The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972-1975

The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972-1975

Geoff Meggs, Rod Mickleburgh

Reviewed by Allen Seager

This book is splendid work of popular political history, biography, and related media study that co-authors Geoff Meggs (a former communications director to Premier Glen Clark) and Rod Mickleburgh (a veteran of the west coast press corps) are well-placed to make. The impact of Watergate, for example, is neatly woven into their narrative of the life and death of British Columbia’s first NDP administration, whose damn-the-torpedoes style, all evidence suggests, would have been far better suited to the zeitgeist of the 1960s than the darker times (their phrase) of the 1970s. Social democrats, especially of the Canadian prairie stripe, have long scratched their collective heads over the foibles of British Columbia’s 1972-75 regime -- from its apparent lack of clear priorities to its inattention to issues in the extra-parliamentary wing, which eventually boiled over in a major way (see chapter 9, “The Life of the Party”). Meggs and Mickleburgh, however, clearly belong to what used to be called the “grin and Barrett” school of thought, and draw more inspiration from the story than a cautionary tale. From a twenty-first century perspective, of course, there is much to be admired in the record of a government that “got things done” and in leaders who did not relish power strictly for its own sake. Much policy-making history is embedded in the book, and the authors have usefully mined the archives of the so-named BC Project, a political science research project that promised to produce a multi-volume study of public administration in Victoria between 1972 and 1976, but never did so. The project’s senior researcher, the late Walter D. Young, had little time for Dave Barrett and said so pretty plainly, but with the passage of time, it is possible to see, now, how large a legacy he left to the British Columbia state.

An oft-cited example is the Agricultural Land Commission, which (in principle) has remained untouched over forty years of steadily escalating land values and land-use demands in key regions of growth. Its story, as the authors relate, is anything but a simple tale of social democratic innovation. During the sixties, preservation of British Columbia’s small and shrinking stock of agricultural land against “suburban sprawl” became a cause for a very loose coalition of new-model urban planners, environmental romantics, and more traditional pro-agrarian types. (Harold Steves, a youthful champion of the cause, who got elected for the NDP in a fairly right-wing, semi-rural district in 1972, best represented all three strands of the movement). Just before his fall, Premier W.A.C Bennett had significantly tossed the farmland preservers a bone in the form of a $25 million commitment for a hazy “greenbelt” scheme while reigning in a bureaucratic sparkplug named Sigurd Peterson, a policy analyst in the department of agriculture who rocketed to a deputy minister’s role with the change of regime in 1972. Though thoroughly impractical, Peterson appears to have understood the political problems embedded in the battle over farmland. No matter how dressed up, the preservationist movement was a clear assault on British Columbians’ most cherished civil liberty over time: the right to make money through real estate.

The new NDP minister of agriculture, David Stupich, had his own reasons for a combination of interest and concern. So it was that a Peterson-Stupich policy line very quickly emerged that aimed to protect the speculator and shield the government from charges of Soviet-style confiscation by having the government somehow “buy” farmland or compensate rural landowners for lost development rights. How hypothetical capital gains would be calculated, or how much a compensation package might cost the treasury, were questions they did not care to directly answer. Meggs and Mickleburgh find it odd that Stupich, a professional accountant, dodged these questions. He was either dissembling or driven by his inner light as an unreconstructed CCF-era political dreamer -- in the words of an old song, “farmer, labour, socialist” -- marching arm and arm towards a New Dawn.

Most dangerous were the tactics used by Stupich in pursuit of an objectively impossible position. Bennett evidently did not want to know what it would actually cost to compensate landowners affected by greenbelt policies, while Barrett found that ballpark estimates began at about $1 billion in pre-inflationary 1970s currency. Stupich’s tactics included leaking bits and pieces of strictly confidential news from unresolved cabinet debates and urging organized farmers to rally at the legislature in support of his ministry’s (not the ministry’s) plans. In Barrett’s absence, he bulldozed cabinet into approving an end-of-1972 land freeze by order-in-council, thus adding a procedural dimension to a political fire over “awesome, sweeping powers” assumed by the government, a fire that would never be extinguished, no matter what the issue de jour happened to be. But at least Stupich forced action on the legislative front, even if the end result was an outcome not exactly to his taste. As the compensation hobbyhorse hobbled off into the oblivion it deserved, Barrett would make more general commitments about compensatory measures -- preserving “the family farm,” supporting home production, and so on -- that, forty years on, are still ideas that demand attention. The creation of the farmland reserve, of course, was but one piece of a bigger, essentially urban puzzle. In hindsight, the Barrett government’s plans on related housing and transportation issues had a good deal more logic to them than those of future regimes, even if concrete results were inevitably limited in such a short time frame.

The writers’ key motif is a rhetorical question that Barrett asked his ministers on Day One of their deliberations: “are we here for a good time, or a long time?” In plainer terms, something like a one-term revolution was imagined, though it is also clear that no real consensus existed on this point. If it had, the ministers might have made a blood pact to keep the leader’s finger off the electoral button, and the ministry could have soldiered on into the calendar year, 1977. At its demise, in 1975, it left a huge to-do list, some items fairly do-able. The regime had such a large and loyal parliamentary majority that there was never any danger of it losing a confidence motion; nor did it have to whip key votes in an embarrassingly anti-democratic fashion. As is explained in chapter 11 (“Back to Work”), a hardy band of dissenting backbenchers -- Steves, Colin Gabelmann, and Rosemary Brown -- made some history of their own in reasoned arguments against a tangled skein of collective bargaining decrees that, for the labour-backed NDP, was potentially most explosive of the “life of the party.”

