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B.C. NDP Party Leader Adrian Dix during an interview with The Globe and Mail in Vancouver on May 6, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

B.C. NDP Party Leader Adrian Dix during an interview with The Globe and Mail in Vancouver on May 6, 2013.

(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Past B.C. NDP governments offer lessons to Adrian Dix: Practical makes perfect at election time Add to ...

Giddy doesn’t begin to describe the mood of the raucous band of socialists who gathered around the large, oval cabinet table that gorgeous late summer day in Victoria.

For the first time in B.C.’s colourful political history, the socialist hordes were inside the gates. While past voters had elected governments headed by the likes of Amor de Cosmos and, for 20 years, an astute but eccentric Okanagan hardware merchant known as “Wacky” Bennett, they had never delivered the reins of power to the NDP, or their forebears, the CCF.

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Now, in 1972, they had.

The new premier, Dave Barrett, a jovial, 41-year-old, chubby ex-social worker, was so pumped, legend has it, that off came his shoes and onto the cabinet table went Mr. Barrett for a stocking-feet slide.

Moments later, Mr. Barrett says, he put the question to his celebrating cabinet: “Are we here for a good time, or a long time?”

By that, he meant: Would the new government go slow, implementing change only gradually, with eyes on winning a second term, or would it go for the gusto and risk being a one-term wonder.

There was never much doubt. This was the sixties in all but name, and the NDP opted to rock ’n’ roll.

“We were fired up,” recalled Bill King, who was there as the province’s new labour minister.

“In terms of a social agenda, W.A.C. Bennett had been in neutral for years. There was so much to do, and we decided right off the bat we weren’t going to be cautious.”

Over the next 39 months, the Barrett government unleashed the most sweeping reform agenda the province had ever seen. Altogether, the government passed an astonishing 367 bills, many of them radical, even for those stirring times. But many, such as the Agricultural Land Reserve, a provincial ambulance service and ICBC, were transformative as well, and Dave Barrett’s legacy is with us still. When the dust cleared, however, the NDP was voted out of office, in large part because of a feeling it had done too much, too soon.

After 16 long years in purgatory, the NDP finally returned to power in 1991, under Mike Harcourt. Although short of the Barrett legislative onslaught, an overly ambitious program caused problems for that government, too. Yes, a brilliant campaign by Glen Clark, Mr. Harcourt’s replacement, allowed the NDP to claim a narrow victory in 1996, but with fewer votes than the runner-up Liberals, and in 2001 the party was virtually wiped off the map, winning a paltry two seats.

“We had [dozens of] planks in our platform, and we wanted to do it all, not in the first two terms, but in the first two months,” said Mr. Harcourt, with a rueful chuckle. “We were too aggressive. After 18 months, I realized there was public anger out there. We had to change the pace.”

These perceptions of past NDP setbacks have not been lost on the party’s current leader, Adrian Dix. Although a mere wisp of a preteen in Kerrisdale during Dave Barrett’s short-lived administration, Mr. Dix, as a political staffer, had a prominent, close-up view of the NDP decade in the 1990s that ended in such disaster.

Mr. Dix is determined not to go down the road of either government.

The result is perhaps the most modest platform and skimpiest fiscal commitments ever for a party with a reputation for backing increased spending to address social issues.

Far from the great leap forward that characterized Dave Barrett’s “good time” approach, Mr. Dix has campaigned under the ultra-cautious pledge: One practical step at a time.

Not for Mr. Dix are the costly but substantive new measures brought in by the freewheeling Barrett government, such as $200-a-month Mincome for those over 60, Pharmacare and dramatically increased welfare rates. Nor does he contemplate far-reaching changes such as those in forestry practices, aboriginal relations and land use tackled by Mr. Harcourt.

This NDP platform opts for mostly incremental improvements. More money for skills training, reduced child-care fees, enhanced student grants and a family bonus plan are as dramatic as NDP promises get, beyond its pipeline opposition.

Taking a brief break from campaigning up north this week to discuss what he’s learned from the NDP past, Mr. Dix said both the Barrett and Harcourt governments were too quick to launch their wide-ranging, ambitious set of initiatives. “I think the sheer scope of those initiatives limited their effectiveness on the implementation side,” he said. “They would move on to the next project, without completing the previous one.”

And times are different, he said. There are fiscal restraints unheard of in the early 1970s, when the Barrett government was rolling in dough from the energy and resource sectors. Government flexibility is also restricted by numerous trade deals, Mr. Dix added.

“This is why we are running a very practical program,” he said. “The mistake is to promise things you can’t deliver. I’m very conscious of that. I’m committing to what we can deliver. My view is that a government still needs to do very significant and important things, but it’s got to limit the number of things it does.”

The experiences of previous NDP governments is one of the factors that has shaped his political prudence, Mr. Dix said, a point underscored by B.C.’s dean of political analysts, Norman Ruff.

“Dix is a student of B.C. political history, particularly that of his own party,” Mr. Ruff said. “And that’s why you get ‘one practical step at a time.’ He wants to be a two-term premier.”

Mr. Dix, displaying the same statistical lore he loves to apply to sports, laughed off the suggestion that a second term is on his wavelength. “When your party’s won three out of 21 elections, talking about a second one in a row is both immodest and unrealistic.”

Mr. King, meanwhile, the former labour minister and a lifelong social democrat, said he approves of Mr. Dix’s pragmatic approach, with one caveat. In a recent birthday note to Bob Williams, his old cabinet colleague under Mr. Barrett, Mr. King penned: “I hope we don’t become too cautious that nobody ever knows we were there.”

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HIGHS AND LOWS OF PAST NDP GOVERNMENTS

Dave Barrett government (1972-1975)

 

Highs

Preserving farmland across the province from the ravages of urban development.

A landmark new Labour Code that removed picketing from the jurisdiction of the courts and handed it to a powerful Labour Relations Board, headed by the brilliant Paul Weiler.

 

Lows

The so-called Chicken and Egg war, which damaged Mr. Barrett’s credibility over whether he had threatened members of the Egg Marketing Board.

The Daylight Savings fiasco, during which Mr. Barrett announced that Daylight Savings would kick in Jan. 6 to save energy costs, postponed it for a month, then finally killed the plan completely, snowed under by a blizzard of criticism and ridicule.

Mike Harcourt government (1991-1996)

 

Highs

Ending the protracted War of the Woods over logging in Clayoquot Sound, with a comprehensive compromise that restricted clearcuts.

Setting aside vast tracts of wilderness for parks, including the northern Khutzeymateen region, the country’s first grizzly bear sanctuary.

 

Lows

Becoming briefly confused over the number of B.C. seats in a proposed, restructured House of Commons, leading to many cruel jibes in the media that damaged his standing with the public.

The scandal over a mishandling of charity funds by former NDP MP and provincial agriculture minister Dave Stupich. Although not personally implicated in Bingogate, Mr. Harcourt decided to resign, as the party plummeted in the polls.

Glen Clark government (1996-1999)

 

Highs

The Nisga’a Treaty, the province’s first native land claims agreement since the 1800s.

Construction of the Lower Mainland’s second rapid transit route, the Millennium Line from downtown Vancouver to the Lougheed Town Centre in Burnaby.

 

Lows

The building of three, problem-plagued fast ferries in local shipyards that wound up costing more than double Mr. Clark’s original estimate.

Casinogate, the controversy over Mr. Clark’s acceptance of a good deal from his neighbour to build a second-floor deck on his home, at the same time as the neighbour was involved in a casino application. When it was learned he was the subject of a police investigation, Mr. Clark resigned. A judge subsequently cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing.

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