The Fall and Rise of Adrian Dix

November 1, 2012

Of all the things they might have had an epic row about—and by the time they parted ways there were more than a few—Glen Clark figures the worst fight he ever had with Adrian Dix was over a baseball game. It was 1993 and Clark was minister of finance and minister responsible for Crown corporations, including B.C. Place. Dix was his precocious ministerial assistant, known around the legislature for a crackling intelligence and an exceedingly serious, almost geekish bearing.

As Clark recalls it, he came to the office one day to discover he’d been scheduled to throw out the first pitch at a Mariners game in Seattle the following afternoon. Dix had set it up. “I went nuts,” says Clark now, sitting in a booth at his favourite morning eatery, the White Spot on Southeast Marine Drive. At the time, Clark was involved in secret talks with “The Ms” about joining Vancouver and Portland as a newly constituted tri-cities Major League Baseball entry. The idea died quietly, mostly because the players’ union would have no part of it, but not before a trembling Clark walked out onto the Safeco diamond in front of 40,000 fans.

“The reason I was so mad at Adrian is because I wanted no part of the pressure,” Clark recalls. “It was just too much. And secondly, sporting events are usually not good for a politician. More often than not you get booed. Sometimes you really get booed. I remember going down for the game on a floatplane and I was just giving it to Adrian the whole time. I told him, ‘I can’t believe you did this to me.’ I was seriously pissed.”

Clark skipped Dix’s advice to practise a little ahead of time, and he even ignored a suggestion from a Mariners official to throw from a spot several feet closer to the plate, as dignitaries are wont to do. “I said, ‘Screw it. I’m just going to do it,’ ” Clark recalls. “I ended up throwing a perfect strike. I remember during the game one of the Seattle pitchers was having a tough time and someone yelled out, ‘Put the politician in there.’ ”

In the intervening two decades, Dix and Clark have gone on exceptional journeys. Dragged through the court of public opinion, they’ve rebuilt reputations and remain friends and colleagues, talking by phone every couple of weeks about life, sports, and, yes, politics. At one time, the thought of an NDP leader with dreams of becoming premier having Glen Clark as a confidant would have seemed preposterous—who’d be crazy enough to risk reputation by associating with a disgraced premier whose policies are associated with B.C.’s so-called Dismal Decade? But Dix, 48, makes no attempt to hide the fact he and Clark talk. Why would he? At the Jim Pattison Group, Clark has become one of the most successful businessmen in the province, and polls consistently suggest Dix will be our leader come the next election. Theirs is a redemption story for the ages.

Few might have foreseen this happy resolution back on that spring day in 1999 when Dix walked out of the west annex of the legislature, his place of work as Clark’s chief of staff, to announce that after three years’ service, he’d been fired. It was a dark time in the political history of the province. Clark himself was just a few months away from resigning because of a controversy involving an East Van neighbour who, it was alleged, traded renovations to Clark’s home in exchange for a successful casino application. Clark would eventually be cleared of criminal charges, although he was found to be in violation of the province’s conflict of interest laws. Dix, for his part, to insulate his boss from the whole mess, falsely backdated a memo with a stamp from the desk of his secretary—the way a used car dealer fudges the odometer for an unsuspecting buyer.

When the ploy went public, Clark fired Dix. He had to. By that fall, both careers were in ruin. The two started to look for work outside politics, though neither had any real experience. Clark, after finishing his master’s degree in community and regional planning at UBC, had done some union organizing, but he was an elected politician by age 28. Dix, after completing his political science degree at UBC, had became an aide to federal New Democrat Ian Waddell in Ottawa, then returned to become ministerial assistant to Clark in the finance ministry. He was all of 27.

In conversation today, Clark, 54, seems far removed from the cocky young politician I covered on his arrival in 1986. The gruelling hours have imposed evident strain: his once preternaturally youthful glow has disappeared (along with that moustache); he looks like someone who could use some sun. He is also less ideological and class driven, certainly more risk adverse, debatably more patient, and patently more useful, with his experience inside and outside politics, to Dix.

If his time away from government and his capitalist reconstruction have taught Clark anything, it’s the immense challenge the business world poses to the NDP. “There really are two solitudes,” Clark says. “There aren’t many supporters in the NDP of the business community and not many people in the business community that support the NDP. As a result the NDP gets more insular because they don’t talk enough to business, they’re not part of that world.”

So Clark finds himself in a unique position: as second-in-command to Jimmy Pattison, he’s continually questioned about the NDP and what Dix might do in government. He’s often astounded by the general lack of understanding about New Democrats. The impression many have of the party is a caricature, Clark insists; the biggest misconception, that the NDP is anti-free enterprise. So when someone asks him what Dix might do about some policy issue—say, private power projects—he doesn’t try and answer. He sends that person to can hear it straight from Dix’s mouth. For months Clark has been encouraging such meetings; as a result, Dix has been reaching out to the business community more than any NDP leader since Mike Harcourt. “I don’t expect any of these people will support Adrian in the end, but if they can understand and get some comfort from him about what he’s going to do then I believe he’ll be less threatening and it might lead to a less polarized province,” Clark says.

Dix acknowledges that Clark has been valuable in providing opportunities for him to allay some of the fear that abounds in the corporate world regarding the NDP’s possible return to government. “I think that the NDP pose a crisis for some people when there doesn’t need to be,” Dix says as a Canucks game rages on a big-screen TV in a Victoria area bar. “It creates a division without difference, and trying to break through that is very important. But look, B.C. needs investment and we’re living in an age when investment can move quickly based on a whiff of concern. So Glen has been helpful on this front, yes.”

Clark and Dix’s relationship is not something that should be discounted when it comes to divining future policy under an NDP government—especially policy that affects business. As president of a company with $7.3 billion in sales in 2011, Clark knows precisely what will hurt his organization’s bottom line and those of most other companies in the province. It seems unlikely that Dix would ignore a warning from a friend and mentor about a measure that would inflict undue harm on the business sector. Clark would be lobbying as hard as anyone to make sure such measures didn’t go ahead—a plea that would be hard for a Premier Dix to ignore.

If the NDP was guilty of anything during its decade in power, it was reach beyond grasp. Dix talks a lot now about how the previous NDP government felt compelled to pass hundreds of pieces of legislation, many of which weren’t wholly thought out. