UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The 1986 election of W.N. Vander Zalm as leader of the B.C. Social Credit party McCarthy, William P.J.


This thesis is a review and analysis of the selection of William N. Vander Zalm as the third leader of the British Columbia Social Credit party on July 30, 1986. It examines in detail the events and circumstances which allowed the last candidate to enter the most contested leadership race in Canadian history to win the convention. This thesis incorporates an overview of the British Columbia Social Credit party, its traditions, leaders, and criteria for selecting its leaders. The sixty-nine day campaign is chronicled and the other eleven candidates and their campaigns are examined. In addition to reviewing the public and private record on these matters, several interviews were conducted. This thesis also benefits greatly from the analysis and articles on the Social Credit leadership contests produced by the University of British Columbia’s Political Science department. Personal observations are also incorporated into this paper, as the writer was a voting delegate. (I have been a Social Credit party member since 1981. At the leadership convention I supported Vander Zalm on all four ballots. While I readily acknowledge my political biases, I nevertheless have endeavoured to write a balanced academic account of this event). The Vander Zalm victory contradicts much of the conventional wisdom on the organization and conduct of successful leadership campaigns. The Vander Zalm campaign effort was poorly organized with no real strategic planning. The campaign finances were modest. The candidate had little caucus support and no endorsements from the party elites. Furthermore, the candidate did not enter the contest until it was half over and eleven other candidates were already in the race. How then did he win? In this thesis, I argue that the Vander Zalm victory was the result of four factors, all linked and all essential to his success. First, Vander Zalm himself offered a populist style and persona many delegates found attractive. Second, the party’s antiquated constitution provided only one delegate category, those selected directly by the membership. This not only prevented manipulation or control of delegate categories (as seen in other party contests), but ensured that several long-time party activists who were predisposed to the Vander Zalm candidacy would emerge as delegates. Third, Vander Zalm’s candidacy was boosted greatly by polls during the campaign showing him to be the party’s best hope to lead them to victory in the upcoming provincial election. And finally, many delegates saw a vote for Vander Zalm as a means to repudiate the modernization and isolation of the party and government seen during the last years of outgoing Premier W.R. Bennett, and return the party to its populist origins.

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