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Highwire Act: Power, Pragmatism, and the Harcourt Legacy

by Daniel Gawthrop

A first-rate novelist would have a hard time trumping the real-life high jinks of B.C. politics that play out nightly on the news. In the fall of 1995, NDP Premier Mike Harcourt resigned, unable to squelch opponents’ criticism of his handling of “Bingo-Gate,” the NDP’s past misappropriation of charity funds. Like Social Credit Premier Bill Vander Zalm four years before him, Harcourt left the province’s top government job in disgrace.

Vancouver writer Daniel Gawthrop’s Highwire Act provides a thorough overview of Harcourt’s troubled tenure, a pragmatic search for compromise that disappointed some supporters of the left and infuriated the right. Highwire Act takes on some of the characteristics of its subject. The book is well written and amiable in a neighbourly sort of way but, in the final analysis, comes across as apologetic and unexciting.

Harcourt promised scandal-free government. Though he never reached the excesses of his predecessor, the headlines were ripe with trouble.

Gawthrop had exclusive access to Harcourt and an authorial Stockholm Syndrome seems to have taken over. The NDP’s environmental record and pro-union legislation are praised while the government-bashers are characterized as the vocal business minority. The author toes the party line on many issues. For example, NDP opponents blame the government for budgetary deficits continuing despite a booming economy; Gawthrop argues that rapid population growth and resulting increased infrastructure costs make the deficit issue more complex.

And despite Gawthrop’s access to insiders, revelations are few and far between. The book adds little to the public’s understanding of Harcourt, his personal life, and the backroom politics that led to his eventual resignation. In fact, the author relies heavily on past news coverage to fill in the blanks. For example, The Vancouver Sun’s excellent provincial affairs columnist Vaughn Palmer is cited more than a dozen times.

Despite his media sources, Gawthrop blames the press for much of the government’s rocky record, arguing that knives were out for Harcourt since day one. That may well be: the B.C. press is notoriously hard on its provincial leaders. But since Premier Glen Clark took over earlier this year, it’s become increasingly clear that the Liberal-leaning Harcourt never had the stomach for higher office. Clark’s swearing-in ceremony was overshadowed by the revelations that B.C. Hydro insiders may profit from a Cayman Islands business deal. Instead of a Harcourt fumble, Clark acted swiftly and the scandal died. Amiable Harcourt never had Clark’s street smarts, a failing that eventually cost him his job; unfortunately, Gawthrop never calls him on it.