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British Columbia Officials Survive, Thrive in Scandals

March 09, 1986|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

VICTORIA, Canada — Not long ago, a senior member of the provincial cabinet in British Columbia had his face rearranged by a middle-level civil servant who found the official in his bedroom with his wife. The aggrieved husband later told a television audience that he hit the minister again when he suggested that they sit down and discuss the matter as friends.

In Canada, where government leaders are expected to be circumspect in their private lives or leave public life, such behavior would normally lead to political death--as it did last year in the case of a member of the federal Cabinet who was fired for visiting a striptease club.

But in the province of British Columbia, Canada's westernmost, things are different. The official in this instance publicly acknowledged his adultery and was rewarded with a higher cabinet position, which includes responsibility for promoting family life.

This was not an isolated incident. It is in keeping with what amounts to a tradition--a tradition that goes well beyond sexual misbehavior by public officials, though that is a key characteristic. It includes financial scandals that in other societies would send the offenders back to private life, if not to prison. Here, the men involved are often given other jobs, sometimes better ones.

For instance, Premier William Bennett recently reorganized his cabinet. Not only was the minister with the bruised face given another position, but a minister who had resigned after being accused of a clear conflict of interest was renamed to the cabinet.

The latter happened to Tom Waterland, who during his 10 years as forestry minister had invested more than $20,000 in a lumber company that depended on Waterland for logging permits. He resigned late last year but was given a new job as minister of agriculture when Bennett shuffled his officials early last month.

At the same time, several other ministers who had been found to have financial interests in businesses they were charged with regulating were either given other portfolios or left alone.

Energy Minister Stephen Rogers, for instance, failed to disclose that he owned $100,000 worth of stock in a logging company that had won cheap electric rates from his ministry. He was made minister of health, an important position in a province with a socialized medical system.

Finance Minister Hugh Curtis, who is considered a likely successor to Bennett as leader of the governing Social Credit Party, pushed a plan to sell the public shares of stock in the provincially owned B.C. Rail Ltd. And he was buying and selling stock himself, he told reporters, because "it was a good investment."

Curtis is still finance minister. According to political observers, this is the normal course of government operations in a province where the dominant political party once followed the economic theories of the American poet Ezra Pound.

"They just don't think what they are doing is wrong," said Mike Harcourt, mayor of Vancouver and a political adversary of Bennett.

This is in the tradition of the fundamentalist preacher who, upon election to the provincial legislature, told his colleagues: "If I tell a lie, it's only because I think I am telling the truth."

Highway Minister Fined

This was the same man who, as minister of highways, was fined $1,000 and deprived of his driving privileges for contempt of court after he ignored summonses in connection with a series of traffic violations, including hitting a dog and then leaving the scene.

Bennett and his Social Credit government are taking the brunt of ridicule these days. However, the premier is not the only leader to suffer on account of odd behavior.

In the 1970s, a minister in the cabinet of David Barrett, then premier of a socialist New Democratic Party government, was found making love to a woman in a car less than 300 feet from his boss's office window.

If there is a difference between the New Democrats and the current Social Credit people, it is that Barrett fired the minister involved. But Barrett himself is no stranger to curious behavior. Once, sighting a reporter who had been critical of his policies, he chased her through the Capitol shouting obscenities.

The issue of sex in society reached the floor of the legislature when Agnes Kripps, a legendary Social Credit member, proposed that the government abolish the word sex and replace it with the phrase biology of living today-- BOLT for short.

Predictable Puns

After the predictable puns and other bad jokes, Kripps replied with an innocent cry for order that contained a double-entendre that halted the proceedings.

How did official mores here get to the point where a recent routine police crackdown on prostitution turned up a credit card receipt bearing the name of a cabinet member and the official imprint of the provincial government in the records of an escort service?

Barrett, who has given up politics to be a highly paid radio talk show host--giving support to the local joke that British Columbians go into politics to get a job in radio--has an analysis that may be as good as any.

Frontier Mentality

"B.C. is the Wild West," he said in an interview, "and it drew all the adventurers and oddballs that usually drift to the frontier in search of riches. The province remains a pretty primitive place since much of the population is still first-generation, at least in its thinking."

There are other explanations. One has it that life was so easy here that it required little of the discipline or planning necessary for developing a society in more demanding areas.

"We're people who stumbled into paradise, but didn't realize it was a fluke," Barrett said. "So instead of thinking or developing a rational economic policy, we just flushed it all away and followed crackpots who promised treasures without thinking."

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