Vander Zalm is Back

The most glorious summer the west has seen in years finally came to an end two days after the calendar officially flipped over into fall. And as cloud and rain settled over British Columbia, the worsening economic gloom seemed equally palpable. In the interior city of Penticton, NDP Premier Glen Clark and Liberal Opposition Leader Gordon Campbell tested sound bites on their aides, preparing like rival prizefighters for their annual speeches to a conclave of B.C. mayors. In Vancouver, Bill Vander Zalm faced a somewhat less demanding audience: a weekly meeting of the downtown Kiwanis Club. But these days, the 64-year-old former premier, driven from office by scandal in 1991, takes his listeners where he can find them. Looking fit and crisply tailored, his 1,000-watt smile undimmed against the permanent tan, he described how the province has changed since he led it. "Seven years ago, this province was No. 1, not only in Canada, but in North America," he told his listeners. "Now, we're the highest taxed in North America - and our unemployment rate is the highest of any place in the country."

No matter that at least part of the comparison is untrue - Newfoundland's 18.9-per-cent unemployment rate far exceeds British Columbia's 8.6 per cent. Vander Zalm has never been one to let fact stand in the way of a good diatribe. His strong suit is presence, not precision. And since taking control of the Reform Party of British Columbia in June, Vander Zalm has been making the most of it. Looking very much like a man eager to get back into the ring, he has been crisscrossing the province, ducking questions about whether he will run as a candidate in the next election, and testing out a stump speech that plays strongly to the views of socially conservative, especially Christian, voters.

How far the devoutly Catholic millionaire's support extends is a matter of conjecture. Most analysts doubt it is enough to launch a serious bid for power. But to many British Columbians that may not matter. Already, Vander Zalm's political return has chilled the hearts of leader Gordon Campbell's right-leaning Liberals, who worry that what they had seen as near-certain victory in the next election might collapse into the nightmare scenario of a deeply divided right-wing vote. Anticipating the same prospect, left-wing Vancouver lawyer and gay-rights activist Barbara Findlay quips that the flamboyant Vander Zalm's comeback flirtation "is the best news the NDP has had this term."

That, of course, is not how Vander Zalm sees it. The speeches he delivers to appreciative audiences in places like Fort St. John, Prince George and Quesnel, as well as Vancouver, are peppered with scathing references to NDP "lies," "fraud," and "hypocrisy." And he has lost none of his capacity for controversy. Vander Zalm has excoriated the socialists for "discrimination" against a Christian newspaper banned from sale on B.C. Transit property for alleged anti-homosexual content. He has demanded that gay rights be put to a referendum. He would like to "pay every native, man, woman and child, one-half-million dollars apiece," to abandon all claim to special aboriginal status and become "Canadians, just like everybody else."

Vander Zalm delivers his prescriptions with a breezy assurance that even opponents envy. "He's got something you don't see in Campbell," says pollster Mary Bacica of Vancouver's MarkTrend Research. Bacica saw evidence of that in a survey conducted this summer. In a two-way race, Campbell placed far ahead of Clark in personal popularity: 42 per cent to 24 per cent. But when the survey was repeated with Vander Zalm added to the mix, Campbell's lead collapsed, from 18 points to five (Vander Zalm in turn trailed Clark by a mere three points).

Offsetting the unquestioned charisma is Vander Zalm's record in office. As Simon Fraser University political scientist Lynda Erickson notes: "There is a lot of baggage there." And what baggage it is. These days, Vander Zalm evokes the memory of Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau in bogeyman terms, as one reason for British Columbians to shy away from Campbell. He does not mention that his own first foray into politics was in the 1968 federal election - contesting a B.C. riding as a 34-year-old Trudeau Liberal. Vander Zalm lost that race, but went on to become mayor of the Vancouver suburb of Surrey and then a Social Credit minister in the cabinet of B.C. premier Bill Bennett. Dogged even then by controversy, Vander Zalm resigned his seat on Good Friday, 1983, after a dispute with the premier. The following year, with his wife Lillian, he bought Fantasy Gardens, an 8.5-hectare biblical theme park and botanical garden south of Vancouver, for $1.7 million.

His first political retirement lasted just three years. In July, 1986, after Bennett stepped down, Vander Zalm swept to the Social Credit leadership, overcoming the fact that he lacked both a seat in the legislature and the support of even a single member of cabinet. Three months later, he led the party to a landslide election victory. Within months, his government became mired in controversy. The free-wheeling premier's shoot-from-the-lip leadership style frequently caught even his own ministers by surprise. In early 1988, after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down federal legislation limiting abortions, he outraged many in the province by announcing his government would no longer fund the procedure. A month and a half later, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled against the Socreds and Vander Zalm was forced to retreat. But the premier was soon under fire again, this time for appearing to favor friends in the sale of real estate along Vancouver's False Creek, the former site of Expo '86. By 1990, his government had lost six straight byelections to the NDP, and nine cabinet ministers to resignations prompted either by scandal or protest over Vander Zalm's leadership.

