Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harcourt cuts ties to NDP

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On April 1, Mike Harcourt announced he was severing his 40-year relationship with the NDP. What's this? Some sort of strange B.C.-style April Fool's joke?

B.C. has always been a leader in weird and wonderful radical politics. Nothing in B.C. ever seems normal. In B.C. politics, no one ever talks thoughtfully about "on the one hand... but then on the other..." Out here it's left or right, black or white. There are no shades of grey, let alone 50. Politics here is populist, passionate and polarized.

So when I heard this news I stopped and thought about Mike Harcourt. Harcourt, you might remember, was the leader of the NDP and the premier of B.C. from 1991 to 1996. His decision has shocked the party faithful.

In the 1990s, when I moved to B.C. from Ontario, Harcourt was the first politician I remembered clearly, because he was running for premier of the province. He was always on TV with his sincere, honest face looking straight into the camera lens, holding up his hand with the thumb and index finger joined and saying "A penny saved is a penny earned."

He then dropped a shiny new penny into a piggy bank. The crystal clear implication was that he and his party, the NDP, were not going to spend one penny more than absolutely necessary to take care of the province. He won the election in a landslide.

This stands in stark contrast to his successor, Glen Clark, also a former NDP premier, whose arguably most famous line was chortling, "Gawd, we're shovelling money off the back of a truck" as he spent his way up the island highway spreading taxpayers' money thick as asphalt over friends and supporters.

Harcourt won the election on his promise of fiscal responsibility and I believe he did try to do a good job, as all politicians do when first handed the reins of power.

Unfortunately, not all of his fellow NDPers were as honest and forthright; Harcourt got caught up in one of the biggest scandals of the '90s, the Nanaimo Bingogate affair, involving the lowest of the low: Stealing money from charities to plump up the NDP party's piggy bank.

Harcourt resigned as premier, announcing he was taking one for the team. He is a rare specimen, a politician who accepted that, as leader, it was up to him to take responsibility for the mess and step down.

But back to April Fool's Day. As it turns out, Harcourt was not joking. He was serious. He has cut his ties to the NDP. Obviously, he was well and truly steamed about something, but the reasons I have heard aren't completely convincing.

He mentioned he thought current NDP Leader Adrian Dix screwed up the last election with his flip-flop stance on Kinder Morgan, which ignored large NDP constituencies of rural people and blue-collar workers who make their living in the resource sector.

Harcourt was also not happy with the way Carole James was ousted as party leader. But all that is old history. What made him act now?

My husband's theory is he is distancing himself from the NDP because he wants to run for the Liberals and become premier of the province. Again.

"Hmmm," I said, "interesting." Harcourt was always a moderate in an immoderate party.

I have my own theory. It involves the Portland Hotel Society.

The PHS is a non-profit organization that funds social housing for the homeless and addicts who live in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest communities in Canada. The PHS receives more than $28 million a year in funding from the B.C. government as well as other sources. Their executives' salaries are in the six figures.

On March 20 -- mere days before Harcourt's startling announcement -- the proverbial bovine effluence hit the rotating propeller: A government audit revealed PHS directors and staff were living high off the hog on funds intended to help the poor and downtrodden.

Trips to New York. Europe. Limos. $800 hotel rooms. Florists. The whole gamut of overblown expensed luxury -- in total, hundreds of thousands of dollars during the past two years -- were cited.

This, when a mere $10K could probably nicely house and feed a single person for a year. The word obscene does not do this justice.

One main headline focused on NDP MLA Jenny Kwan who was found to have spent more than $35,000 on trips to Vienna, Disneyland and other wonderful places that the homeless can only dream about. Kwan insists her former husband, a PHS executive, told her the "personal part" of the trips were paid out of his pocket, not the society's. And to her credit, she says she has written a cheque to the PHS to cover her costs. Kwan then took a leave of absence from her job.

The PHS had already gained notoriety because of its controversial ways of dealing with addiction. It's are famous for the 25 cent crack pipes and the support of Insite, where the homeless go to shoot up heroin and cocaine.

Methinks that for Harcourt, the PHS was the last straw.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 A17

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