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A Canadian conservative in `British California'. British Columbia's maverick premier takes aim at unions, deficits

British Columbia's premier, William Vander Zalm, is an oddity among Canadian politicians in office - a ``genuine'' conservative. His Social Credit (Socred) government has passed tough labor laws in a province where 40 percent of the paid labor force is unionized. It has just announced a major ``privatization'' of government-owned entities. It plans to decentralize the provincial government into eight regions. And it has trimmed the government's budget deficit substantially.

Mr. Vander Zalm prefers to downplay the term ``conservative.'' The Social Credit Party, with only sentimental connections to the ``funny money'' theories of Social Credit founder Major Douglas, does not run candidates at the federal level.

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``We are a populist party,'' says Dutch-born Vander Zalm. ``We are a party that is very strong on free enterprise and is very much aware of the need to recognize the individual in society. We are a party that tries to stick to high moral values in government.''

To eastern Canadians, British Columbia's polarized left-right politics are strange. When Vander Zalm was elected head of the party in the summer of 1986, a headline in Toronto's Globe and Mail read: ``Socreds say no to mainstream politics.'' The national magazine, Maclean's, headed its article: ``Maverick Power.''

Vander Zalm, a millionaire horticulturist and theme park owner (Fantasy Garden), from this southern suburb of Vancouver, chuckles at such reviews by the ``eastern media.'' But, he adds, ``in fairness, we are different.''

Referring to his participation in a movie and a record, he admitted to doing ``all sorts of things which are more show business than politics. ... A premier has to relate much more to everyday and all the people. Easterners, when they grow wiser and older, come here to retire.''

With its relatively mild climate, British Columbia is sometimes jokingly termed ``Lotusland'' or ``British California.'' Despite unemployment of about 10 percent, the population of the province grows some 2 to 4 percent per year, largely because of new arrivals - and these are not just retirees.

The Socred government's labor legislation, signed into law in July, was designed partially to improve the province's image as an area of labor strife and thereby attract new investment. Trade union leaders see the law as ``union-busting.''

Vander Zalm terms the bill ``rather radical.'' He notes: ``Most governments don't ever want to touch labor law. They are much afraid of it. We emphasized the rights of individuals. We believe unions will become far more effective and stronger when the individual has a total say in the union. We have removed any opportunity for people to coerce or use threats against others in the work place or otherwise.''

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The bill requires that all union votes be held in secret. Strike votes must be taken on the results of bargaining - not before bargaining has taken place. Wildcat strikes or lockouts are prohibited. Union finances are to be made fully public. Unions are not allowed to picket third parties not directly involved in the strike.

Angry over the bill, the British Columbia Federation of Labor called a one-day general strike June 1. But it was generally ignored by non-union workers, and plans for further action faded out.

``It didn't get much public sympathy,'' says Vander Zalm, terming the bill the ``most progressive'' legislation in North America. On Oct. 23, the provincial government announced plans to privatize some $3 billion Canadian (US $2.26 billion) worth of assets and services. The privatization plans are considered the most ambitious in Canada. They have prompted angry opposition from many of an estimated 10,000 government employees involved. Some civil service jobs had already been chopped as part of the government's program to trim the provincial budget deficit.

The estimated 35,000 provincial government workers are also unhappy with the possibility of being reassigned from balmy Victoria to remoter, wetter, or colder regions. But Vander Zalm sees the concentration of population in Victoria and Vancouver as ``not healthy for the economy as a whole.'' He doesn't want these cities to ``turn into Tokyo, Los Angeles, or Toronto,'' and he set up his decentralization program to create more job opportunities elsewhere in the province.

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