SOLIDARITY FOREVER?

Thirty-three years ago, the newly-relected Social Credit government of Bill Bennett brought down the most dramatic, yay outlandish, budget and “restraint” package in B.C. history. What happened next is detailed here in an essay I wrote a year or so ago.

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On July 7, 1983, Bill Bennett and his Social Credit government, freshly elected to a third successive term in office, unleashed a revolution in British Columbia. This was a revolution from the right. Fueled by the radical conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman’s economic neo-liberalism, the Socreds took aim at all those elements in society they had never liked. With no advance notice, a total of 26 repressive bills came down the chute in a single day, along with a harsh government restraint budget that dramatically slashed social spending. Rent controls were abolished. Landlords were given the right to evict tenants without cause. The Human Rights Commission was shut down, its workers fired on the spot. The Employment Standards Branch was killed off. Scrutiny of Crown corporations was wound up, while the government tightened its grip over local school board budgets and community colleges, including course content. And on and on.

The worst of the onslaught focused on workers and unions in the public sector. Under Bill 2, they lost the right to negotiate almost anything except wages and benefits, even as wage controls were extended indefinitely. Bill 3, designed to pave the way for a wave of firings, wiped out job security and, incredibly, gave all public sector authorities the power to terminate workers without cause, regardless of seniority. (The first list of government employees to be fired included the names of B.C. Government Employees Union executive members John Shields and Diane Woods.) This was, indeed, “Black Thursday”.

The legislative barrage came at a dire time for the labour movement, already weakened by yet another NDP defeat at the polls and the sudden death earlier that year of Jim Kinnaird, the tough, able Scot who had headed the B.C. Federation of Labour since 1976. Kinnaird’s stopgap successor was Art Kube, a portly, relatively unknown, Canadian Labour Congress staffer with little real union experience.

Yet the fightback was immediate and intense. In fact, there has never been anything quite like the concerted Operation Solidarity protest that swept the province through four turbulent months during the summer and fall of 1983. The popular, union-led uprising against Premier Bennett’s Restraint Program brought B.C. to the verge of a general strike, involving hundreds of thousands public sector workers, with B.C.’s powerful private sector unions waiting to join in the moment anyone was punished for walking off the job. Resistance was further powered by an unprecedented coalition between the labour movement and community advocacy groups that had seen so many of their own rights trampled. Kube, his belief system forged in the social democracy of his native Austria, was to prove an adept leader and strategist, who steered this unlikely coalition until the wheels fell off at the very end.

George Hewison of the Fishermen’s Union was first off the mark. He called a meeting. Instead of the usual suspects, more than a hundred people showed up. They decided to hold a demonstration. Two weeks later, 20,000 people marched across the Georgia Viaduct. The rally featured IWA leader Jack Munro’s enduring observation on whether the numerous protest signs referring to “fascism” went too far. “If it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, then it’s probably a goddamned duck!” he thundered. The crowd roared back.

Kube soon coordinated union action, bringing Fed affiliates and their bitter, independent Canadian union rivals together for the first time, under the banner of the astutely-named Operation Solidarity.

Social activists also threw themselves into the struggle. A myriad opposition groups sprang up. One left-wing lawyer complained his practice was going to seed. “All I do is go to meetings.” Kube harnessed this activism into a separate Solidarity Coalition, hired several organizers, funded the rambunctious Solidarity Times newspaper, and convinced the Coalition they were equal partners with the protest’s potent trade union arm.

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Demonstrations and wildcat strikes, including a lengthy occupation of the Tranquille mental health facility in Kamloops, soon spread throughout the province. Twenty-five thousand swarmed the lawn of the legislature. Elsewhere, even in Social Credit strongholds, protestors rallied in the hundreds and thousands. But nothing topped the day tens of thousands public sector workers booked off and crammed every nook and cranny of Vancouver’s Empire Stadium. Just when it seemed the old stadium was completely jammed, in marched hundreds of uniformed firefighters, led by their famed marching band. It was a chilling, emotional moment that no one who was there would ever forget. Hope and optimism were in the air.

But Bill Bennett refused to buckle, deriding protestors as losers re-fighting the last election. Despite heroic, marathon efforts by NDP MLAs to stall the legislation, one by one the bills were pushed through.

Solidarity leaders gambled on one more demonstration, this one in mid-October, organized by the Coalition. The turnout stunned those on both sides of the battle. An estimated 80,000 demonstrators thronged the downtown streets of Vancouver. It remains the biggest protest in the city’s long, stormy history. It was time to move to the picket line. Solidarity hatched a war plan, calling for a series of escalating public sector walkouts, culminating in an all-out general strike.

