The ‘Honest Bob’ who was jailed for bribery

By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the eleventh in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Every jurisdiction has its crooked politicians, but British Columbia was the first in the Commonwealth to send a cabinet minister to jail for crimes committed while in office.

Robert (Honest Bob) Sommers, a former school principal from Castlegar, was W.A.C. Bennett’s minister of lands, forests and mines in the 1950s. W.A.C. biographer David Mitchell writes that before being handed the job, Sommers told Bennett that he had once been a bit of a drinker and gambler and had gone through a “difficult period.”

Those bad days were in the past, Sommers assured the teetotalling premier.

Within a few years of assuming the portfolio, however, Sommers began to have money troubles. Rumours began to circulate that the minister was open to bribes. A private investigator told Bennett there was nothing to the stories, but people continued to talk.

In Feb. 1955, Liberal MLA Gordon (Bull of the Woods) Gibson rose in the legislature. Gibson, a booming orator who had made millions in the logging business, told the house that something in the B.C. forest tenure system reeked.

“I firmly believe that money talks and that money has talked in this,” Gibson declared, demanding an investigation. At these words, Mitchell writes, “there was pandemonium, with members from all sides yelling at one another until the Speaker called for adjournment.”

When the charges hit the next day’s press, Gibson declared that “the Socreds were caught where the hair is short” by the outcry. When the house sat next, Gibson was thrown from the chamber for refusing to withdraw his allegations. He marched up to the public gallery. When an MLA sought to have him removed, Gibson roared: “I’m either a member on the floor of this house or a private citizen up here in the gallery.”

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POLL: Abacus Data suggests closer race between NDP and Liberals

By Tom Barrett

A poll from Abacus Data suggests a 10-point lead for the New Democrats -– by far the closest result of any B.C. political poll taken since January.

The Abacus poll was released at around the same time as a Justason Market Intelligence poll that suggested a 22-point lead for the New Democrats.

The online Abacus poll results for decided and leaning voters were: BC Liberals 33, NDP 43, BC Conservatives nine, Greens 12, others three.

The Justason poll results were: Liberals 27, NDP 49, Conservatives 12, Greens 11, others one.

There are issues concerning both polls.

The Justason poll was conducted between April 15 and 23, so some of the interviews are two weeks old; the most recent ones are a week old. Justason’s poll was based on a sample of 600 potential voters –- a considerably smaller sample than other B.C. election polls. (See table below.)

The Abacus poll, conducted for the Sun News Network, had a very large sample –- 1,042 –- and was conducted from Tuesday, April 23 to Friday, April 26. However, Abacus has no track record in polling for B.C. elections, so it is difficult to say how representative its sample may be.

Other pollsters are expected to weigh in over the coming week; their results may help create a more complete picture of public opinion during this election.

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POLL: NDP’s Adrian Dix won leaders debate, Ipsos Reid suggests

By Tom Barrett

Respondents to an Ipsos Reid poll taken immediately after Monday’s leaders debate named New Democrat Adrian Dix the winner, with Premier Christy Clark a close second.

The poll was conducted for Global TV online among members of an Ipsos panel who were asked in advance to watch the debate.

Popular wisdom around who won and lost such debates tends to take a day or two to form. But if the Ipsos results match the consensus that emerges, they spell big trouble for Clark and the BC Liberals. With the Liberals trailing by 14 to 20 points in recent polls, Clark needed to score a breakthrough with voters.

Instead, she turned off roughly as many Ipsos respondents as she won over.

Thirty-five per cent said Dix won the debate. Clark was chosen by 30 per cent, Green party Leader Jane Sterk was chosen by 10 per cent and B.C. Conservative John Cummins was named by three per cent.

Twenty-two per cent said they were undecided.

Cummins was named by 36 per cent as the debate’s loser. Clark was named by 27 per cent as the loser — about the same as the number who said she was the winner. Dix was named the loser by 16 per cent and Sterk by 11 per cent. Ten per cent were undecided.

There was more bad news in the poll for Clark. More respondents said their impression of the premier worsened during the debate than said it improved. Thirty-four per cent said their impression worsened compared to 25 per cent who said their impression improved. Thirty-nine per cent said the debate did not affect their impression of Clark and two per cent were undecided.

Sterk got a boost in this category: 42 per cent said their impression of the Green leader improved, compared to 15 per cent who said it worsened.

Some 32 per cent said their impression of Dix improved compared to 28 per cent who said their impression worsened.

Cummins scored particularly poorly in this category with 19 per cent improved compared to 45 per cent who said their impression worsened.

The results of this online poll are based on the answers of 677 eligible voters who watched the debate. Ipsos states a credibility interval of 4.3 percentage points.

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter or email him.

The first MLA physically thrown from the legislature

Who was it? And why doesn’t this happen more often? ‘Some Honourable Members’ gets rowdy.
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Dave Barrett
Dave Barrett

One of B.C.’s more peculiar democratic traditions goes by the name of legislation by exhaustion.

