Dosanjh Elected BC Leader

Ujjal Dosanjh is tired. Finding time to snatch a few hours of sleep has been difficult for British Columbia's new premier. Celebrity has struck the country's first Indo-Canadian provincial leader and everyone wants five minutes of his time. There has been a deluge of phone calls from Canadian and U.S. reporters, and journalists as far away as Germany, India and Britain; notice of his new job has made the front page of The Times of India, the subcontinent's largest English daily. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has phoned with greetings; so have federal cabinet members such as Health Minister Allan Rock. The chief minister of the Punjab - the equivalent of premier - has also called to relay his congratulations. "I feel quite happy, but nervous at the same time," says Dosanjh, 52. "It's obviously a very challenging position and there are many issues to contend with."

That is putting it mildly. Over the past five years, the NDP has been disgraced by one scandal after another: the previous premier, Glen Clark, is still under investigation by the RCMP and the province's conflict-of-interest commissioner over the granting of a charity casino licence (last week, the recipient of that licence, Dimitrios Pilarinos, pleaded guilty to being a found-in at a common gaming house). There was also deception about the health of the provincial budget and a decade of budget deficits, while initiatives such as the fast ferries megaproject have become financial sinkholes, and the vitriolic scrapping within the NDP during the leadership race further eroded public confidence in the party. Even with a scrupulous new steward, many wonder if the NDP can even dream about being re-elected. "It's a tall mountain to climb," allows former premier Mike Harcourt, who resigned in 1995 over the so-called Bingogate scandal. "People are angry at us. They want to kick the NDP's butt."

Some even believe the NDP could be wiped out in the next election. "It's not a fear," says Harcourt. "It could happen." Polls taken just before the NDP leadership race showed the B.C. Liberals with a clear majority. An Angus Reid Group study at the beginning of December reported that 57 per cent of the B.C. public would never vote NDP regardless of who the leader is. "There are real challenges the NDP faces in getting back its core support," says Daniel Savas, senior vice-president at Angus Reid. "They've had two successive mandates and the last two NDP premiers have resigned in disgrace. Why should people give them another chance?"

The crowning problem for the beleaguered NDP has been the government's perceived mismanagement of the economy. Jock Finlayson, vice-president of policy with the Business Council of B.C., says British Columbians are weary of losing business to booming Alberta and seeing their disposable incomes decline. "The NDP doesn't want to follow the economic strategies of Harris and Klein, but those two economies are kicking ours around the block," he says. The business malaise can only help Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell's bid for power. But Mike Geoghegan, a political analyst at Barlee, Geoghegan & Associates, a government and media relations firm, says Campbell still needs to offer a distinct vision. "It's not good enough to stand back and say we're the alternative, we're not Glen Clark," Geoghegan says. "Campbell has started to lay out plans and polices, but he needs to do more of that." Campbell allows that he must "put out a positive agenda for change" and promises balanced budgets, personal income tax cuts and support for free enterprise. His first move, however, is to badger the new premier into calling an election - immediately. His argument: "We have to restore people's trust in government."

Dosanjh, however, is refusing to bow to such demands, saying he needs time to show his stewardship will be radically different from Clark's, and from the vision Campbell offers. The NDP's mandate ends in June, 2001, although Dosanjh told Maclean's there could be a fall election. "People are looking for a government that listens and is less confrontational," he says. Recently, Dosanjh has been relying heavily on Harcourt to provide advice about the makeup of the new cabinet and the development of new policies - likely to include better day-care access and perhaps tax breaks for low- and middle-income earners. The top priority is putting together a palatable budget for the end of March, one that will calm the business community while appealing to the NDP's core support. "If Ujjal is able to demonstrate he has more integrity and honesty," says Harcourt, "I think we can regain a modicum of trust with the electorate."

The cabinet will be announced this week and will include Dosanjh's leadership contenders Corky Evans, Joy MacPhail and Gordon Wilson, as well as other familiar faces such as Paul Ramsay, Dan Miller and Penny Priddy. Knitting his party together will be one of Dosanjh's primary concerns. He has been warned by some advisers not to put his garrulous nemesis, Moe Sihota, back in cabinet. Sihota, who has been kicked out of cabinet twice before, worked assiduously against Dosanjh's leadership bid, and he and Glen Clark even suggested they would not support a Dosanjh-led government. But Joy MacPhail claims the acrimony has been laid to rest. "At the end of the day, Sihota and Clark are New Democrats," she says, adding she is convinced Dosanjh can erase his predecessor's tainted legacy: "I think Ujjal's style of leadership will be so different that Glen Clark's face will be forgotten."

Odd as it may seem to outsiders, there are glimmers of hope for the New Democrats. "I really believe the personality of the new premier will be a significant element in the dynamic," says political analyst and former Independent MLA David Mitchell, who notes that Dosanjh's reputation as a prudent politician will be a significant element in winning back the NDP support. "Gordon Campbell is going to have to change his tactics to deal with him," Mitchell says. "He's been conditioned for grudge matches against junkyard dogs like Clark. But now he's not confronting Genghis Khan, he's confronting Mahatma Gandhi, a political opponent who doesn't like confrontation." A poll by McIntyre & Mustel Research just before the NDP convention suggested Liberal support could drop from 50 per cent to 42 per cent and the NDP move up from 21 per cent to 29 per cent - narrowing the gap to only 13 percentage points if an election was called. "The B.C. public does have some tolerance for scandal," says Barb Justason, a partner at the research firm. "If Dosanjh can rebuild the party, the NDP has some potential to win." Even Liberal Leader Campbell believes the next election will not be handed to him on a platter. "There are a lot of people who traditionally support the NDP," he says, "and they've been looking for an excuse to go back."

This is, of course, exactly what Dosanjh hopes for. "We need to be honest with people and give them the straight goods," he says. "We need to re-inject a sense of trust." Most of all, he and his party need to pray that when British Columbians next go to the polls, much will be forgiven and long forgotten.

Maclean's March 6, 2000