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Politics-not-as-usual in British Columbia

When British Columbia's new Premier, William Vander Zalm met with opposition leader Robert Skelly Monday, it was a significant political event here. British Columbia politics are so polarized that Mr. Skelly only once met on a one-on-one basis with Mr. Vander Zalm's predecessor, William Bennett. That was in the summer of 1984 right after Skelly had taken over the leadership of the left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP).

That 1984 meeting was not successful. ``A waste of time,'' recalled Skelly.

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The latest meeting was more friendly, dealing with education, job creation and other issues. The leaders parted smiling. Vander Zalm indicated he might even appoint a special commission on education, as suggested by Skelly.

``It does appear a more civilized approach is possible,'' says a Skelly staff member.

Mr. Vander Zalm won the leadership of the governing Social Credit Party, and thus the premier's job, at a party convention in July. His predecessor, Mr. Bennett, governed for 11 years before announcing his surprise resignation in late May.

That resignation ended a political era in British Columbia. Mr. Bennett's father, W. A. C. Bennett, governed the province for 20 years. He lost to the NDP in 1972, and its leader, David Barrett, governed for three years.

During the Bennett decades, the province's two top political leaders often shouted at each other across the floor of the provincial legislature or through remarks to the press. They seldom met for a civil exchange of views.

Political analyst David Elkins doubts the recent Vander Zalm-Skelly meeting indicates an end to political polarization in British Columbia. But he hopes that this division could moderate over a few years with the more affable new leader of the Social Credit Party.

The sharp political divisions in this western-most of Canada's 10 provinces stems partially from the nature of its dominant parties.

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Vander Zalm's Social Credit Party is actually a coalition of right and centrist groups. There are liberals, as well as former Liberal Party members, and conservatives, and former Progressive Conservatives. At the base of the party and Vander Zalm's support are staunch Social Credit members, so-called ``Socreds,'' who place an emphasis on family, religion, morality, support for small business, and hard work.

What holds the Socred coalition together is a strong advocacy of free enterprise and the fact that the party is in power in the province.

They ``stick together,'' notes British Columbia Minister of Intergovermental Relations Garde Gardom, in opposition to the ``socialist'' New Democratic Party.

To political observers here, the NDP is more left, on average, than in other provinces. Like the British Labour Party, the NDP is affiliated with the trade union movement. Union publications still sound the cry for class warfare.

Nonetheless, the NDP today includes many keen environmentalists, teachers, civil servants, and white advocates of Indian land claims. Perhaps some 50 percent of trade union members, more educated and well-off than a decade or so ago, have abandoned the NDP to vote Social Credit.

With the provincial economy heavily dependent on such resources as forests, fishing, and mining, British Columbia is the most unionized of any province in Canada. The trade unions have often shown a sharp militancy.

The Bennetts often purposely acerbated the political division in the province by billing each election as a fight to the finish between free enterprise and socialism, and by a style of confrontation.

The new premier is more gregarious and consultative than either of the Bennetts. He's a fundamentalist Christian and the millionaire owner of Fantasy Garden World, a combination of nursery and theme park south of Vancouver.

Mr. Vander Zalm is also famous for his blunt words, populist style, and anti-establishment attitude. He said at one time he wouldn't mind if the largely French-speaking province of Quebec separated from Canada -- a view which had some support in British Columbia during the late 1970s.

Now that he is part of the establishment, counting on returning to the provincial legislature as soon as possible in a special by-election, Vander Zalm has been more restrained in his statements to the press.

Vander Zalm must call provincial elections by 1988 and there is some speculation that he may do so much earlier. If he does, he might benefit from the glow of Expo 86 and from his current political honeymoon.

Should he lose the election, however, he might open the way for a revival of the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties, dividing the free enterprise vote.

The Social Credit Party held office in Alberta, but lost out some 14 years ago to a Conservative government.

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