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book review
  • A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for BC
  • By Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman
  • Heritage House Publishing, 352 pages

In this age of short attention spans, it is easy to forget what a momentous day it was that unfolded on June 29, 2017 to give British Columbia its first NDP premier in 16 years. In B.C.’s long, colourful, no-holds-barred political history, there has been no parallel to the day itself and the riveting events leading up to Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon’s decision to call on NDP Leader John Horgan to govern, rather than accept premier Christy Clark’s desperate pleadings for an election.

It was drama of the highest order. Yet it might soon have faded from memory had it not been for two legislative reporters with a ringside seat for every twist and turn. Rob Shaw of the Vancouver Sun and Richard Zussman, then of CBC, felt these historic happenings deserved a closer look. (Mr. Zussman is now with Global News, after being fired by the CBC for allegedly breaching its guidelines with his work on this book.)

The result, produced in an astonishingly short time, is their book, A Matter of Confidence, and it’s a winner – a well-written, compelling and fast-paced narrative that does ample justice to the unprecedented circumstances that yielded such a seismic shift in B.C.’s political landscape.

Thanks to a wealth of interviews with key participants, whose memories, and scars, were still fresh, the authors puncture the secrecy of the backrooms, allowing us to listen in on closed-door discussions by players from all three parties that went on before, during and after an election campaign, which ended with the upstart Greens holding the balance of power. Even though we know Horgan wound up as Premier, one still keeps turning the page to see how it all transpired behind the scenes. The pressure-packed, back-and-forth negotiations leading to the Greens’ landmark alliance with the NDP and their spurning of all BC Liberal entreaties, despite a final session in the Harbour Towers penthouse suite with a deliberately well-stocked liquor cabinet, are recounted in rich detail.

A similar light is shone on the many emotions that spilled out in private on June 29, as the government was toppled on a no-confidence motion and the province’s political future was determined by a vice-regal appointee. We also learn with delight that Clark and the Lieutenant-Governor switched from tea to wine, when it became evident their meeting was not going to go Clark’s way. And Horgan, nervously catching and re-tossing a lacrosse ball against the wall of his office as he waited for news, was summoned to Government House by the LG’s private secretary who told chief of staff Bob Dewar over the phone: “This is your million-dollar call.” History on the run has rarely been better told.

Among the book’s more substantive revelations is the full story of the NDP’s high-profile election promise to completely eliminate all bridge tolls. The politically popular vow was actually made up on the fly, mere hours after the Liberals unveiled a plan to cut tolls in half. The authors point to this as a key turning point in a campaign most observers expected the party to lose, not only stealing the Liberals’ thunder but serving notice that the often lead-footed NDP was serious about winning. In fact, the ebbs and flows of the entire campaign are well-told, providing an insider’s view of the indecision, gaffes and overconfidence that marked Liberal efforts to woo voters, and how everything appeared to go just right for the NDP. That was the precise opposite of the way their respective campaigns went four years earlier.

I enjoyed discovering, too, that then-Liberal health minister Terry Lake lobbied heavily for a payroll tax to help cover his government’s promised elimination of health-care premiums. His view was nixed by Clark. The current NDP government subsequently embraced Mr. Lake’s belief in a payroll tax, to withering criticism from the Liberals. Revealed as well is a startling tension that lingered for quite a while between Horgan and David Eby, now Attorney-General, until relations were smoothed over in the fall of 2016.

One of the strongest sections of the book is its well-documented description of Horgan’s transformation from an edgy, uncertain leader who thought about quitting into a seemingly serene “happy warrior,” comfortable with himself and energized to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership. A major reason, the authors contend, was Horgan’s willingness to listen to his advisers, brought in from the outside to provide a fresh approach to the tired tactics that had failed the NDP again and again.

A few quibbles. I could have done without the authors’ suggestion in the prologue that the opposition found a way “to seize control of power,” as if it were some sort of military coup. Holding 44 of the 87 seats in the legislature, they assumed government fair and square, thanks to parliamentary tradition and the voters. And while the NDP’s infamous ’fudge-it” budget, purported to be balanced before the 1996 election, did end up with a deficit, it was not “massive” by any means.

But these are very minor matters. A Matter of Confidence is a must-read for anyone with an interest in politics, not just those in B.C. (Ottawa watchers will relish a blistering, one-on-one encounter outlined in the book’s early pages between Clark and federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, won hands down by the B.C. premier.)

All in all, this is as good and as valuable an account as one could imagine of a few months that were extraordinary, even for a province as steeped in the unusual as B.C.

Rod Mickleburgh is a former writer for The Globe and Mail and author of a new book, On the Line: A history of the British Columbia Labour Movement.