Experts reflect on British Columbia’s reputation for political eccentricity

Observers ask if quirky B.C. politics still norm

VANCOUVER — It was a memorable way for British Columbia’s female legislators to reprimand one of their male colleagues for his time-consuming political speeches.

The B.C. legislature was being televised live in 1996 when New Democrat Joy MacPhail sent a wind-up toy penis skittering across the desk of the forestry minister. A cross-partisan cohort of women legislators had decided to award the politician top honours as “dick of the year.”

The incident is just one of a litany of events, characters and scandals that have earned B.C. its notorious reputation for colourful politics that is often built on larger-than-life personalities like newspaperman William Smith, the province’s second premier who changed his name to Amor de Cosmos, or Lover of the Universe.

In the mid-1900s, Phil Gaglardi earned the nickname “Flying Phil” thanks in part to the number of speeding tickets he racked up during his time as highways minister. Gaglardi served during the decades-long leadership of Social Credit premier W.A.C. Bennett, whose sobriquet of “Wacky” Bennett didn’t prevent him from winning seven consecutive provincial elections.

But B.C.’s penchant for weird also has a darker side.

Between 1991 and 2001 the province went through a revolving door of no fewer than seven premiers. Three left under clouds of ignominy.

Bill Vander Zalm, a colourful populist premier, resigned in the early 1990s over allegations he had mixed public and private business in the sale of Fantasy Gardens, a religious-themed amusement park where he and his wife lived in a castle. He was charged with breach of trust, but later acquitted by the judge who called Vander Zalm’s actions “foolish and ill-advised.”

Former Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt would eventually take over as premier but stepped down five years later over Bingogate. A special prosecutor found that Harcourt was not involved in the scandal over allegations that money raised through charity bingoes was diverted to New Democrat Party coffers.

A few years later, Casinogate forced the resignation of Glen Clark after the RCMP raided his home over allegations he approved a casino licence in exchange for $10,000 worth of home renovations. The B.C. Supreme Court acquitted the former NDP premier of any criminal wrongdoing, but the damage had been done.

In early 2003, a mug shot of B.C.’s last premier, Gordon Campbell, was released after a night spent in a Hawaiian jail for drunk driving.

At the time, Liberals Kevin Krueger’s apparent Freudian slip didn’t escape notice when he appeared to respond with “sober” instead of “sombre” after being asked about the mood of the first caucus meeting following the premier’s return,

But as voters look ahead to the May 9 election, some experts wonder whether the province’s reputation for political eccentricity is outdated.

“I don’t think the wacky label is entirely fair,” said Dennis Pilon, a political scientist at York University in Toronto. “If one goes digging you can find lots of wackiness in other provinces â€” all sorts of shenanigans.”

In Pilon’s view, a big part of B.C.’s reputation stems from the polarization of provincial politics and the longevity of parties in power at least until the 1990s.

“That’s why you can get someone like Vander Zalm, because at some point it just doesn’t matter who the hell it as so long as they are centre-right,” said Pilon, who used to teach politics in B.C.

Prof. Hamish Telford of Fraser Valley University said the province’s peculiar politics may also have been the result at one time of its relative isolation, pointing to the price tag of air travel or a long-distance phone call.

“Pretty much for the last 15 years, B.C. politics has not really followed through on its wacky reputation or history,” he added.

Norman Ruff, a former professor and longtime political observer, said he bristles when asked about B.C.’s supposed political weirdness.

He speculated that B.C.’s renown may have been a strategy for Central Canada to undermine the agenda of a remote, relatively new province whose interests were often at odds with its goals.

“I think Gordon Campbell and (Premier) Christy Clark have probably laid to rest our wacky reputation nationally,” he said.

As for the man many observers single out as an example of B.C.’s political eccentricity, Vander Zalm said he doesn’t mind the reputation.

“It’s all a matter of interpretation, I guess,” he said in an interview.

“If somebody operates a little differently than what others might be accustomed to elsewhere in the country, they think it’s quirky,” he added. “But maybe that’s the right way to go.”

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter

Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

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