By this time (October 1975) it was dawning on Premier Barrett and his one-man brain trust (Bob Williams, a C.D. Howe-like minister of everything whom the writers call “The Godfather”) that the NDP’s worst nightmare, a restoration of the Bennett dynasty, was beginning to materialize. While the more dovish Barrett dragged his heels, lest he be seen to be stomping on the back of working class leaders who opposed his measures (not all were so opposed), the more hawkish Williams soon got his way. Gambling that W.R. (Bill) Bennett was not yet ready for prime time, Barrett called and lost an election in early winter, the most gruesome campaign season. The authors well describe the “faintly Hitlerian” atmosphere of 1975, when sliding fortunes seemed to energize Barrett, a quite remarkable orator and one-of-kind campaigner when in full flight. Without the RCMP security detail that Barrett most reluctantly accepted at the time, it is remotely possible that the story could have had another and more tragically significant ending -- like the assassination of “Kingfish” Huey Long in Baton Rouge back in 1935.

There are number of stories (none substantiated) about Barrett’s admiration for or emulation of Long, a highly controversial historical figure he would have learned about from his Jesuit teachers during the American fifties. This a true riddle of Canadian politics: Barrett was never so foolish as to talk about Huey Long in NDP circles, let alone in the public realm, but Meggs and Mickleburgh have finally found the smoking gun. Mention of Barrett’s musings about “what ‘Old Huey’ would say if he were alive in BC today” surface in the extraordinary 400-page manuscript journal of Barrett staffer Peter McNelly they heavily consult (see 120 and “A Note on Sources,” 341), and this does set him apart from a more mainstream Canadian socialist tradition: as late as 1975, we learn, members of Canada’s Left Coast movement more typically channelled the ghosts of people like the saintly J.S. Woodsworth [d. 1942]. More work on “the Northern Kingfish,” as the authors dub Barrett, is perhaps needed now that almost everyone, including David Mitchell, the major chronicler of the Bennett dynasty, agrees that the more menacing moniker for Barrett (“The Allende of the North”) gets us nowhere in interpreting the man and his times (see 333).

The Huey Long of Barrett’s imagination, one hastens to add, was clearly the populist hero who battled Standard Oil or improved conditions for convict labour, not the fellow traveller of fascist tendencies during the American thirties. Jewish by birth and the product of a strangely mixed marriage in Eastside Vancouver (mother, pro-Stalinist, father, a Harold Winch-line CCFer), Barrett continues to fascinate. This book is by no means iconography, and we meet Barrett on some of his lowest days, like when he made the worst kind of news by harassing a female reporter whom he regarded as a “venomous bitch,” or the day he booted Frank Calder (his only pipeline to the fast-emerging world of modern aboriginal politics) out of cabinet for personal indiscretions or telling “a lie” (pot, please call kettle black). But the Calder episode could have been worse: any member of the Long machine in Baton Rouge would have used the same police-sourced goods that Barrett had on Calder to try to blackmail the “Little Chief” into line. Calder lived to fight another day, and some of the more purely personal political hatchets described in the book were publicly buried before Calder and others passed away.

In a sustained (though not tedious) argument against David Mitchell’s W.A.C Bennett and the Rise of British Columbia, Meggs and Mickleburgh are most thought provoking in stating that post-war modernity was something of an illusion in British Columbian space. Key elites in business, government, or the media were trapped, they say, in a “time warp” whose all too public symbols were people like Bennett the elder, Rev. Phil Gaglardi, and any number of CCF/NDP figures that Bennett and Gaglardi liked to kick around. Tom Berger, an archetypical and very brilliant “New Party” man of the 1960s, tried to turn things around, but was effectively purged from provincial life by fear-mongering right wing politics in the 1960s. Fortunately, Berger had plenty of other things to do. The authors find Gaglardi’s open-back-stabbing of Bennett when he sought an unprecedented seventh term as premier in 1972 (the straw that finally broke the camel’s back) “inexplicable” (38). I don’t: such aging warriors were objectively losing their minds. Time-warped individuals in the new NDP government included Eileen Dailly, whose personal priority at the ministry of education -- abolishing the strap -- would have been relevant when she was first elected in 1966. The culture clash between people like Ms. Dailly, whom Barrett appointed as Deputy Premier in a gallant gesture, and those with new feminist tendencies, is sensitively sketched in this book.

Space precludes further commentary but I would mention, as a teaching tool, the authors’ list of “partial and subjective” legacies of the Barrett regime. They list ninety-seven items, ranging from the creation of the Nis’ga School Board to the hiking of coal royalties from 25 cents to $1.50 a ton. Behind nearly every one is a lesson, story, or piece of unfinished business of some consequence to anyone interested in political economy, the emergence of the welfare state, Vancouver’s civic history, and so on. (I had not realized that nineteenth century robber baron Robert Dunsmuir almost certainly paid a higher coal tax than did Kaiser Resources in the 1960s). Not all, however, are really legacies. Some are simply memories of “possibilities” that would be lost during future, even darker, times. Though not on the list of ninety-seven points, the authors most carefully note the creation of the Fraser Institute, a major neo-liberal think tank whose informal mottos vis-à-vis the 1972-75 experiment might be “Never Again” and “Keep it Simple, Stupid” -- a motto that used to hang on W.A.C Bennett’s office wall.

The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972-1975
By Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh 
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2012. 368 pp, $32.95 cloth

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.

BC Studies 178 (Summer 2013)