Two weeks after the huge October protest, 40,000 members of the BCGEU walked off the job – legally – while their negotiators demanded the turfing of Bill 2 and an exemption from Bill 3. A week later, thousands of public school teachers and other education workers defied the law and hit the bricks on an illegal strike, seeking similar job protection. Municipal employees and the province’s critical ferry workers were next in line, set to strike on Monday, Nov. 14.

Finally, the government got nervous. They began to talk seriously about issues that had inflamed B.C. for months. Norman Spector, Bennett’s right hand man, parachuted into round-the-clock bargaining with the BCGEU at the B.C. Labour Relations Board. Spector also met secretly with B.C. Federation of Labour heavyweights Jack Munro and Mike Kramer.

The end came in a series of dramatic events that concluded less than 12 hours before the threatened ferry workers’ strike. The BCGEU won a deal containing wage increases, the death of Bill 2 and a Bill 3 exemption that recognized layoffs by seniority. It was a victory of sorts, and BCGEU negotiators brought out the champagne at their union headquarters in Burnaby. It was now a union show. The Solidarity Coalition and its causes, which had been such a part of the four-month protest, were shunted to the sidelines. “How can they celebrate when they’re selling out human rights?” lamented one Coalition leader, bitterly.

But before the picket lines came down, Operation Solidarity still wanted a pact with Bill Bennett to confirm their limited gains. With Kube home sick, Jack Munro flew to Kelowna to “negotiate” with the Premier. Sensing Solidarity’s desperation, however, Bennett refused to make any public statement committing the government to anything. Over the phone, Kube told Munro to “get the hell out of there”. Munro stayed. With the unanimous support of Federation executive members back in Vancouver, he soon stepped onto Bennett’s darkened porch and announced an end to Solidarity’s magnificent movement. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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(Vancouver Sun photo)

Privately, the government agreed to Bill 3 exemptions throughout the public sector, keeping money saved by the teachers’ walkout in the education system, and consultation on a few social matters. Yet this seemed a pittance to those who had had such high hopes for so many months. Instead of a victory celebration, there was bitterness and confusion. People felt betrayed. Operation Sellout buttons became popular. Jack Munro was vilified, both inside and outside the trade union movement. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect union members to strike and sacrifice their own pay cheques for non-monetary, non-union social issues. But this was never articulated to the Solidarity Coalition, which was left out in the rain by the final agreement.

In the cold light of dawn, however, there were still significant achievements to be noted. Nowhere in Canada outside Quebec had a strong, militant labour movement been able to stop a government’s anti-union agenda in its tracks. In the end, after all its bluster, Social Credit completely capitulated on Bills 2 and 3. That clear triumph is often forgotten amid all the unhappiness over the so-called Kelowna Accord. Bennett, himself, was heavily damaged politically. He chose not to run again. The extent of the historic fightback also dampened public enthusiasm for his right-wing, neo-con Restraint Program, few elements of which survive today. It also ensured Bennet would never be hailed a conservative folk hero, except perhaps by the Fraser Institute, as were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. For all of that, we can thank Operation Solidarity. And the Solidarity Coalition.

(and here’s what I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the 25th anniversary of the Kelowna Accord http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/back-from-the-brink-25-years-later/article20389444/)

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AN ODDBALL LOOK BACK AT BILL BENNETT

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For some reason, Bill Bennett seemed to like me. In the few times we encountered each other, we got along. Goodness knows why, since, as a labour reporter, I had little time for the wealth of anti-labour legislation that came down the legislative pipe during Bennett’s 11 years as premier, topped by his outlandish, 26-bill “restraint” package in 1983. It went far beyond “austerity”. One of the bills gave his government the right to fire public sector workers without cause and lay them off without regard to seniority. Among the first to be shown the door was BCGEU vice-president Diane Woods. Nor was that all.

On that single unforgettable day, the government also wiped out the Human Rights Commission (employees fired on the spot), gave landlords the right to evict tenants without cause, abolished rent controls, severely curtailed employment standards, tightened government control over school boards, community colleges and course content, weakened public scrutiny of Crown corporations, slashed social spending, and announced the layoffs of hundreds of government employees. It was a neo-con revolution of the right, hailed by the Fraser Institute and the Milton Friedman folks in Chicago. “Black Thursday” led to the most concerted protest fightback in the history of B.C., bringing the province to the verge of an all-out general strike. Er…where was I…? Oh yes, Bill Bennett and me.

