The Art of the Impossible reveals why ex-NDP premier Dave Barrett governed in a hurry

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      The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975
      By Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh. Harbour Publishing, 368 pp, hardcover

      When famed B.C. architects Arthur Erickson and Bing Thom were designing the B.C. Supreme Court building at Robson Square in the early 1970s, they were introduced to then-premier Dave Barrett.

      Just as any architect might do, Thom asked about the budget.

      According to The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975, the premier replied: “Just make it good and fast. We may not win the next election.”

      Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs and Globe and Mail reporter Rod Mickleburgh’s rollicking new book about B.C.’s first NDP regime is littered with anecdotes like this, thanks to numerous interviews with former government insiders.

      They describe how Erickson and Thom transformed a plan for a six-storey courthouse into an elegant “urban park” by designing the building on its side. This occurred at the behest of Barrett’s most powerful cabinet minister, former planner Bob Williams.

      Meggs and Mickleburgh also report that on the morning after the 1972 election, Williams met Barrett at an unlikely location to discuss the transition to power: The Only Sea Foods café in the heart of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

      The “plan” consisted of a big brown recycled envelope, upon which Williams had jotted down some notes.

      “First, the cabinet: Williams proposed Barrett stick with the ‘dirty dozen,’ their term for the thirteen previously-elected MLAs who had fought [former premier W.A.C.] Bennett in the House during the past three years, each in his or her old critic role,” Meggs and Mickleburgh write. “Barrett didn’t argue. The fourteenth veteran, Gordon Dowding, considered less than reliable as a partisan, would become speaker.”

      The authors note that at the first meeting of this cabinet, legend has it that Barrett removed his shoes and jumped on the boardroom table. After sliding along the surface, he asked his ministers if they were there for a good time or a long time.

      That's when they unanimously agreed to “strike while the iron was hot”—in other words, try to achieve the impossible—because they knew they might not be reelected.

      The rest of the book paints a compelling picture of Barrett as a caring, charismatic, and often uninhibited premier and chronicles his government’s legislative blitzkrieg, which was unique in B.C.'s history.

      The NDP created the Agricultural Land Reserve, ICBC, a modern labour-relations tribunal, and the B.C. Ambulance Service, eliminated corporal punishment in schools, banned pay toilets, democratized social services, and improved workers’ compensation.

      “There can be little quarrel that the Barrett years were the most tumultuous three years in the long, colourful political history of British Columbia,” the authors write. “They were a non-stop roller coaster that the government rode right to the end.”

      The previous Social Credit government didn’t even record the proceedings of the legislature in Hansard or allow for question period. In addition to addressing these anachronisms, the Barrett government legislated free prescription drugs for seniors, provided financial assistance to tenants, dramatically expanded provincial parkland, created a new Human Rights Act, and imposed the highest minimum wage in Canada. It was a remarkable record of achievement.

      Even though Meggs recently ran for an NDP nomination and his wife Jan O'Brien is the party’s provincial secretary, The Art of the Impossible doesn’t shy away from revealing the Barrett government’s warts. The shortcomings were notable in the premier's communications with the media, caucus, and NDP members. Tommy Douglas, the former premier of Saskatchewan, advised MLAs very early on to “walk in lock-step with the party”, which Barrett often failed to do.

      Barrett also didn't hesitate to speak his mind, sometimes at considerable political cost. At one point, the book notes that he was so exasperated with Vancouver Sun columnist Marjorie Nichols that he shouted expletives at her in the hallway of the legislature: “Fuck you. Fuck you, you venomous bitch.” Barrett’s wife Shirley was not impressed.

      There are also detailed and colourful accounts of the first NDP premier’s long-running battles with organized labour and with feminists within his party.

      B.C. political junkies will feast on finely nuanced portraits of key cabinet members, notably the decisive labour minister, Bill King, the cautious health minister, Dennis Cocke, and the erudite Norm Levi, who oversaw social services. Former NDP leader Robert Strachan and former finance and agriculture minister Dave Stupich fare the worst, often appearing as bumbling the ICBC and the ALR files, respectively.

      Williams, on the other hand, comes across as one of the shrewdest of the bunch, overseeing the purchase of pulp mills, sawmills, and a passenger ferry service between Victoria and Seattle. His economic interventions triggered a wave of hostility from the corporate sector.

      A key source in The Art of the Imossible is Peter McNelly, a former Victoria Times bureau chief who became a senior aide under Barrett in the Ministry of Finance. McNelly, later a journalism professor at Ryerson University, kept a diary and shared it with the authors, providing numerous revelations.

