TMI opener

NDP premiers then and now: Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, John Horgan

Just fine, senior politicos say, as long as everyone stays calm and communicative

They’re back.

The dreaded New Democrats, who former premier Christy Clark warned would ransack the provincial treasury and crash the economy, have seized the reins of government, with an electoral minority and the support of a perhaps more frightening Green Party, led by climate Cassandra (and Nobel Peace Prize–winning scientist) Andrew Weaver. After several months of NDP rule, it’s amazing that corporate Vancouver still seems so well dressed, considering the gnashing of teeth and tearing of clothes that must be occurring behind closed doors.
lost decade
And yet not. The economy, apparently indifferent to swings in provincial governance, re­­sponds instead to global commodity prices and to ill-considered trade tweets from the U.S. president. Still, we remember the NDP’s 1990s tenure: Christy Clark calls it “the lost decade.” Some of us recall a harder-left turn in the 1970s, when the first NDP premier, Dave Barrett, implemented a radical agenda of government intervention—everything from creating an Agricultural Land Reserve to nationalizing auto insurance. Surely the business community must quake at the NDP’s return.

But again, not—at least according to the president and COO of the Jim Pattison Group, the largest privately held company in Canada and one of B.C.’s most powerful private–sector forces. He reacts like a Milton Friedman–trained philosopher: “The market is impressive. It adapts and adjusts to events.”

OK, that’s a cheat. It’s Glen Clark, NDP premier during the most controversial years of the 1990s. Clark, who proudly owns his partisan past, is matter-of-fact about how NDP rule could affect his corporate future. “Business might be ideologically against the NDP, but I don’t think they have any reason to be wildly hostile,” he says. “For businesses making investment decisions, you just want to know what the rules are.” Clark suggests that the NDP’s alliance with the Green Party might increase predictability and stability because both have bound themselves to an explicit, point-by-point deal that sets out the terms by which the Greens will support the NDP on confidence votes. “That’s a fairly detailed, public agreement,” Clark says. “It will be hard for the NDP to go much beyond that agenda.”

up, up and awayJock Finlayson, chief policy officer of the Business Council of British Columbia, shares Clark’s equanimity. “I’m relatively sanguine,” Finlayson says. “We know the premier [John Horgan] and his key ministers reasonably well,” having kept the lines of communication open, before and since the election. “We’re not expecting the province to go off the rails or for there to be a particularly acrimonious relationship.”

Geoff Plant, an Opposition MLA during the late 1990s and attorney general under former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell, says, “The business community just wants to continue to engage, be listened to and be taken seriously.” That hasn’t always been the situation, Plant adds. “At certain stages in the late 1990s, the NDP tuned out the voices of private industry. You’d hear stories of shouting between the premier [then Glen Clark] and the province’s most prominent business leaders.” But Plant says he doesn’t see the same ideological belligerence, on either side, today.

Bruce Ralston, minister of jobs, trade and technology, agrees: “Unlike the previous government, which seemed to have its mind made up on a bunch of issues, we’re open and listening. We are looking forward to having a strong relationship.” Ralston says the NDP’s first major business initiative set the tone: right after being sworn
in, Premier Horgan went to Washington, D.C., to argue industry’s case on the softwood lumber export dispute. As the first time any B.C. premier has taken the softwood fight personally to D.C., it was “very well received” by forestry industry leaders, Ralston says.

This goodwill is a sign of the times, notes Mike Harcourt, NDP premier from 1991 to 1996: “People are less fiercely and hysterically ideologically focused today.” And Horgan, who was Harcourt’s go-to guy for any tough negotiation in the ’90s, “has very quietly met and had dialogue with most of the key business leaders.”
Campbell-era finance minister Carole Taylor agrees about the importance of open communication, saying, “It looks as though John Horgan is reaching out, which is good.” Taylor has also heard positive feedback from those quiet meetings; apparently the new premier has
been “asking good questions, listening—and taking notes!”

Plant recommends one other characteristic for keeping relations with business on an even keel: humility. “It’s arrogance that’s fatal,” he says. “Both sides need to ask how they can change to break the mould—to prevent themselves from falling into the pattern of dysfunction and belligerence.”

Gordon Campbell, Liberal premier from 2001 to 2011, offers a last bit of wisdom for businesspeople facing down the New Democrats. “You start by not fearing them,” Campbell says. “You just go to them and say, ‘This is what we want to do; what do you want to do? And how can we do it together?’”