Bill Vander Zalm is shaking things up again

In March 2007 — two years before he launched his anti-HST petition campaign — Bill Vander Zalm found himself at a private fundraising event with Gordon Campbell in Palm Springs, Calif.

The B.C. premier, according to ex-premier Vander Zalm, wouldn’t shake his hand.

“It’s very unusual. That’s why I remember it. I’ve never seen it happen,” recalled Vander Zalm this week at his home in Ladner.

Only Campbell and Vander Zalm know what went down that day in the California desert three years ago. (Campbell, through his press secretary Bridgitte Anderson, said he recalled meeting Vander Zalm at the Palm Springs event but couldn’t recall whether they shook hands.)

But what’s clear is that the “free enterprise” centre-right politicians have not been on friendly terms for many years.

Campbell has publicly reached out during his time in office to former Social Credit premier Bill Bennett. But the B.C. Liberal premier has never called former Socred premier Vander Zalm, who succeeded Bennett as premier in 1986 but was forced to resign five years later over conflict-of-interest allegations involving the sale of the Fantasy Gardens theme park.

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“For whatever reason, I don’t think [Campbell] was very fond of Bill Vander Zalm,” said Vander Zalm, during an interview this week.

“And I think it’s probably a lot less now.”

Vander Zalm is now the leader of the Fight HST group, which claims it’s on the verge of signing up 10 per cent of registered voters in all 85 provincial ridings — the threshold required under initiative legislation to repeal the harmonized sales tax.

Chris Delaney, Vander Zalm’s close friend and lieutenant in Fight HST, said that the former Social Credit leader told him about the alleged Palm Springs slight upon his arrival home from Palm Springs.

Delaney said that Campbell probably hadn’t forgiven Vander Zalm for earlier joining with the NDP and the labour movement in protests against the Campbell government policies on privatization of BC Hydro and BC Rail in 2003 — and against the Liberals’ decision to have new BC Ferries built in Europe in 2004.

Vander Zalm said he has no hard feelings against the premier and that his opposition to Campbell’s HST is not personal.

“I don’t have a grudge. Once we’re done with the HST issue, I hope I can concentrate on my lilac bushes and take the odd holiday.”

If Elections B.C. ratifies the Fight HST petition and the government doesn’t repeal the tax, Vander Zalm is threatening to go to Campbell’s Vancouver Point-Grey riding and seek the premier’s ouster under provincial recall legislation.

“If [Campbell] doesn’t back off, this [anti-HST] campaign will go on until the next election and beyond.”

This scenario — an ex-premier out of office for nearly two decades seeking to topple a sitting one — is very unusual, if not unprecedented.

Most former premiers shift into quiet retirement (Bill Bennett and Rita Johnston), seek elected political office elsewhere (Dave Barrett and Ujjal Dosanjh), pursue policy goals at universities or non-profits (Mike Harcourt) or take a high-paying business job in the private sector (Glen Clark).

Vander Zalm, always a political outlier, has chosen a different path — one that has led him to his showdown with Campbell.

University of Victoria political scientist Dennis Pilon said that Vander Zalm’s re-entry into the political fray reflects the same independent, self-confident streak he showed while premier.

“I would chalk it up to his particular personality. He went from scandal to scandal and never saw anything wrong with anything he ever did.”

Pilon said that Vander Zalm represents a part of the free-enterprise coalition in B.C. that is more conservative and rural while Campbell comes from the more secular and urban part of that centre-right political universe.

“In a way Vander Zalm still represents that small-town, small business part of the Social Credit coalition that has never warmed to Gordon Campbell.”

Vander Zalm left office with a certain notoriety (despite his exoneration in court), but his controversial past doesn’t seem to have hurt his anti-HST campaign.

“I think the HST is bigger than what it is people might think of me,” said Vander Zalm.

“I was in Costco a week ago and some Chinese lady grabs me around the neck and gives me a big hug and says; ‘Before I hate you. Now I love you.’”

Vander Zalm, ever the populist, believes he speaks for provincial autonomy — and for regular folks and small business. Campbell too often bows to Ottawa and the eastern establishment, according to Vander Zalm, and acts for big corporations, which have embraced the HST.

“By nature, I’ve always been more inclined to relate to the average person. You might not think so when you look at my place here, but that’s how I’ve always felt.”

Vander Zalm, now 75, lives off a country road on the outskirts of Ladner, in a large Normandy Tudor house with four bedrooms and seven bathrooms. Its front door is framed by two bronze statues of a French girl and boy.

Not surprisingly, given Vander Zalm’s status as one of B.C. most famous gardeners, there’s plenty of vegetation — and it’s all immaculate.

Portuguese laurels, pruned once a year, line the long driveway. Emerald cedars stand like sentries, their spirals something out of Edward Scissorhands.

Vander Zalm, who has four children and nine grandchildren, lives in the house with his wife, Lillian.

