The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and progressive change in British Columbia
Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh. The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972-1975. Harbour Publishing. 2012.
This impressive and readable book by two well-known and respected British Columbia authors sheds light on a now largely forgotten episode in Canadian politics and is a welcome reminder of the very real gains that can be made by a determined and genuinely progressive government.
Geoff Meggs is a journalist and current Vancouver City Councillor, and Rod Mickleburgh writes from Vancouver for the Globe and Mail.
Famously dubbed “the Allende of the North” by Barron's magazine, Dave Barrett was and remains at least as much a left-wing populist as a socialist. In any case, he can lay claim to have led the most radical and exciting government in Canadian history.
Elected with a large majority of seats — but just 40% of the vote — in 1972, this was the first CCF or NDP government ever elected in the highly polarized province of British Columbia. This was the result of an unusual split between the right wing parties whose voters had traditionally united under one political banner to defeat the feared “socialist hordes” and contain the province's traditionally strong and combative labour movement.
Barrett and most of his Cabinet had spent many futile years in opposition to Social Credit and were determined to take immediate advantage of electoral victory. Having slid down the table in his stockinged feet, Barrett famously asked his Cabinet at their first meeting: “are we here for a good time, or a long time?”
The decision was taken to implement an ambitious progressive agenda, not to act with caution in the hope that greater restraint might bring a second term. A staggering 367 government bills were to be passed over the next three years, almost one every three days.
From the outset, the government, especially Natural Resources minister Bob Williams, was determined to raise much more in resource royalties at the expense of highly profitable corporations so as to fund social programs. Through the mechanism of “thirty second socialism”, natural gas had to be sold to a new crown corporation before being exported at a high price mark-up, and there was an epic battle with the mining industry over the level of royalties.
Williams, a public sector entrepreneur par excellence, saw no need to excessively defer to “free enterprise.” Several forest industry operations were taken over and successfully operated as crown corporations to save jobs, the government entered the tourism business by running a ferry to Seattle and a passenger train service, and the auto insurance industry was placed under public ownership where it remains to this day. The government apparently even considered buying Rolls-Royce which Williams considered to be a bargain.
Buoyant resource revenues allowed the government to vastly expand social programs and public services which had been starved under Social Credit. Initiatives included pharmacare and a minimum income for seniors, much higher social assistance rates, greatly expanded social services, and a province wide kindergarten program. In a major change from top-down government and very much in the spirit of the 1960s, community social services were decentralized to locally elected community resource boards by social worker activist turned Minister Norm Levi.
Labour rights were greatly expanded by labour veteran Bill King, including through the establishment of a new and innovative Labour Relations Board to take union-management issues out of the regular court system. Collective bargaining rights were greatly improved, with unions being automatically certified on the basis of signing up 50% of members of a new bargaining unit and provision made for arbitration of first contracts. For the first time, full collective bargaining rights were extended to public sector workers.
While the government had a tense relationship with the labour movement – especially when high inflation sparked a wave of strikes in 1975 — most of its labour law reforms were soon on the legislative wish list of unions across the country.
The minimum wage was increased by two-thirds in two steps to the highest level in Canada, and applied to women for the first time.
With respect to environmental issues, the government fought a sustained battle with land developers to establish the (still existing) Agricultural Land Reserve to block urban sprawl, invested heavily in transit (including the famous Vancouver Harbour sea buses), blocked commercial development in Cypress Bowl Provincial Park near Vancouver, and created many new provincial parks. Efforts were made to make forest industry practices more sustainable.
The authors are clear that the Barrett government record was far from perfect. Giving Ministers a lot of space in which to act produced occasional disasters and did not always result in coherent and well-thought through policies. And the government got into a major and unnecessary battle with the women's movement. Still, the accomplishments were almost as great as the ambition.
The Barrett government's agenda aroused deep concern in influential circles in the United States, and was unacceptable to the province's corporate elite who were used to a compliant provincial government. The temporarily fractured opposition again united under Social Credit, now led by the son of WAC Bennett, and crushed the government in the 1975 election and again in 1979.
However, the NDP share of the vote was unchanged at 40% in 1975, and Dave Barrett went on to win an unprecedented 46% of the vote in 1979 before leaving provincial politics.
This fine book is based on meticulous research and on interviews with most of the key figures in the government. Insiders generally recount that they had the time of their lives over those short three years, and look back in pride at what they accomplished.
The authors present an implicit and highly relevant message that excessive political caution is not always the best approach. While the Barrett government was short-lived, many of its greatest accomplishments — notably the Agricultural Land Reserve and public auto insurance — were never reversed because they were so popular.
As importantly, the government left a record that its members and other activists could be proud of. That set the stage for the NDP to eventually return to power in British Columbia for a full decade from 1991 to 2001.