By then, Fantasy Gardens was also faltering - in part because persistent anti-government protesters were affecting business at the theme park's stores. Vander Zalm and his wife found a potential buyer for the property in Taiwanese billionaire Tan Yu, and set about courting him. Lillian wrote to Tan that "my husband the premier" had arranged for Tan's representatives to meet senior government officials. Vander Zalm himself placed a call to Petro-Canada president Wilbert Hopper, trying to pave the way for Tan's purchase of land the oil company held next to his own property. In early August, Tan agreed to buy Fantasy Gardens for $16 million, sealing the deal with $20,000 cash in U.S currency, delivered to Vander Zalm at a late-night meeting in a Vancouver hotel.

Vander Zalm initially denied any role in the sale. But when documents surfaced contradicting his version of events, he asked B.C. conflict-of-interest commissioner Ted Hughes to review the case. Finally, on March 29, 1991 - another Good Friday - Vander Zalm announced he would step down as soon as his party elected a new leader. Four days later, Hughes released his report, a damning indictment of Vander Zalm's conduct. Hours later, the former owner of Fantasy Gardens emerged from Government House after delivering his resignation to Lt.-Gov. David Lam, and drew reporters' attention to a bed of small, light-blue flowers. "Those are forget-me-nots," he said with a flash of the trademark grin. "Don't forget me now."

Vander Zalm's record proved to be an impossible political weight around the neck of his Social Credit successor, Rita Johnson. But the man who defeated Johnson in the 1991 election, NDP premier Mike Harcourt, was himself driven from office by scandal in 1996 - replaced by the sharply more ideological Clark. Social Credit, fatally wounded by Vander Zalm's tenure, fell into a death spiral, sending disaffected right-of-centre voters and politicians scattering in search of new allegiances. Most found a home with Campbell's Liberals. But in the 1996 election, enough gravitated instead to the splinter Progressive Democratic Alliance (formed by an ex-Liberal) and Reform (led by an alumnus of Vander Zalm's Socreds) to hand the NDP a narrow re-election victory with only 39 per cent of the popular vote.

Now, the same prospect looms again. By taking control of Reform from hapless former leader Wilf Hanni, Vander Zalm (who is officially party president, but styles himself "de facto" leader) may have saved it from oblivion. But in doing so, he could be fragmenting right-wing voters once again. "It is going to muddle the Free Enterprise vote," says Grace McCarthy, a longtime pillar of Social Credit. "And that is alarming. Splitting the vote will just increase the chances for the return of the NDP."

The same complaint is heard within Vancouver's business community. "It's fantasyland all over again," grumbles one leading figure, adding: "It's going to ensure that Clark gets re-elected with a fraction of the popular vote again." In an effort to forestall that outcome, a number of individuals have tried to talk Vander Zalm out of his comeback. "People I know from business, from church groups, people that were previously in Social Credit that are now in Reform, are saying it," Vander Zalm admits. So why does he press on? "You do," he says rather vaguely, "what you believe has to be done."

There is another possible explanation for the disgraced politician's quixotic return. Vander Zalm's actions suggest a canny form of political greenmail aimed at securing a presence in the B.C. legislature that few believe he or his party could secure on a level playing field. Forced to run against a full slate of Liberal and NDP rivals, "I don't think Reform could elect a single candidate under Bill Vander Zalm," says independent MLA Jack Weisgerber, a former Socred cabinet minister who led Reform into the last election. But Vander Zalm has repeatedly hinted he would be willing not to run candidates against Campbell's Liberals in some ridings - in return for a clear field for his team in others. Campbell, so far, has rebuffed the offer.

One thing, though, is certain: Vander Zalm has given up none of the views that previously got him into trouble. "The premier's problem," concluded Hughes in his report on the Fantasy Gardens affair, "stems not just from his inability to draw a line between his private and public life, but in his apparently sincere belief that no conflict existed so long as the public wasn't aware of what was going on." Asked last week what he had learned from that experience, Vander Zalm said: "I made a mistake selecting someone in the bureaucracy to be judge over me. That was a real boner." He admits no other regrets. "My values," he adds, "haven't changed." Reason enough for the rest of British Columbia's right wing to be on edge. Vander Zalm's values paved the way for the NDP to win re-election in 1991. His renewed campaign against socialist shortcomings may do it again.

Maclean's October 5, 1998