“When the kids were being born and growing up, we had little houses and now that we’re old and could live in a little place, we live in a big house. Crazy.”

On the flanks of his 10-hectare property are two fields of hay, which are harvested by a local farmer. Out back is a glass-covered conservatory with a swimming pool. Further back still is a nursery where Vander Zalm grows lilacs, which he mostly gives away.

“We used to grow 100,000 lilacs but I couldn’t sell any lilacs this year because I’ve been busy doing the HST stuff,” said Vander Zalm.

“I didn’t realize at the beginning that it would take so much time. Nobody did.

“Now my phone never quits ringing, day and night. People asking: ‘Where can I sign the petition.’ It never stops ringing.”

A guest house off to the side of the main residence is where Vander Zalm conducts most of his HST business. The Dutch immigrant has a framed copy of a Rembrandt self-portrait, a few prints of prewar Dutch scenes, a painting of Vander Zalm when he was a young mayor of Surrey, a bronze bust of the ex-premier’s head and a stack of his self-published autobiography titled For the People. (He’s sold 1,600 of the 3,000 he had published.)

A bouquet of iris’s sits on a long oak table where Vander Zalm holds his meetings with his Fight HST board, which includes two New Democrats (longtime strategist and political commentator Bill Tieleman and Cheryl Baron), two B.C. Liberals (Rainer Schmoll and Annie Storey) and two B.C. Conservatives (former party leader Delaney and Sal Vetro).

Vander Zalm’s return to the political fray began last July, as he tells us, when he and Lillian learned from the dinner-hour TV news that B.C. had agreed to adopt the HST.

“I said to Lillian: ‘This is crazy, absolutely crazy.’ Every B.C. government since Bill Bennett has been approached by the federal government to adopt the HST and every premier and finance minister has said we don’t want any part of it.”

Vander Zalm was frustrated the next morning by the lack of media coverage of the HST so Lillian told him to contact the media. An article on Vander Zalm attacking the HST appeared in the morning newspaper with Vander Zalm’s e-mail address.

“Well, my e-mail went nuts. I started getting so many e-mails, I didn’t know what to do.” Vander Zalm phoned his friend Delaney and the two of them agreed to discuss how to oppose the HST.

A few weeks later they met with Tieleman, who had started an anti-HST Facebook site, at the Maurya Restaurant on West Broadway. Vander Zalm and Delaney had worked with Tieleman — their political opposite — on the aforementioned rallies over BC Rail, BC Hydro and the offshore construction of ferries.

Tieleman described Vander Zalm as a “B. C. firster” and as a right-wing populist just as former premier Dave Barrett was a left-wing populist.

“I think Bill is showing that the populist appeal he had when he was premier still exists today but in a different form.”

They agreed to set up Fight HST and seek the tax legislation’s repeal with Vander Zalm as the campaign’s public face and official proponent.

“We agreed the proponent should be somebody with a profile so that it couldn’t be ignored,” said Vander Zalm.

The irony that the former Socred leader is now collaborating with New Democrats to fight the HST — causing the Campbell government’s poll numbers to fall — isn’t lost on anyone.

“I worked for quite a while to get Bill Vander Zalm out of government and now I’m working with him,” said Tieleman, who arranged for Vander Zalm and NDP leader Carole James to share the stage at an anti-HST rally late last year.

Vander Zalm is no fan of the NDP but is willing to work with them on specific issues. Does he feel that he’s being used by the NDP? “I’ve heard that. But they joined us and they’ve been helpful.

“But it’s all about the people. So I don’t particularly care which parties join in.”

Vander Zalm said he didn’t realize he was signing on to what would become a full-time job with many weeks spent on the road with two to three speaking engagements a day.

“I’ve been to every major community in B.C. except for Campbell River and Prince Rupert.”

Vander Zalm, a natural politician who never tires of pressing the flesh and making small talk with voters, acknowledged enjoying being back on the trail.

“It felt a little bit like a political campaign tour. I met a lot of people who reminded me that they had met me 20 years ago,” said Vander Zalm.

“The neat part of it was that in an election campaign, 50 per cent of the people are in favour of you and 50 per cent of the people are damning you.

“Whereas now it’s 100 per cent of people saying nice things. So it’s much better.”

Vander Zalm dismisses the notion that he’s seeking some kind of redemption two decades after being hounded from office. But it’s hard not to think he’s not enjoying his return to the limelight.

“I think that there is some element for Bill of proving that he can still be popular in B.C. the way he was before he became premier,” said Tieleman.

Vander Zalm knows he owes his second life in politics to the anti-HST campaign’s appeal to those on the right who are instinctively anti-tax and suspicious of government and to those on the left who hate Campbell and view the HST as a huge tax shift from big business to regular folks.

“I could go out there in front of my house with a sign right now that says ‘No HST’ and I’d get cars stopping one after another with people wanting to sign.

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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