From time to time, as opposition MLAs have became too disputatious, governments held all-night sittings, forcing their opponents to talk around the clock. As the sittings ground on, even the most forceful filibuster would eventually run out of gas, allowing the government’s agenda to limp into law.

Those all-night sittings produced some memorable confrontations between sleep-deprived members, who were often braced by the odd snort from a bottle of bottom-drawer scotch.

Although no booze was involved, one of the lowest moments came in October 1983, during debate on then-premier Bill Bennett’s restraint package. The package, a series of bills that slashed the civil service, suppressed union rights, cut social services, repealed human rights legislation and centralized power in Victoria, set off a backlash led by the B.C. labour movement.

When the New Democratic Party Opposition roused itself to fight the bills, Bennett opted for legislation by exhaustion. At around 4 a.m. on Oct. 6, with backbench MLA John Parks in the Speaker’s chair, the NDP moved for the house to adjourn. Parks refused the motion and soon found himself in a convoluted procedural exchange with Opposition leader Dave Barrett:

Parks: Would you be kind enough to take your place?
Barrett: No, because I’m asking you: is that a ruling?
Parks: Did you rise on a point of order?
Barrett: Yes, I’m on a point of order. Is that a ruling?
Parks: Have you made the point of order?
Barrett: Yes, I’m asking if you’re ruling that you have the right to rule without a ruling.
Parks: Having made the point of order, I’d advise that you take your seat.
Barrett: No, I want a ruling.

And so on.

Eventually, Parks ordered Barrett to leave the chamber. Barrett refused. Parks called on the sergeant-at-arms’s staff, a group of older gentlemen whose main tasks involved filling water glasses and carrying messages.

On Parks’s orders, three of the sergeant’s men grabbed Barrett’s chair and tried to lift it. The chair toppled and Barrett fell to floor. The three then dragged Barrett, his arms crossed, out of the house and dumped him on the floor of the hallway outside.

It was a historic moment, the first time an MLA had been thrown bodily from the B.C. legislature.

But no footage exists of the incident. Cameras were banned from the legislative chamber in those days. Outside the chamber, at least one TV cameraman was in position to film Barrett being given the bum’s rush. But as Barrett was being dumped on the red carpet of the corridor, Speaker Walter Davidson stood by, threatening to yank the credentials of anyone filming the scene.

Nor is there an official written record of the great heave-ho. Hansard records Parks’s instruction to the sergeant’s men, followed by one parenthetical word: “[Interruption.]”

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter, or email him.

POLL: Latest Angus Reid sets NDP lead 14 points over Liberals

By Tom Barrett

A new poll from Angus Reid suggests that the New Democrats hold a 14-point lead on the BC Liberals on the eve of today’s radio debate among the party leaders.

While the gap between the two parties is three points lower than the previous Reid poll, conducted April 12 and 13, all shifts in party support are within the poll’s stated margin of error.

The latest online Reid poll found 45 per cent of decided and leaning respondents support the NDP, the same figure as the previous poll.

The BC Liberals received 31 per cent, up three percentage points from the earlier poll. The BC Conservatives received 11 per cent, down one point, and the Green party received 10 per cent, down three points. A further three per cent mentioned independent candidates or other parties.

The poll was greeted with media speculation about the reasons behind the changing numbers. However, with a stated margin of error of 3.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20, all the changes in party support could be the result of random chance.

Fifty-nine per cent agreed with the statement: “It is time for a change in government in British Columbia — a different provincial party should be elected into power.”

Twenty-five per cent agreed with the statement: “It is not time for a change in government in British Columbia — the BC Liberals should be re-elected.”

The four main party leaders debated on CKNW radio today, Friday, April 26.

The poll was conducted Wednesday, April 24 and Thursday, April 25, 2013 among 812 adult British Columbians selected at random from an Angus Reid online panel. For more about polling methodology, see this story.

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Polls ‘don’t predict the future’

And more hard truths about the use and abuse of modern opinion research.
By Tom Barrett

Image: Shutterstock.
Image: Shutterstock.

Election polls are fun. They can help you understand why politicians do and say the things they do. They can help you decide how to vote. And as long as the parties have access to polling, you should too.

But, as campaign polls proliferate like dandelions in April, they also become the source of a vast amount of the hooey that gets spewed by pundits.

Pollster Bob Penner has a long history of working for election campaigns. In a recent interview, he said the “literacy around polling” is pretty low.

Polling numbers naturally bounce around within their margin of error. “If you do the same method day after day, each day [the result] will be different,” said Penner, president and CEO of Stratcom. “That’s called sampling error.”

But if a pollster goes on TV and says the bouncing numbers are just sampling error, “he wouldn’t be on TV,” Penner said.

“So he’s got to construct a reason for why the numbers moved other than the probable real reason, which is just a natural variation in the polling method. So he says it’s because of the ads they ran today. Or it’s because of the media story that was on last night. Or it’s because this guy endorsed him. And that’s almost never true. It’s almost never the reason.

