Legislation by Thunderbolt

Did a popular premier just get too far ahead of the curve?

We can never know what might have been. If Dave Barrett’s NDP government in British Columbia had done things differently, could they have been elected for a second term? Or was their brand of social democracy just too radical? That is the question posed in The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972–1975, a rollicking rollercoaster of a story about an episode in Canadian political history that will leave you hanging on to your hat.

Nearly half a century ago, in August 1972, Barrett’s NDP government shot like a comet across the sky before fizzing out in a devastating electoral defeat three years, three months and two days later. In its wake came 97 legislative initiatives that brought British Columbia into the modern world and so alarmed the establishment that they made sure it would be 16 years before another NDP government took power in the province.

The changes listed in this somewhat starry-eyed book by two long-time Vancouverites—veteran journalist Rod Mickleburgh, a former labour reporter, and Geoff Meggs, a Vancouver city councillor and former trade unionist—ranged from the protection of farmland to the introduction of government-owned auto insurance, from pharmacare to a financial disclosure law for elected and appointed officials, from the B.C. Police Act to handle public complaints against the police to the Mineral Royalties Act, which boosted royalties on metals and increased the government share of windfall profits, from banning the strap in public schools to the abolition of pay toilets. Many of these changes remain, including the Agricultural Land Reserve, public auto insurance and the Islands Trust to protect the vulnerable natural integrity of B.C.’s Gulf Islands.

It is both informative and startling to read about such an audacious and interventionist government, dating back to before the Reagan/Thatcher revolution, which trumpeted the idea that “the best government is no government.” In fact Mickleburgh and Meggs sound downright wistful and deeply nostalgic a lot of the time.

Having campaigned under the slogan “Enough Is Enough” rather than a detailed platform, and having won a clear majority in the legislature (38 NDP versus 10 Social Credit, 5 Liberal, 2 Conservatives), Barrett set out very deliberately to rock the boat. A former social worker, he filled his cabinet with people who had spent their lives wanting a more equal distribution of wealth. “We don’t believe in jungle capitalism to create jobs,” said Barrett. “We believe in sharing the wealth of this great province in a prudent and responsible manner.”

In the end, a perfect storm of global economic realities, self-defeating behaviour, a counterattack from big business, a relentlessly hostile media and the kind of friends who leave you in no need of enemies ensured that while the Barrett regime may have been ground-breaking, it could not last.

When it came to economic management, the straightforward NDP idea was to pay for improved public services with higher corporate taxes and new revenues from resource industries. Under the previous W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit government, “British Columbians paid one-third more to buy BC natural gas than American customers in the Pacific Northwest.” The NDP was having none of it. Much to the amusement of his fellow caucus members, Attorney General Alex Macdonald stood in the legislature and warned that “we in this province … are not going to be drilled and bored and punished and blown and flared and capped by the international oil companies.”

They created the B.C. Energy Commission to regulate and monitor oil and gas prices, the B.C. Petroleum Corporation, which gave government more revenue from the sale of natural gas, the Mineral Royalties Act, which increased government revenue from mining, and the Timber Products Stabilization Act to regulate the price of wood chips.

Reaction from the business community to such moves was swift and deadly. Shortly after the government was elected, the Vancouver Sun reported that “share values in prime BC companies had dropped more than $300-million.” Headlines such as “Mining Stocks Dive as Investors Bail Out” in the Province followed the introduction of the mineral royalties legislation.

The authors hint, intriguingly, at a conspiracy by multinational mining companies and the CIA to bring the provincial economy to its knees and the socialist government with it. According to Meggs and Mickleburgh, “for most of their thirty-nine months in power, many in the NDP government believed that no less than the US State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency were closely monitoring their socialist agenda and were not above direct interference to hasten their downfall.” If that sounds a trifle paranoid, they remind us this was the time of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile, Richard Nixon and a two-bit burglary called Watergate. But neither this book nor any other that I am aware of has provided solid evidence of foreign interference.

By 1975 the B.C. economy was a mess and not just as a result of NDP policies. The buoyant economic times of the election year had given way to the “Arab oil crisis” and double-digit inflation across Canada, and the Trudeau government was on the verge of introducing wage and price controls. In B.C., investment was down, unemployment was up and the vital forest industry—the province’s major economic engine—had been paralyzed by a three-month–long strike. As with Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario in the early 1990s, the Barrett government—never cozy with labour—found itself at war with the unions, even though it had introduced some of the most pro-labour legislation ever seen in Canada: an increased minimum wage, the right to strike for government employees and a more union-friendly labour code.

But the forest industry strike forced Barrett’s hand. “With a single, swift bill that caught the entire province off guard, Barrett and the NDP brought in the most sweeping back-to-work legislation in Canadian history. More than fifty thousand union members—all in the private sector—were ordered to return to their jobs.” When election time came a few months later, many trade unionists along with disillusioned party members who had wanted more social progress chose to sit out the election. The nascent women’s movement found Barrett disappointing as well, with the B.C. Status of Women awarding him the Male Chauvinist Pig Award for 1973.

How much of the government’s dramatic demise can be blamed on Dave Barrett himself? While Meggs and Mickleburgh clearly like the fellow, they do suggest that Barrett was a “one man band,” did not take advice and often let his mouth get the better of him.

By the end, bumper stickers reading “I can’t Barrett” were popping up around the province and in the 1975 election the NDP were left with only 18 seats—Barrett personally lost Coquitlam—although, interestingly, they maintained the same share of the popular vote that they had had in 1972. Perhaps that popular vote is a reflection of how much British Columbians believed that Dave Barrett’s heart was in the right place. But life under his “legislation by thunderbolt” government was too nerve-wracking to give him a second mandate.

There is a memoir-ish aspect to this book and you get the feeling that Meggs and Mickleburgh had fun revisiting their own pasts. They write like journalists with clarity, flare and wit. What their book lacks in analysis it makes up for in research and readability.