. The whole town was excited .After the opening ceremonies, there was a reception held right at the dam site. Along with the BC Hydro officers, teachers were also invited to the special event. Thus, it was a great honour for me to meet with Mr. Bennett and chat with him and some other dignitaries.
Whether one agreed or disagreed with Mr. Bennett‘s policies, British Columbians certainly appreciated his vision in opening up British Columbia. He founded a political dynasty-the Social Credit Party. BC Rail, BC Hydro and BC Ferries are just some of W.A.C. Bennett’s contributions to this province. However, change is the law of nature. It is inevitable. After having 20 years of Socred rule, British Columbians wanted change. The change did come in 1972, when Bennett and his Social Credit Party (Socreds) suffered defeat at the hands of an upstart charismatic and colourful NDP leader Dave Barrett.
Barrett’s victory accelerated the polarization of BC politics. During his three years (1972 to 1975) in office, Barrett and his government brought in some very fundamental changes to this province. Agriculture Land Reserve and ICBC are just some of the changes brought in by the Barrett government that have stood the test of time. Perhaps the pace of changes brought in by the Barrett government was too fast for British Columbians to digest. He lost the election to W.A. C.’s son Bill Bennett and his Socreds in 1975. Expo 1986 and the Coquihala Highway are considered to be two of Bill Bennett’s major contributions to the province. By 1986, British Columbians seemed to be getting disenchanted with Bennett junior too. Labour strife and few other issues prompted Bill Bennett to quit politics .He was succeeded by Bill Vader Zalm,a bubbly personality with a fantastic smile from his Fantasy Garden in Richmond who took over as the Socred leader in 1986 at a convention in Whistler.
It wasn’t long before Vander Zalm started having difficulty with his own caucus. The party infighting resulted in near decimation of the Social Credit Party in 1991, under Rita Johnston, who had replaced Vander Zalm. NDP was elected with Mike Harcourt as the leader .Harcourt was the most amicable and conciliatory premier this province has seen in a long time. The Socreds were reduced to only a few seats. BC Liberals, under Gordon Wilson, replaced Social Credit as the official opposition. Wilson’s replacement, Gordon Campbell, had to wait in opposition till 2001 when the NDP suffered the same fate as the Socreds did in 1991.The 2010 Winter Olympics were the highlight of Campbell’s administration. However, the HST fiasco and few other problems spelled the end of Campbell’s political career. His replacement, Christy Clark seems to be facing the same fate. The current Ethnic Outreach Strategy fiasco appears to hasten the possible replacement of BC Liberals by the NDP under Adrian Dix. It is likely that the political scenarios of 1991 and 2001 will be repeated again in May, 2013.
It can happen only in British Columbia’s political landscape. History is on the verge of repeating itself for the third time in 22 years. In 1991, the Socreds were confined to the dustbin of history. A political dynasty had come to an end. Similarly, in 2001, another major political party, the NDP, was nearly decimated. Again, there is every indication that the BC Liberal Party (which came into power getting the record number of seats in 2001) and has ruled this province for twelve years, appears to be struggling for its survival.
These developments reinforce BC’s reputation as the one with very unusual politics. Since 1991, British Columbians have seen the decimation of a political dynasty, near annihilation of the NDP and now the possible demise of the BC Liberal Party on May 14. Who can say that British Columbia politics is dull? Indeed, we fully justify rest of Canada’s perception of BC as the Lotus Land.
(Balwant Sanghera is a retired School Psychologist and Community Activist)