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Cartoon by Greg PerryIncoming premier faces a raft of challenges. Hardest might be building a loyal cabinet.

Christy Clark faces the Vander Zalm syndrome, and I question her ability to handle it. I would say the same thing about any of the other candidates had they won.

Before I go there, let me express my horror at the predictions of the media “experts” that, going into the final ballot, said that Falcon would win!

The situation was roughly this: Clark was ahead of Falcon by 1,000 votes, and 2,000 fresh ones came into play from Abbott’s camp. This was a no-brainer — Falcon would have had to get 1,500 of those vote to win! Doing that sort of commentary does, or should require a reasonable ability in basic arithmetic!

The Vander Zalm syndrome goes back to 1986, when Bill Vander Zalm won the Socred leadership and the premier’s office with only one member of the cabinet supporting him. That was the late Jack Davis, who had been dropped from Bill Bennett’s cabinet for doing some creative accounting over airline tickets and clearly wanted rehabilitation. Three very potent Socreds were in the last four — Bud Smith, Grace McCarthy and Brian Smith. Bud wasn’t even in the legislature, but was still a force to be reckoned with. Grace and Brian were major leaguers, especially the former.

I was at that convention, in Whistler, doing my show for CKNW and commenting for Bill Good, then on CBC television. The day before the vote, Bill asked me what would happen if Vander Zalm were selected and I replied: “He’ll ruin the Social Credit Party within two years.” This proved to be so.


Vander Zalm says he was stabbed in the back, and that the knives were out immediately after he became premier. McCarthy and Smith, both of whom I had served with in cabinet, don’t see it that way, and as an observer, neither did I.

I once asked him if it wasn’t a mistake not to bring Bud Smith into cabinet (he won a Kamloops seat in the 1986 election), and Vander Zalm replied: “It was the biggest mistake of my political life.” In any event, under Vander Zalm the caucus and the party fell apart. He badly needed Smith’s considerable political know-how.

This truism is the central piece of what I’m saying — every caucus member, including cabinet ministers that backed others or were themselves defeated candidates, have a death wish for the winner. Every member of caucus that not only didn’t support Christy Clark but worked against her thinks that they, or the one they supported, could do a better job, and that often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s a characteristic of all caucuses. Napoleon I put it this way: “Every corporal has a marshal’s baton in his knapsack.”

The public are mostly fooled by all the bonhomie seen after the winner is declared and assume that it carries over into the caucus room, where everyone thereafter supports one another. Somehow the public think that politicians are different from ordinary people and have an all-for-one, one-for-all spirit. They don’t.

There are reasons for this, not least of which is the system itself, which compels caucus to stay united or the government will fall. This has two probable results — the member chokes back dissent because he has ambitions or raises hell because he knows he won’t ever get the prize.

The rewards for being good kids are very attractive. The possibility of promotion to cabinet presents an irresistible prize, as do the stepping stones, a parliamentary secretaryship or the whip’s office. (When the Liberals had it 79-2, they still paid for a whip and deputy whip to make sure the government had enough votes!)

As the days pass and it becomes fairly obvious who won’t be promoted, cliques form. To experienced observers, it’s not hard to see the lines of division. And who could blame the backbenchers from being jealous? The money in cabinet is better and the perks of a car, business class travel and nice expense accounts which have you staying in the very best hotels are all hard not to envy. Moreover, backbenchers are expected by their hometown supporters to be in cabinet, and now that they’re not, a feeling of being unfairly shown up sets in; they’ve lost face.

No one wants the back bench

Cabinet ministers sit in their own spot in the legislature. They get first dibs on making speeches and, in general, seem to be looking down on mere backbenchers and patronizing them. And they get that honourable in front of their name.

When things are going well, dissent is on the back burner. But most of the time, things don’t go well at all. As sure as God made little green apples, issues arise which make it very difficult for backbenchers to sit still; they get all the shit that comes from supporting the premier and cabinet and none of the praise when, very seldom, they are praised.

Probably the worst thing about being a backbencher on the government side is that there’s seldom any real task to perform; their job is to unhesitatingly support the premier and his cabinet, no matter what they feel deep down. That’s why premiers often hand out make work projects to keep “idle hands form doing the devil’s work.”

It’s true that some caucuses are more fractious than others. That’s got a lot to do with the premier, but even those who were skilled at dealing with fractious supporters, like Bill Bennett, who carried the Socreds to victory in 1975, worked very hard to keep relative peace in the family.

What does this all mean for Christy Clark?

She must create a cabinet, a process which has little to do with who’s competent and a hell of a lot more to do with politics.

Road of troubles ahead

When I was appointed to cabinet right after the 1975 election, it had damned little to do with my qualifications and everything to do with the fact that I represented Kamloops, always an important bellwether, which expected their MLA to be in cabinet. It’s as Lyndon Johnson said when asked why he didn’t fire FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover — “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.” Talent is handy, but not a prerequisite.

Where will she put her three main opponents? If they get big portfolios, it gives them the opportunity to shine and pose a threat to her; into a minor one, they pose perhaps an even greater threat. Indeed, she must not only give them a big portfolio, it must be one that pleases them. This was summed up well by Louis XIV who said: “Every time I bestow a vacant office I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.”

Now let’s look at some potholes down the road.

Lots of trouble ahead, starting with negotiations with the teachers who remember and dislike Ms. Clark from when she was an unpopular minister of Education.

Trouble with the HST situation no matter how the referendum turns out, but especially if the government loses it.

Trouble on the Health front, where the many troubles that are making headlines today are seen as the Liberals’ fault, for haven’t they been the government since 2001?

Trouble at budget time, when cuts that are sure to come get the folks back home very cross.

Big time and ongoing environmental/energy problems, starting with BC Hydro in big trouble because of what the Vancouver Province has called a policy of “folly.”

Who’s her ally?

Those are the easy parts. The big problem comes with the expected unexpected — expected because the phrase “shit happens” must have come from politics, unexpected because the actual crisis could not easily been predicted. It takes an abundance of political strength and courage to deal with the periodic bombshells that explode at the very worst of times.

Christy Clark enters into this nest of adders all but friendless.

No, this isn’t a male/female thing. Mike Harcourt couldn’t handle the Nanaimogate scandal, and he’s proved to be a very brave man indeed when he had a bad fall. He lacked, however, the political courage to face down the crisis.

It isn’t just a question of courage but circumstances, circumstances I don’t think Premier Clark can handle.

Farewell to Allan Williams

British Columbians mourn the death of a great citizen, Allan Williams, QC.

Others knew Allan much better than I (including Robert Exell, who publishes his own remembrances tomorrow on The Tyee). I served in cabinet with him for five years and I can tell you that no decisions were made until he had said his piece, such was his constant wisdom.

Allan served in local politics with distinction, was an MLA for 17 years and served as a highly respected minister of Labour and as Attorney-General during some difficult times, which he dealt with firmly and courageously.

One of the highest compliments I’ve received was when he asked me to be guest speaker at his annual constituency meeting.

It’s shocking to me that Allan never was awarded an Order of BC. Cato the elder put it this way: “After I’m dead, I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.” The Order of BC can grant honours posthumously and should do so.

To Marjorie, his wife of 62 years and his family, I know I speak for all of B.C. when I say about Allan, “well done thou good and faithful servant…”

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