As I said, all my dealings with Bennett the Younger were cordial, even friendly. I particularly remember one strange Friday night in the good old days when there were labour reporters. I was working the night labour beat at the Vancouver Sun, looking forward to a drink later on at the Press Club across the street. Out of nowhere, the “labour desk” got a call from one of Bennett’s aides, saying the Premier would like to have dinner with me. But of course. Why wouldn’t he? So out I headed on that dark and stormy night to a Japanese restaurant in deepest Richmond.

And there he was, leader of all the people, dining out with a few of his cronies. It was such a simpler time. Turned out the Premier wanted to talk to me about what he intended to do to ensure there would be no repeat of a bitter ferries strike that had just convulsed the province. His plan involved curbing the powers of the quite wonderful Labour Relations Board established under the NDP, and broadening the definition of essential services.

We had a pleasant conversation. I drank green tea and took notes. Bennett didn’t seem to mind my defense of the LRB and its brilliant chairman, Paul Weiler. Nor did he seem perturbed when I pointed to a strike-ending document authored by Mr. Weiler that, among other things, ruled out another aspect of Bennett’s agenda: potential prosecution of ferry workers for defying a back-to-work order.

It was actually kind of odd, as I realized little old labour reporter me knew more about the ins and outs of the ferry dispute than the premier of the province. But never mind. When I got back to the office, I had a big scoop that was splashed all over the front page of the Saturday Sun.

Nor was that the end of this gripping, personal saga. A few days later, Bill Bennett had to stand up in the legislature and acknowledge that he may have misled the House, after an article by that same little old labour reporter me contradicted something he had said. It’s all a bit complicated and picayune, but here is my shiny Bill Bennett moment.

First, Hansard from Oct 19, 1977:

MRS. E.E. DAILLY (Burnaby North): To the Premier. Was the Premier aware of the Weiler document the evening before he went on public television?

HON. MR. BENNETT: No.

COCKE: Rod Mickleburgh says he showed it to you the night before and you talked to him about it the night before.

 DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order, please.

And then, on Oct. 20:

HON. W.R. BENNETT (Premier): Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of clarification…to clarify an answer made in question period yesterday.

DEPUTY SPEAKER: Please proceed.

HON. MR. BENNETT: Mr. Speaker, I must say that in answer to a question from the member for Burnaby North (Mrs. Dailly) yesterday, in the shortness of my answer I may have inadvertently misled the House. The question was: was I aware of the LRB document? The answer would have to be yes, but I had not read the contents. That was the way I had understood the question. But I would point out that I did attend in dinner with Mr. Mickleburgh, who was there to receive a statement in advance of my press conference the following morning, and he has suggested that he mentioned the document during the dinner. While I cannot recall the contents of what he said, it must be said that I was aware that the Labour Relations Board did have a document. For that the answer would be “yes.” Had I read it and did I know the contents? The answer would be “no” at that time.

For the only time in my mediocre career, the score stood: Mickleburgh 1 Premier of British Columbia 0.

We encountered each other a few times after that, all private, all rather enjoyable. He never mentioned my calling him to account. Unlike many other politicians, Bill Bennett, frequently a target of intense media criticism, never held a grudge against reporters. Former Province legislative columnist Allen Garr, who wrote a hard-hitting book on Bennett called Tough Guy and was never easy on him in his columns, said he ran into the former premier a few years ago and was greeted with a genial ‘hello”, warm handshake and heartfelt pleasantries. Mind you, Bill Bennett shook hands with anybody….Image 11

As some have mentioned, Bennett was also known for his wit, though it was almost always at the expense of others and often somewhat mean. He once referred to NDP transportation critic James Lorimer, who favoured light rail over Skytrain, as “a streetcar named retire”. During a controversy that had erupted over vacant space in government office buildings under the Barrett government, he ended a corridor confrontation with Public Works Minister Bill Hartley, by saying the minister should have a sign on his forehead proclaiming “This Space for Rent”. I have other examples in the same vein, including a particularly good zinger on Bill Vander Zalm, whom he loathed, but you get the picture. Given that the NDP used to taunt him as “Daddy’s Boy”, perhaps he can be forgiven if they seem a bit harsh. (Bob Williams was the most persistent of the “Daddy’s Boy” taunters, until Bennett shot back, unfortunately: “At least I have a father…”)

Bennett really was a “tough guy” of the back alley variety. He gave no quarter. He played to win. Not an instinctive politician, he had an unerring sense for weakness. When union leader Jack Munro came to his house in Kelowna that infamous Sunday night in November, 1983, with an escalation of labour’s general strike on the table, Bennett quickly realized the unions wanted out of it more than he did. He could get a deal by offering almost nothing. Essentially, Bennett called their bluff, and the unions folded like a sack of potatoes. (Often forgotten is that Bennett did budge on the trade union issues that launched the whole Solidarity movement, but that happened before the ill-fated, so-called “Kelowna Accord”. One of the anti-union bills was dropped and the other never seriously applied. The layoffs proceeded, but they did so according to seniority, under employees’ union contracts. Diane Woods got her job back.)