      Who knew, for example, that Barrett drew inspiration from populist Louisiana governor Huey Long? Long, who inspired the character Willie Stark in All The King’s Men, ruthlessly responded to his corporate opponents before being assassinated in 1935, just as he was preparing to challenge Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency.

      McNelly also disclosed that Barrett was extremely disturbed by the 1973 U.S.-supported coup in Chile that led to the death of president Salvador Allende. Barrett even “became fatalistic” about whether or not he might be murdered, according to The Art of the Impossible.

      “McNelly’s journal outlines a macabre conversation early in 1975, when Barrett discussed—in serious tones—who should take over as leader if someone took him out,” Meggs and Mickleburgh write.

      The only other full-length book on the Barrett government, The 1200 Days: A Shattered Dream, was written by Garry Nixon and Lorne Kavic in 1978. It offered a detailed rundown, often seen through the eyes of Williams, but those authors didn’t have access to key documents unearthed by Meggs and Mickleburgh.

      That includes a remarkably frank interview with Cocke, which was conducted in 1981 as part of an academic project. Meggs and Mickleburgh were also able to read every issue of the NDP women’s rights committee’s newsletter, as well as a working paper on Williams written by SFU president Andrew Petter, who worked as a political assistant in the Barrett government.

      The result is an astonishingly researched and well-written book that contextualizes the rise and fall of the Barrett government in an era marked by the Watergate scandal, evolving journalistic standards, the Arab oil embargo, and rampant inflation.

      Meggs and Mickleburgh perceptively point out how Barrett’s far-reaching agenda triggered a reactionary backlash—leading the province’s most powerful businessmen to fund the right-wing Fraser Institute, which continues to influence provincial policies.

      This backlash, spurred on by hostile media coverage, brought down the Barrett government in 1975, costing the premier his seat in Coquitlam. He was only able to return to the legislature thanks to the resignation of his friend Williams, who held a safe seat in Vancouver-East.

      In contrast to the Barrett government’s revolutionary approach, the B.C. NDP now moves much more cautiously. Its leader, Adrian Dix, has advanced a relatively modest agenda for change, repeatedly promising not to bring on an avalanche of legislation if his party forms government.

      One can only surmise that Dix intends to stay in the premier’s office for a long time, rather than just for a good time—thereby avoiding the electoral goring suffered by Barrett at the end of his only term.

      Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh will discuss The Art of the Impossible at a free public event at the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre (Room 2555) at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday (November 15).

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      James G

      Nov 12, 2012 at 10:35pm

      I read and re-read "The 1200 Days" until it fell into pages and bits. I am looking very forward to reading this. Thanks for the review.


      Nov 13, 2012 at 12:08am

      I admire Dave Barrett, and I truly believe he's correct. Power is fleeting, you can do everything right while in office, and one day you and your party will still be removed from office, if only because of the whim of the electorate for 'change', whatever that change is identified as being. What matters should not be how many terms a government serves, but how long we remember its accomplishments. Dave Barrett knew that, and to this day we keep proving him right in British Columbia.

      Dave Henderson

      Nov 13, 2012 at 6:26am

      I alway remember touring the Leg in school. There was a gallery of portraits of the Provincial Premiers. There are black and white photographs of WAC and Bill Benett and in between was a full Kodachrome colour photo of Dave Barrett wearing what can only be described as a huge shit eating grin. I love the story about sliding down the cabinet table in his sock feet. He was the most fun political leader I think I have seen in my life.

      Mark Fornataro

      Nov 13, 2012 at 6:42am

      No wonder Barrett had personal concerns for his safety after the Chilean coup in 1973. The business publication Barron's had labelled Barrett the 'Allende of the North'(see link):
      Dave Barrett was the best premier we've ever had and was obviously more concerned with passing important, progressive legislation than getting re-elected- which I really admire. Adrian Dix, I hope you follow Barrett's example! Am looking forward to reading the book.

      Mark Fornataro

      Nov 13, 2012 at 12:38pm

      Re: Barrett's security concerns in 1975 (the year Barrett called a snap election) a George Peden went public with the declaration the NDP had been infiltrated by the CIA. Who knows if there was any truth to that? I remember talking to Peden(now deceased) several years ago and he told me he stood by that story. I also talked to Dave Barrett in the early 80s about the claim and Barrett said Peden is 'a bit of a flake'. Peden was also a figure in the Wendy King/Judge Farris scandal. Peden told me 'we' set-up Judge Farris because we knew he was rigging trials. Again, I have no idea if his claims were true- but his claims raise some interesting questions- not the least of which is 'who was George Peden and who did he work for?'

      Rob Roy

      Nov 13, 2012 at 1:44pm

      Dave Barrett was one of our greatest political leaders. He was inspirational, human, demanding, and forgiving.

