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).
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.