VICTORIA -- What did I tell you. Dumping Bill Vander Zalm takes more than a group of city slicker Socred dissidents, asking for a secret vote of confidence in their leader.
When Vander Zalm stepped up to the podium in Penticton to address Social Credit Party delegates, he had already won half the battle. When he finished, his victory was complete.
It was a barn-burner of a speech, and if there was any opposition to his continued leadership at the start, it dwindled to no more than a handful by the end.
The speech was better than any I have ever heard Vander Zalm give, and if anyone expected him to wear sack cloth and eat crow, they were disappointed. He made some brief reference to past mistakes, but was largely on the offensive.
In his quest for support, Vander Zalm called on a variety of historic figures from Disraeli to Gladstone to Lincoln to Kipling to Margaret Thatcher who, Vander Zalm suggested, could take a lesson from British Columbia when it comes to reducing the cost of government through privatization.
Even God didn't escape being drawn into the family dispute. Admitting that the past year has been a very difficult one for him and the party, Vander Zalm added that he found great help in prayer.
He aimed a special, and well-deserved shot, at the media for having "harassed and ridiculed" not him, but his wife Lillian at every turn these past two years.
Throughout his address, Vander Zalm sounded like he was on the campaign trail rather than at a Socred party convention, dwelling at length on what he considered the government's achievements since he took office.
The economy, he said, was in better shape than at any time in the history of the province, the budget was about to be balanced, and the "rainy-day account," the budget stabilization fund, was fast approaching $1 billion.
The most effective part of Vander Zalm's speech, however, was directed at critics within the party. He reminded them that the place to discuss differences is not in public. To do so, he said, can only hurt the party.
"These critics are doing the job the NDP opposition could never do. We must stand united at all times. No-one is perfect. No-one has all the answers. We must all commit ourselves today to discuss our differences at the family table, not with the media," he said. But then he held out an olive branch by stating that there was a place in the family for "honest critics."
The first one to pick up the peace offering was Grace McCarthy. Asked what she thought of Vander Zalm's speech, she said she was impressed.
"He probably mended a lot of fences here today. I came here to hear a commitment by the premier to do better in the future. I believe I heard that commitment," McCarthy said.
But even though the convention delegates gave Vander Zalm a solid vote of confidence, it would be wrong to infer from that that they are completely happy with their leader.
Given Vander Zalm's open admission that he made mistakes and that he has learned from them, the delegates really had no choice but to confirm their confidence in him. The alternative -- dumping not only an incumbent leader, but a premier in office -- was simply unthinkable.
That's why attempts to determine the vote of confidence in Vander Zalm by secret ballot were shot down. That's why 1,060 delegates expressed their confidence in him, while only 75 raised their hands in an expression of non-confidence.
So where does all that leave Vander Zalm and the Social Credit Party? Well, they are still caught between a rock and a hard place, but they have a little more breathing room now. Whether it's enough to revive the somewhat battered party, is entirely up to Vander Zalm. His real challenge -- to close the rift within the party and heal the self©inflicted wounds -- is waiting for him in Victoria. Vander Zalm must now prove to his party that he meant what he said in Penticton. What's more, if the party is to have any chance for re-election, he must convince a lot of people who weren't in Penticton that he has really changed.
At the moment, there's no doubt that the NDP is way ahead in public opinion polls. If an election were held today, the Socreds would be turfed out. But then, if a federal election had been held a year ago, the Tories, too, would almost certainly have been defeated. For the next two years, watching Vander Zalm will be an interesting hobby. I certainly wouldn't place any bets yet on an NDP landslide in the next election. Like I said, it's up to Vander Zalm whether the Social Credit Party will survive or disappear from the political scene.