Monday, October 4, 2010

Dave Barrett: A former B.C. premier as grand old man

Former premier Dave Barrett likes to garden at his waterfront home in Esquimalt. Deddeda Stemler photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 4, 2010


To his enemies, Dave Barrett was the vanguard of a socialist horde.

To his friends, he was a bulwark against the ravages of unfettered free enterprise.

Hard to be neutral about a guy the Press Gallery referred to as the “little fat guy” who in turn self-deprecatingly called himself “fat li’l Dave.”

The oldest living former British Columbia premier turned 80 on Saturday. He planned to celebrate the august occasion in quiet fashion with his family. A restaurant meal, but no gifts.

His voice once inflamed great passions, pro and con. Now less bombastic, re retains his bonhomie.

He lunches in the city, attends movies, greets well-wishers with a politician’s seasoned touch. He lives a comfortable life in an historic waterfront home in Esquimalt with Shirley, his wife of 57 years. As is not uncommon at his advanced age, dates and details are now lost in the murky soup of failing memory.

Not that he can’t still rouse himself.

“I’m retired,” he said the other day. “I read. I garden a bit. But I’m not retired when it comes to the issues, or the people, or the future.”

This is a year of significant anniversaries for Mr. Barrett. He was first elected to the Legislature 50 years ago last month. He lost the government and his own seat 35 years ago.

He returned to the Legislature, but never again to power. He then worked as a radio host before winning a seat in Parliament, but lost a contest for the federal NDP leadership. He wrote a ribald memoir.

In three tumultuous years as premier, his government protected farmland (Agricultural Land Reserve), made prescription drugs affordable (Pharmacare), changed the car insurance industry (Insurance Corporation of B.C.).

As much as his political enemies decried these innovations at the time, they remain on the books today.

His government also banned pay toilets and corporal punishment. It also ordered full Hansard coverage of debates.

It was a busy time. Too busy for some.

His government had its ups and downs — more downs if you self-identified as a running dog capitalist. To this day, his name evokes anger in some circles. The mining industry in particular seemed keen on finding a very deep shaft in which to place a taxing premier.

As for being a Marxist, there was always more Groucho than Karl in Dave Barrett.

The youngest son of a Jewish fruit and vegetable peddler, he grew up on McSpadden Avenue, off Commercial Drive, a bright but indifferent student who expressed himself on the rugby pitch and on stage. After getting a Jesuit education in the United States, he returned to his home province as a social worker, only to be fired from the civil service for being politically active.

He proved to be a spellbinding orator, a skill best appreciated in an overcrowded union hall, but less successful on the cool medium of television.

In the 1972 campaign, Social Credit Premier W.A.C. Bennett charged him with belonging to a radical wing of the NDP known as the Waffle. Mr. Barrett flipped the accusation by replying that his opponent was a pancake.

In 1983, the Socreds aired a television commercial in which a man in a pinstriped business suit was revealed to be wearing red shorts. The unsubtle message — the NDP were pinkos in disguise.

Mr. Barrett told a rally on Vancouver Island that he believed the ads were the responsibility of a prominent female Cabinet minister.

“I didn’t come here to discuss the colour of my underwear,” he told the crowd. “I’ll leave that to your imagination. But I understand Grace McCarthy is behind this idea.”

He paused, adopting a tone of faux gravitas.

“I want to assure the people of British Columbia that Grace McCarthy is one woman who will never see the colour of my underwear.”

The veteran political reporter Tom Barrett (no relation) recalls an anecdote the NDP leader told as he stumped from town to town by campaign bus.

Each night, he’d tell the same story: the Vancouver Sun hired an astrologer to prepare horoscopes of the party leaders. The stargazer determined that Mr. Barrett’s sun sign meant he was a great lover.

Dave was on the road, so he didn’t see the story on publication, he told the crowd. That night, he called home, as always, to check on the kids and to talk to his wife.

“Anything in the papers?” he asked.

“Oh, you know, Dave,” Shirley replied. “Just the same old lies.”

Never failed to bring down the house.

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