      The ALR, the Islands Trust, SeaBus, saving Cypress Bowl, Robson Square, Columbia Basin Trust -- these and a hundred other planning initiatives are with us today because of Barrett's courage and vision and gift.

      The ALR -- ALONE -- guarantees Barrett's great place in our history. Without it? The entire Fraser Valley, from Delta to Hope, would have been paved over with shopping malls, auto malls, and bungalows. Without the ALR? We would have lost the agricultural option in BC.

      Without the ALR? We would have been dependent on food from California and Mexico beyond any sustainable standard.

      Even the Socreds -- who ran a false and hysterical campaign against it -- did not dare to dismantle the ALR, although their pals have certainly nibbled at the edges.

      A final word about Barrett's personal security. Widely known, but never mentioned (Barrett would not permit it) was the fact of a vicious anti-Semitism directed his way. Some of the anonymous letters and phone calls in that era were utterly disgusting.

      Any number of greedy and vicious people wanted to be rid of him. This too must not be forgotten.

      It's amazing what Barrett and the NDP accomplished in three years -- and how much of it has become part of us. The BC Ambulance Service alone has saved hundreds of lives. Before Barrett, we had nothing of the sort.

      A thousand thanks, Dave.

      Rob Roy

      Nov 13, 2012 at 3:48pm

      In reply to Mark Fornatero: George Peden was from Victoria, and a member of the well-known Peden clan. The famous cyclist and athlete Torchy Peden was his uncle.

      George himself, as a very young man, worked as an assistant to the crackpot Socred MLA for Saanich and the Islands, John Tisdalle. WAC would never put him in cabinet, due to Tisdalle's interest in conspiracy. Peden fed off and into that. Tsidalle was also a very, very right wing Christian, and plowed those fields for the 39 years he was an MLA.

      So did George. Peden eventually moved to Vancouver after Tisdalle left politics in 1972.

      In Vancouver, Peden became a security guard, and rose to a lead position at the Hotel Georgia. There, one night, opening doors, he spotted a well-known judge with a well-known hooker.

      Peden died young, under odd circumstances. All his life he worked for himself, and for & against his various plots, schemes and conspiracies.


      Nov 14, 2012 at 12:22pm

      Wish he was around now. He was courageous and colorful, and had a good sense of humour. One day someone commented that he had left his fly undone. His replied: "That's ok, a dead bird doesn't fall out of its nest."


      Nov 15, 2012 at 4:59pm

      "....created the Agricultural Land Reserve, ICBC, a modern labour-relations tribunal, the B.C. Ambulance Service, eliminated corporal punishment in schools, banned pay toilets, democratized social services, improved workers’ compensation, began recording the proceedings of the legislature in Hansard, allowed for question period, legislated free prescription drugs for seniors, provided financial assistance to tenants, dramatically expanded provincial parkland, created a new Human Rights Act, and imposed the highest minimum wage in Canada."
      Does this make anyone else want to cry... i sure cried hard in '75... ); Best speaker too - nobody like that here now.

      James G

      Nov 16, 2012 at 9:59am

      It was a great read! The book is folksy, feisty and focused in style and laid out by cabinet file rather than timeline. There are references to the cultural context of the times at pivotal moments, sometimes moving, sometimes amusing.

      It also reminds us in great and documented detail what a rinky-dink (at best) government Social Credit had run and more importantly how corrupt and/or gullible it's resource devopment policies were.

      For me, as a teen in an Alberta high school watching all of these events at a distance was by turns exhillarting and confusing. Local media was mostly Socred friendly and not yet even resigned to the recent Tory win in Alberta. They resented the defeat of the Socreds next door. I joined the NDP at 16 and promptly found myself riding secretary. When B.C. abolished the strap the next year, it sent a shockwave through my High School. I was able to use that talking point and many others to rouse volunteers for the 1975 NDP provincial campaign. Although the seat number remained at one (the leader Grant Notley), and it was the Lougheed landslide, the popular vote increased and we ran the first energetic NDP campaign my constituency had seen.

      I was an automatic delegate to the Winnipeg convention the year that saw Rosemary Brown defeated by Ed Broadbent. I wonder what the result may have been if Dave Barrett had been more enthusiatically in her corner? That year ended in bitter disappointment with the defeat of the Barrett administration. For me, life started to intrude. I was ff to uni in Edmonton, coming out, gay politics, the Anita Bryant era, then Vancouver, work, union, relationships and from time to time canvassing for the NDP and COPE.

      For British Columbia, it was the legacy of Dave Barrett to invent modern democratic government in what was very nearly an empty cracker barrel in a backwater province given then over to a strongman backed up by halfwits. So much of his legacy was kept by incoming governments and rightly so. Thanks, Dave!