VICTORIA -- Like Julius Caesar, they came, they saw, but only one of them conquered; the other one never managed to get past the ramparts.
In the ongoing battle for the hearts, souls and votes of British Columbians, Premier Vander Zalm and NDP Leader Mike Harcourt launched an assault on the same objective last week -- the annual convention of the B.C. and Yukon Community Newspaper Association which met at the Sheraton Landmark in Vancouver.
A mere six hours separated their campaigns. Harcourt was the guest speaker at lunch, the premier at dinner. When it was all over, the verdict was unanimous: Vander Zalm was the clear winner. Harcourt had blown it.
Harcourt not only gave the wrong speech to the wrong audience; his delivery was awful. Vander Zalm, on the other hand, couldn't possibly have come up with a better speech. He should give the guy who wrote it a raise.
Harcourt completely misjudged his audience, spending the first half of his speech lambasting the government, the second half on the province's tourism potential.
His attack on the government would have been better suited to an NDP convention; his foray into tourism might have interested a convention of travel agents. His audience wouldn't be found at either.
The people he addressed were publishers of community newspapers.
They were businessmen and women whose skill is measured in how they compete and survive in a highly competitive business.
That isn't to say they don't take their journalistic obligations seriously. Most of them do, but they are first and foremost managers. And they have to be, for if they can't control the bottom line, the best journalism won't keep their papers alive. Considering all that, the first part of Harcourt's speech was wasted on the audience at best and an insult at worst. As for his remarks on tourism, they almost put the audience to sleep. Before he started speaking, Harcourt said to someone at the head table he would give them a "thumper." Wow. I wonder what a dull Harcourt speech is like.
A few hours later, same place, same audience, Vander Zalm was at his best. He was upbeat, charming and, most of all, he had the right speech for the audience.
The whole address was an ode to community newspapers, and somehow he managed to find a way of saying that government and community papers have identical aims and similar problems. The logic sounds a bit fuzzy in the cold light of day, but boy, it sounded good at the time. Vander Zalm gave the speech Harcourt should have given, and could have given because he was up first.
What Harcourt couldn't have matched was the premier's announcement that from now on, community newspapers would get a fair share of the government advertising dollar.
Until now, the lion's share of the government's advertising budget has always gone to the dailies and the electronic media. That's to change.
The move is long overdue. Community newspapers reach an estimated 95 per cent of all British Columbians. Some of the publishers told me later the premier could perhaps have made the announcement at some other time. It looked a little too much like a bribe, they thought, but I don't foresee any of them turning down the ads. During the past couple of months, I had been quite intrigued with the scenario of Vander Zalm's voluntary departure from the political scene. After last week's performance, I'm not so sure anymore.
It was quite obvious that the premier is not only receiving solid advice lately, but that he's actually following it. His image, tarnished by his own past mistakes and the terrible advice he got from David Poole, is undeniably on the mend.
Behind this change are none other than two former colleagues of mine, Ian Jessop, the premier's new press secretary, and Eli Sopow, who has been catapulted to associate deputy minister status in the government's beefed-up information apparatus.
Despite these obvious changes to the premier's image, he's by no means out of the woods yet. Until the public at large sees the difference and believes it, his name will still mud with a lot of Socred party faithful.
Vander Zalm burned a lot of bridges between the party and himself in the past 12 months. It takes time to rebuild them. But if the Vander Zalm I saw last week at the Sheraton Landmark is any indication of things to come, Harcourt might wait at his own risk for the premier to self-destruct.
Before he knows it, Harcourt may be the one who will need an improved image. The least he will need is better speeches. He sure blew that one.