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Even his family’s paid obituary in the newspaper referred to Bill Bennett’s competitive fire, which hardly diminished as he grew older. At 68, nearly 14 years after he resigned and slipped back to a secluded, private life in Kelowna, Bennett was summoned to testify at the inquiry into the legendary Bingogate scandal. The inquiry was called to look into the illegal redirection of charity bingo funds by NDP stalwart and former cabinet minister, Dave Stupich.

Asked about a mysterious memo that suggested Bennett somehow called off an investigation into Stupich’s charity bingos, the former premier denied even knowing about the matter. “Quite frankly, rest assured I never went out of my way to save Dave Stupich from himself,” he asserted, much to the merriment of those attending.

Later in his testimony, the great “Scotch and cornflakes” saga came up. Stupich had intimated in a letter to his constituents that Bennett was a heavy drinker, known to pour a bit of Scotch on his morning cornflakes. When Stupich refused to retract, Bennett sued. Stupich, along with his cohort, former Attorney-General Alex Macdonald, thought there was great political sport to be made, and fought the matter in court. Bennett, of course, didn’t fool around. He hired the best libel lawyer in the province, and was awarded $10,000, a hefty sum in those days. “Mr. Stupich didn’t plead truth. He tried to play political. I can only suggest he either got poor legal advice, or no legal advice,” the 68-year old Bennett told the inquiry.

He paused, then added, evoking more loud laughter: “For the record, his lawyer was Alex Macdonald.”

Old habits died hard.

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(The Godfather passes the torch in the vineyards of Kelowna.)

RACHEL NOTLEY, DAVE BARRETT AND HISTORY

ndp-leader-rachel-notley-wins-alberta-election I wasn’t there, but I bet a lot of tears were shed by Alberta NDP oldtimers last night at the party’s giddy, raucous ‘n’ rollin’  victory celebration in Edmonton. That was certainly the order of the evening on a similar dragon-slaying night long ago, out here in British Columbia. On Aug. 30, 1972, Dave Barrett, the 41-year old son of an East Vancouver fruit pedlar, led “the socialist hordes” inside the province’s gates for the first time, after nearly 40 years of repeated failure. Among the hysterical crowd greeting a triumphant Barrett at the Coquitlam Arena (it was a different time…) was veteran union official Rudy Krickan, who’d worked for the party since the 1930’s. His eyes moistening, Krickan told a reporter: “This is the greatest night of my life.” Barrett’s mother Rose, who put young Dave on a Spanish Civil War float in the late 1930’s, hugged her son with tears streaming down her face. 8378182 I’m sure there were similar moments in Edmonton, as Rachel Notley delivered her warm, impressive, heartfelt victory speech at the little more upscale ballroom of the Westin Hotel (in the old days of the Alberta NDP, election night gatherings could probably have been held in the hotel lobby…).

I mean, even a day later, who can really believe that the NDP has been elected in Alberta? (Surely some mistake, ed.) It’s insane, unworthy of even a lame April Fool’s joke. Calgary has gone from Cowtown to Maotown. As someone tweeted last night: snowballs in hell are alive and well.

Despite the passage of time, there are a number of interesting similarities between the stunning elections of Barrett and Rachel Notley, whose father Grant was head of the NDP in Alberta when his B.C. counterpart came to power. Both Barrett and Rachel Notley toppled political dynasties that seemed destined to last forever. W.A.C. Bennett had reigned over B.C. for two decades with barely a hiccup, and of course, Alberta’s Conservatives had been in power for a staggering 44 years, almost as long as the Vancouver Canucks have been without a Stanley Cup.

Both incumbent premiers waged disastrous campaigns. For them and their parties, after so many years, it was one election too many. Meanwhile, Barrett and Notley were note-perfect on the hustings. A mood for change swept over the electorate. By the end of 72-year-old W.A.C. Bennett’s bumbling re-election bid, the Socreds were desperately buying full-page newspaper ads proclaiming “young is a state of mind”. The ads pointed to a still-productive Picasso at 90 and Einstein working on his “unified field theory” into his seventies. Alas for Social Credit, there was no unified field theory to salvage the ‘72 election. “Wacky” went down in flames, as did Jim Prentice, who also seemed preposterously out of touch with ordinary voters.

