VICTORIA - If Premier Vander Zalm was under any illusion that the public is largely satisfied with his government, the Boundary-Similkameen byelection should set him straight.
The message couldn't have been louder and clearer: the public is not satisfied at all. The NDP victory was decisive. Bill Barlee whipped the pants off Socred candidate Russ Fox.
Most observers expected a close race. It was a reasonable expectation. Although the riding has been in existence in its present form only since 1956, the area had been a Socred bastion ever since W.A.C. Bennett exploded on the province's political scene in 1952, sweeping a tired and corrupt coalition government out of existence.
The NDP knew it would take considerable dissatisfaction with the Socred government to make voters in the area turn to them. The overwhelming victory indicates more than dissatisfaction it signifies disenchantment and resentment.
The premier blames the defeat on his strong moral views. That may be part of it, but it doesn't account for the magnitude of the rout. The public may resist the premier's attempts to impose his own moral views on them, but it took more, much more, for voters in that former Socred stronghold to support the NDP.
What defeated the government in that byelection was wide-spread resentment of some major cornerstones of Vander Zalm's administration.
The people of Boundary-Similkameen want nothing to do with uranium mining, for instance. Yet, the government lifted the moratorium on uranium exploration and mining and refuses to reinstate it. They remembered the premier's promise to listen to the people, a promise he broke.
The voters of Boundary-Similkameen are also skeptical of the free trade deal which will wipe out their grape growing industry. They remembered that Vander Zalm is one of the most ardent supporters of the deal.
The voters remembered that the government did nothing for the tree fruit growers who got a couple of cents a pound for their apples and saw them being sold for 69 cents at supermarkets.
But there was more to the defeat than local gripes. The defeat is also the first report card on the government's privatization of highways maintenance. People in the big cities probably don't care that much about the issue, but they do in the remote areas.
If W.A.C. Bennett left one legacy, it is the network of highways and bridges that spans the province. The elder Bennett turned British Columbia from a have-not backwater into one of the richest provinces by creating a first-class transportation system that gave access to the province's vast resources. By privatizing the maintenance of that system, Vander Zalm is chipping away at that legacy.
Alex Fraser's predictions are coming true. The former highways minister and MLA for the Cariboo has said the government could lose up to 15 seats in the next election as a result of privatizing highways maintenance.
The voters also remembered the increase in user fees for seniors. They didn't think the elderly, particularly those on a very limited income, should be used to eliminate the deficit which was, if not created, then certainly increased by ambitious mega projects such as the Coquihalla Highway.
The voters remembered the $8 million spent on what the government confidently continues calling decentralization. They knew the difference between decentralization and flim flam.
They remembered the creative budget exercise that resulted in the Budget Stabilization Fund, referred to by critics as the B.S. fund. They figured out that it makes no sense to borrow money to pay back your debts.
The general belief is that in a byelection people will often vote against the government candidate because they run no risk of defeating the government. The premier would be very ill-advised to attribute the defeat in Boundary-Similkameen to such sentiments.
The margin of the defeat was too big for that. The premier doesn't have much more than two years left before he must call a general election. He'll have one heck of a job to repair the damage in time.
If he wants to have any chance of winning the next election, the premier must start listening to people other than himself. His first order of business should be to find a number of good advisers, and having found them, listen to their advice.
Unless the premier dramatically changes his style of government, the province will go the way of Boundary-Similkameen. The clock is ticking. Time is running out for Premier Vander Zalm and the Socred government.