The weather made an altogether too-apt metaphor for the uncertain fortunes of British Columbia politics last week, as the province's legislature reconvened under shafts of brilliant sunshine that made way for scudding clouds. March came in badly for New Democratic Premier Mike Harcourt - and April promises to be at least as cruel. Almost since the beginning of the year, in fact, the party that won power in 1991 promising an end to "playing favorites with political friends and insiders" has been on the defensive about its own ethics. The pressures turned personal for Harcourt on March 10, when provincial Conflict of Interest commissioner Ted Hughes opened an investigation into the premier's dealings with an advertising company owned by one of his long-standing supporters. By last week, the tensions were showing as a snappish Harcourt heard outgoing Lt.-Gov. David Lam read what the premier optimistically called a "very yeasty, focused" speech from the throne. "The opposition," said Harcourt dismissively, "have come here to play games and get involved in gossip. The government is here to carry out the people's business."
Harcourt's troubles, however, have their roots precisely in the amount of the people's business that his government has directed to its own friends and insiders. Most controversial has been a series of government contracts worth more than $5 million awarded to Vancouver-based NOW Communications, owned by former NDP communications director and campaign strategist Ron Johnson, whose wife, former national NDP president Johanna den Hertog, has also found work as a provincial government trade consultant. It is Harcourt's possible role in directing contracts to Johnson's company that may breach unusually restrictive provincial legislation prohibiting members of the legislature from not only actual but also "apparent" conflicts of interest. Late last week, the premier testified before Hughes behind closed doors, and said later that he had sworn he had no role in approving the contracts to Johnson. "I told him the truth," Harcourt said. "The allegations are unfair, untrue and politically motivated."
Fresh disclosures last week brought the number of inquiries and investigations into various aspects of the NDP's governance to seven. Aside from Hughes's inquiry, they include:
1) An independent inquiry into complaints that Government Services Minister Robin Blencoe sexually harassed a female employee of his office.
2) An audit into the affairs of a Nanaimo charitable society that last June was convicted of withholding money from charities between 1988 and 1991. The charities and political opponents charge that money from the society was funnelled into NDP campaign funds.
3) Another audit, this time by provincial auditor general George Morfitt, into the propriety of the money paid to NOW Communications.
4) The latest ethics eruption: the appointment last week of an independent investigator into the award of $156,100 in consulting contracts to the husband of Deputy Social Services Minister Sheila Wynn.
For British Columbians, the flurry of conflict charges brings an eerie sense of déjà vu. It was almost exactly four years ago - on April 2, 1991 - that an earlier damning report from Hughes forced former Social Credit premier William Vander Zalm to step down. Hughes found Vander Zalm to be in blatant conflict of interest after, among other indiscretions, accepting $20,000 in U.S. currency from a Taiwanese businessmen at a late-night meeting in a Vancouver hotel. There is no evidence that Harcourt received tangible benefits from his relations with a politically friendly communications firm. But the string of controversies has not helped the NDP improve its third-place standing with voters. A Marktrend poll of 503 B.C. residents taken in February, before the allegations leading to Hughes's investigation, ranked the Liberal and Reform parties neck and neck with 34-per-cent support each; the NDP trailed at 25 per cent.
With last week's throne speech, and a budget to be tabled on March 28, the New Democrats plainly hope to refocus public attention on a more positive agenda. But Harcourt's efforts to reassert his party's message was blunted even before it could begin, when the opposition Liberals, hours before Lam delivered the government's throne speech, released a leaked draft version of the NDP's legislative plan for the new session. Leader Gordon Campbell promptly branded the government's agenda "a pathetic document," and added, "clearly, this government has run out of steam."
The New Democrats' springtime of discontent has almost silenced speculation that Harcourt, who has until late 1996 to call an election, might go to the polls as early as May. But at least one encounter with the voters cannot be postponed: by law, Harcourt must call a byelection no later than April 20 to fill a vacant seat in Abbotsford. It is a contest likely only to deepen the NDP's woes: Abbotsford, on the rural eastern fringes of greater Vancouver, has long elected members from the right, not the left, end of British Columbia's polarized political spectrum. For Harcourt's beleaguered New Democrats, there is no sign of an early break in the clouds.
Maclean's April 3, 1995