Last-ditch, political scare tactics that had always worked in the past were lost in the gales of change. The unified free-enterprise vote splintered, and both Barrett and Notley were able to steamroll to power with substantially less than a majority of the popular vote. At one point last night, the Alberta NDP vote was a scant .2 percentage points higher than the 39.6% B.C. New Democrats received in 1972. (Late returns bumped it up to 40.6%.) And eerily, both Social Credit and Alberta Conservatives were nearly wiped off the electoral map with the same paltry total of 10 seats.

I also note that in their victory speeches, both Barrett and Rachel Notley began by paying tribute to and thanking the leaders they had sent into political oblivion. In Barrett’s case, his mention of W.A.C. Bennett evoked boos and laughter from the exultant crowd. “No, no,” admonished Barrett, over the din. “Any man who has served his province for 20 years deserves our respect, and I think we should recognize that.” Notley, in turn, graciously thanked Jim Prentice “for the enormous contribution he has made to this province…in many roles for many years.”

I found myself charmed by Rachel Notley’s wide, beaming smile. It seemed so refreshingly natural  and unstaged. I can see why Alberta voters flocked to her, rather than to her rather dour competitors. And yes, Barrett, too, was like that in victory. Here’s Allan Fotheringham’s description of the incoming premier as he strode towards Government House to be sworn in: “The new premier wore a continuing grin of simple pleasure. It was not a smug, greedy look. Just a boyish failure to subdue his true feelings.” Image 9 And now, the tough similarities. The way ahead for Notley, as it was for Dave Barrett, is fraught with potholes of the potentially-monstrous variety. Neither came close to a majority of the popular vote. If the free-enterprise forces get their act together, Notley could be a one-term wonder, as was Barrett. (Same with Bob Rae’s upset victory for the NDP in Ontario in 1990. They won a large majority with just 37.6% of the popular vote, then soundly trounced next time out.) In B.C.’s bitter 1975 election, the NDP actually held their share of the popular vote, but Social Credit, under the hardnosed leadership of Bill Bennett, knocked them for a loop by building an unsinkable anti-NDP coalition. The Liberal and Conservative vote basically disappeared. In a two-party race, Barrett and the NDP didn’t have a chance. They were out of office for the next 15 years, until the free enterprise forces split once more.

As did Barrett, Rachel Notley also takes over the reins of a resource-rich province with a caucus completely untested by  government. Who knows how they will perform? Barrett turned out to have some exceptionally capable ministers, several among the best this province has ever had. But he had his share of dunderheads and lacklustre performers, too. Along with more than one big blunder by Barrett, himself, these lesser-lights helped fuel perception of a gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Image 9 The reality was quite different. The Barrett government accomplished more in 39 months than perhaps any administration in Canadian history. It was done purposefully. At the new government’s first cabinet meeting, when not sliding up and down the large, shiny cabinet table in their stocking feet, they considered the question: Are we here for a good time, or a long time? As we know, they opted for a good time. “We discussed whether we were going to make fundamental changes in British Columbia,” Barrett wrote, later, “or whether we would try to hang on for a second term, rationalizing that we would get the job done next time around. We agreed unanimously to strike while the iron was hot.” Many thought they did too much too soon, without sufficient consultation. In the process, they alarmed the business community and a good chunk of the public. Their fate in the next election was sealed.

Yet their short time in office was far from all bad. Much of what that wild and crazy government did survives today. The “Barrett boys” fundamentally changed B.C., mostly for the better. So far, the approach of Rachel Notley seems a fair distance from Dave Barrett’s approach. Although both are certainly populists, early signs are that she is opting, not for the good time, but for the long time. While Barrett gleefully took on the big mining and forest companies, Notley is already talking to Alberta’s energy industry moguls, seeking to re-assure them of her desire to work together.

Meanwhile, the Alberta media must be licking their lips in anticipation of a story that keeps on giving. There will be tales galore, as there was during the Barrett government’s brief, Roman Candle launch and fall to earth. Everything seems so easy in opposition. Actual government is hard, requiring a steep learning curve. And so, to Rachel Notley and her merry band of green youngsters, i say: Welcome to the bigs. It should be a hell of a ride.

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TOP TEN LIST OF GOVERNMENT CLANGERS, CONT.