“But they’re out there saying it and people are at home consuming it and saying, ‘well, those ads really moved the numbers.’ ”

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The labour minister whose Visa card was X-rated

Socred Bob McClelland paid the price. Our series of dubious BC political moments continues.
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

By Nikodem Nijaki via Wikimedia Commons
By Nikodem Nijaki via Wikimedia Commons

Late on the night of Feb. 26, 1985, B.C. labour minister Bob McClelland phoned a Victoria business known as Top Hat Productions. He’d had a fair bit to drink.

McClelland asked the woman who answered the phone if a girl could be sent to his room at the Chateau Victoria hotel. He asked how much he would have to pay for her company — about $100 an hour, as it turned out — and whether Top Hat took Visa.

We know these tawdry details because the Victoria police were watching Top Hat, one of about half a dozen escort agencies listed at the time in the Victoria Yellow Pages.

On Nov. 27, 1987, McClelland was called by the defence to testify in the trial of Top Hat’s operator, Arlie Blakely, who faced 19 counts of prostitution-related offences.

A Canadian Press account of McClelland’s court appearance describes him as “glum-faced,” entering the court by himself and refusing to look at the “nearly full” public gallery. He testified that a Visa receipt from Top Hat for $130 was indeed his.

A demand from Blakely’s lawyer, Robert Moore-Stewart, for “the story behind” the receipt was ruled out of order. McClelland told Moore-Stewart he did not tell the Top Hat receptionist what he intended to do with the girl.

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POLL: British Columbians prefer spending on health and education over debt paydown

By Tom Barrett

A new poll suggests that British Columbians are more interested in spending on health and education than paying down the province’s debt or cutting taxes.

The online Ipsos poll, for Global TV, asked the following question:

“On which one of the following three items would you like to see the provincial government place the greatest priority over the next few years?”

Forty-six per cent of respondents replied “increasing funding for services such as health and education”; 35 per cent replied “reducing the provincial debt” and 15 per cent said “lowering taxes.” A further four per cent said they didn’t know.

The poll also asked: “If elected, how well do you think each of the parties would do at balancing resource development and environmental protection”?

Thirty-nine per cent said Adrian Dix and the BC NDP would strike about the right balance between development and the environment, while 29 per cent said the party would put too much focus on the environment.

Thirty per cent said Christy Clark and the Liberals would strike the right balance, while 49 per cent said they would put too much focus on resource development.

Fifteen per cent said John Cummins and the BC Conservatives would strike the right balance, while 35 per cent said they would put too much focus on resource development; 47 per cent said they didn’t know.

Twelve per cent said Jane Sterk and the Green party would strike the right balance, while 61 per cent said the Greens would put too much focus on the environment.

The poll was conducted Monday, April 22 and April 23, among 455 adult British Columbians drawn from a panel assembled by Ipsos. The company states a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20. For more on polling methodology and controversies, see this story.

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter or email him.

The BC mega-project that dwarfed all others

Wacky Bennett’s monorailmania. Latest in our look-back series ‘Some Honourable Members’.
By Tom Barrett

This is the fifth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Axel Wenner-Gren. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Axel Wenner-Gren. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Even in an era defined by grand schemes and rip-roaring resource exploitation, the dreams of Swedish vacuum cleaner tycoon Axel Wenner-Gren stood out.

The international financier, who produced among other things the Electrolux vacuum cleaner, sold W.A.C. Bennett’s government on a massive plan to develop a 10-million hectare swath of B.C., through the Rocky Mountain Trench from the Yukon border to Prince George. It would feature mines, pulp mills and hydro dams, tied together with a 290 kilometre per hour monorail that would cost a billion dollars. (That’s more than $8 billion in today’s money.)

The plan caught the attention of Life magazine, which wrote  in 1957 that “the land that Wenner-Gren would develop, now locally known as Wenner-Grenland, is an area of awesome beauty, of brilliantly coloured lakes, set in primeval forests of poplar and pine. The backed-up waters of the Peace River which runs from west to east would form the largest man-made reservoir in the world, 260 miles long and taking up to seven years to fill.”

The wilderness area — “almost the size of Ohio” — would be populated with “a string of 10 to 15 towns”; work on the dam would start in two years, the magazine reported.

Bennett and Wenner-Gren signed a deal that reserved the lands for the Swede’s company. Critics called it a giveaway; they were even more upset when they discovered that Einar Gunderson, a crony of Bennett’s and a former finance minister, was a director of the Wenner-Gren B.C. Development Co.

‘You will rue the day’

Opposition member Ran Harding called it “the biggest blunder ever committed by any government in B.C.’s history.” Harding warned Bennett: “You will rue the day you ever heard the name Wenner-Gren. The project will be the ruination of the Social Credit government.”

Wenner-Gren eventually lost enthusiasm for the potential of Wenner-Grenland and the monorail was never built. But Bennett’s government would dam the Peace as part of its “two rivers policy” that also saw development of the Columbia River’s power potential.

The Peace River power project is one of the biggest mega-projects in the history of B.C. It’s a measure of the times that the final outcome of Wenner-Gren’s vision pales in comparison to the original fantasy.

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here.  Find him on Twitter or email him.