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Herewith, the next two items on my year-end, Top Ten List of ‘baddies’ by the B.C. government. First instalment here. If it’s all just too gloomy, you can still access my list of good deeds by that same gang we voted in.

3. Democracy in this strange century is fragile at the best of times, but B.C. Liberals seem to have taken us into a new realm of non-accountability. What else to say about a government that has presented itself in the legislature for a grand total of 36 days over the past year 20 months.

While Premier Clark’s vow that B.C. would lead the country in job creation floundered long ago, it turns out we are still leading Canada in at least one category. Yep, when it comes to number of days failing to put bums in legislative comfy chairs, we’re number one! Cue the Seahawks’ seismic roar.

Despite the many issues and controversies that have cried out for accountability in recent months, B.C was the only province in all the land not to have a fall sitting of its legislature. Not surprisingly, Canada’s third most populous province ranked dead last in days when their elected assembly was in session, trailing even Mike Duffy’s brief nesting spot, mighty Prince Edward Island, with its 140,000-strong population. B.C. was also at the bottom of the provincial table in 2012 with but 47 session days. Cross-Canada totals here. 

So, Premier, what happened? You used to love the legislature, so.  (For the quotes that follow, I am indebted to the incomparable Vaughn Palmer, whose political recall easily outshines “the Google”.)

In 2005, during her “farewell to politics” speech, Clark waxed eloquent on “this chamber that I’ve loved so much”.  Added she: “I have a profound respect for the work that this legislature does….The work that we do here is so important….I love question period. I love debate….I’ve loved every minute of it. I hope the MLAs who occupy this seat after me love this place even half as much as I have.”

Six years later, in 2011. after her “return to politics”, Clark’s passion for the legislature seemed undiminished. As newly-minted Liberal leader and Premier, she said could hardly wait to get back to where she once belonged. “As you know, I love question period and I hate to miss it,” she told nodding reporters. “Premiers in the past aren’t always tied to Victoria, but I want to be [there]. This is where decisions are made…”  After winning a by-election to re-gain official admission to the exalted chamber, she proclaimed how “excited” she was to return. “[It’s] familiar territory for me.”

Alas, Clark’s long ardour began to fade with the reality of married life. Within a year, the relationship was off the rails, and the once-gushing bride was professing a loathing for the “sick culture” of Victoria and all that that entailed, her change of heart set off, no doubt, by one too many “positive” questions from Adrian Dix or perhaps the mere sight of Harry Lali.

So the fickle leader waved goodbye to the precincts she once adored and set sail for B.C.’s wide-open spaces, where seldom in heard a discouraging word and folks appreciate a beaming Premier in a hard hat. According to Ms. Clark, she is serving the province better by “meeting with the people” than spending time in Victoria doing the people’s business before those actually elected to represent them. But it’s a shabby, self-serving version of democracy that recalls the bad old days of W.A.C. Bennett, who  disdained the legislature and those pesky opposition MLAs.

Meanwhile, a majority of MLAs continue to receive their $1,000 monthly stipends to defray accommodation expenses in Victoria, despite the paltry 36 days the house was in session. And backbenchers and opposition members struggle to find things to do to justify their $100,000 annual salaries. I hear some are finally reading War and Peace. Nice work, if you can get it. At the same time, veteran scribes report that cabinet ministers these recent months have rarely bothered to show up at all in their cobwebbed Victoria offices. Government by cell phone and email is so much easier. The ghost wandering the parliament buildings in Victoria is no longer Francis Rattenbury. It’s speaker Linda Reid, and she has a lot of spooky company.

Photos from Vale Farms on a Monday evening after a day of rain.

4. The Agricultural Land Reserve, policed by an independent land commission, is one of this province’s great treasures. Not only has it saved the Lower Mainland from the appalling urban sprawl that has gobbled up good farmland and ruined the landscape outside so many North American cities, it has helped preserve vital agricultural acres across the province.

Before the election, the B.C. Liberals appeared to recognize that. Backroom strategists produced a pre-election document for caucus members that included the winning message: “Unlike the NDP, we have never politically interfered with the independence of the Agricultural Land Commission.”

Once the election was safely past, however, the tune changed. Bill Bennett, the rambunctious Energy and Mines Minister from East Kootenay, mused openly about all the land “covered by rocks and trees” that “flummoxed” land-owners can’t get out of the ALR. It got scarier. Given the task of directing the government’s core review of public services, Bennett quickly served notice that the sacrosanct ALR and the ALC were in his sightline.

Then we learned cabinet documents had been prepared proposing to erode the independence of the ALC and include government “economic priorities” as a valid reason to remove land from the ALR. All very, very worrisome.

Oh, by the way, in case  you wanted to check out those positive words about the ALR that Liberal caucus members were told to hammer home during the election campaign, you’re out of luck. The B.C. Government Caucus Information Resource, dated March 7, 2013, has disappeared from the web.

To be continued….

THOUGHTS OF CHAIRMAN JACK

I talked with Big Jack Munro a few days before he died. It was pretty tough going. The big booming voice that had bellowed from the podiums of hundreds of meetings was down to a whisper. His legendary fire was just about spent. But some things had not changed. His endearing, infectious chuckle was still in place, despite the pain of his illness. And, 40 years after I first covered him for the Vancouver Sun, Jack was still calling me Rob.

As I write this, there’s a hard, blowing wind and a majestic full moon over Long Beach, where I am for the weekend. My thoughts on the long life and extraordinary times of Jack Munro are all a-jumble, trying to process the legacy of the most dominant labour leader this once-militant province ever had, and the multitude of different things he did during his wild, 82-year ride through life. (How many remember that Munro went to the Forbidden Kingdom  in 1974 with then Premier Dave Barrett and MacMillan Bloedel CEO Denis Timmis, trying to sell Maoist China on buying B.C. timber?  Crazy.)

I will write more about Jack Munro, and in particular his controversial role that dramatic Sunday night in Kelowna almost exactly 30 years ago, when Bill Bennett, the premier of the province, and Munro, a union man,  met face to face in the premier’s living room to hammer out an end to the very real threat of a general strike. It was as dramatic a moment as it gets, even in B.C., and  arguments still rage today about the pros and cons of their so-called Kelowna Accord.

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But for now, let’s hear from Jack Munro, himself. These observations by Brother Munro are from an interview I did with him just last August for a story on the relatively sad state of the B.C. labour movement. Whatever one’s thoughts on Jack Munro, and he was not “the good guy” on every issue, no one can deny his commitment to the cause of working people, and his genuine sorrow and anger at the decline of union influence. It’s all here.

Take it away, Jack.

MUNRO: Everybody delights in kicking the hell out of the labour movement. It’s having a tough time. Everybody’s struggling. The  world is somewhat upside down. I think we’ve lost some really important values. Too many people have forgotten that it was the labour movement that was able to bring about changes in our society, in our way of life, in our social consciousness.

But we’re no longer headed up, we’re headed down.  You listen to these commentators. Every damn thing that goes wrong, with wages and whatnot, they blame the workers. Cut the workers’ play, cut this, cut that, cut the benefits. If workers get money, they spend it. They buy things. They keep our economy going. And to drive the bloody people that keep it going down to the bottom is absolute insanity.

MUNRO: Society is a helluva lot worse without unions. Absolutely. But I don’t know what the hell’s happened. Maybe unions have been too acquiescent. They don’t get any awards for that. The economy is this and that, so they go a couple of years with no wage increase, or 1 and 2 per cent, and the bosses think that’s just great. So they concentrate even more on keeping wages down. They think, ah, we’ve got ‘em now. They pile on. It’s very frustrating for a guy like me, very frustrating.

MUNRO: Leading a strike is tough. When the IWA went on strike, all the staff went on strike pay, too. So we had the same hardship as the members. It’s emotional. You lie awake at night. You know people are hurting, but you can’t give up. If you give up, it’s going to be worse. You have to keep on.

MUNRO: We’re trying to get more worker-type history into the schools. Right now, there’s nothing teaching kids in school about how the hell we got here. Governments and entrepreneurs encouraged expansion and development. They opened the doors. Workers walked through and did a hell of a job, developing industries and systems and that sort of stuff. But nobody’s being taught that. So with our Labour Heritage Centre we are trying to remind people and society that workers have made an important contribution. If no one knows something, they don’t understand it. If unions don’t come back, society is in big trouble.

Amen, Brother. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.

My old colleague Doug Ward, like myself an ex-labour reporter who covered Jack Munro, has written a good synopsis of his  turbulent career.

And I am left with one last memory. As I hung up the phone this week from my final conversation with the big guy, Jack Munro made sure to remind me: “It’s been a good life, Rob.”

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BC LIBERALS SING DIFFERENT TUNE ON TREASURED ALR, NOW THAT ELECTION IS OVER

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The Agricultural Land Reserve is one of those magical creations that materialized because of courageous, far-sighted, politicians, who thought beyond votes and the next election. The province’s first NDP government, under Dave Barrett, established the ALR 40 years ago, because they believed it was the right thing to do, at a time when prime farmland was being gobbled up by developers at a terrible rate.

There was virtually no precedent anywhere for banning such a vast expanse of agricultural land from being sold for non-farming purposes, and the Barrett government had to weather a storm of furious protests from farmers, developers, and political opponents.

But a funny thing happened on the way to wiping out the NDP’s radical proclamation, once the “socialists” were thrown out of office. The public liked the ALR, and, over time so, too, did farmers. When Social Credit leader Bill Bennett was campaigning to unseat the Barrett government in 1975, he found it politically prudent to promise not to dismantle the Agricultural Land Reserve, despite his party’s earlier, fierce opposition.

The ALR, which has done so much to preserve the liveability of the Fraser Valley and save the Lower Mainland from the ghastly fate of the huge swath of farmland that once surrounded Toronto, is still with us, basically intact despite a long string of so-called ‘free enterprise’ governments. (Of course, the ALR also stretches beyond the Fraser Valley to all corners of B.C.,  ensuring that the relatively small, land area suitable for agricultural in this mountainous province is kept for its noble purpose, everywhere.)

In a wonderful twist of fate, Richard Bullock, the current chairman of the Agricultural Land Commission that presides over the ALR, was one of those protesting outside the legislature against the NDP’s farmland freeze.

Today, few are more passionate about the Agricultural Land Reserve than the successful Okanagan orchardist. For an article I wrote last year celebrating the ALR, Bullock told me that he thought the days were over, when farmers and developers with dollar signs in their eyes would live in hope of getting their land out of the ALR. “We’ve been down that road too long,” he said. “People have got to get it through their head, that if they buy a piece of agricultural land, they are going to be selling it as agricultural land.”

Now, out of nowhere, with no hints by the Liberals during the recent provincial election, the ALR may be facing its gravest peril since it came into being in the 1970’s.

Energy and Mines (!) Minister Bill Bennett, who has rarely seen a government regulation he likes, is presiding over a “core review” of government services, which, for some reason, also includes the Agricultural Land Commission and the ALR.

Last August, Bennett demonstrated his grasp of the issue with his provocative observation that “people who are sitting on a piece of land that is covered by rocks and trees, land that should never have been in the ALR boundaries in the first place, are constantly being turned down when they want to use their own private land…for the purpose of maybe a small subdivision, or maybe they want to put a small campground on it, and they’ve been flummoxed by the land commission for years.” The minister provided no examples of ALR land “covered by rocks and trees”. Talk about the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Recent disclosures are even more worrisome. Last week, the Globe and Mail’s Mark Hume revealed the existence of frightening cabinet documents that propose a dismantling of the ALC as an independent body and changing its mandate to include the government’s “economic priorities”, as well.

Then, we learned, again courtesy of the redoubtable Hume, that none other than the Agriculture Minister himself, Patrick Pimm, had personally lobbied the ALC to have a chunk of farmland up by Fort St. John hived out of the ALR, so its owner could build some rodeo grounds. Pimm was properly rebuked by the ALC for his political interference in the affairs of an independent commission.

The Liberals seemed to understand that principle in those halcyon, pre-election days last March, when they were desperate to keep the guns blazing against the NDP and its leader, Adrian Dix, who, yes it’s true, lobbied the ALC on behalf of then-Premier Glen Clark to have the Six Mile Ranch taken out of the ALR back in the late 1990’s.

I have before me a document entitled B.C. Government Caucus Information Resource, dated March 7, 2013. It’s all about ALR talking points. Among the “key messages” Liberal caucus members are asked to hammer home is point three: “Unlike the NDP, we have never politically interfered with the independence of the Agricultural Land Commission.”

The Liberals further trumpet their budget commitments to bolster enforcement by the ALC and support its “increased oversight” of the ALR. Wait, there’s more. The same budget increase will also enable the ALC to “continue with East Kootenay boundary review”, the document noted.

Oh, well. That was so eight months ago. What have we today, now that the election is safely passed?

The core review that seems to go against everything in the Liberals’ March “information resource” is continuing full steam ahead, Mr. Pimm remains Agriculture Minister, the owner of the ALR land he lobbied for went ahead and built his rodeo grounds anyway, defiantly daring the ALC to do something about it, and the ALC’s East Kootenay boundary review has been halted in its tracks, pending the vaunted core review.

For those concerned about the fate of the precious Agricultural Land Reserve under the post-election Liberals, these are worrying times, indeed. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.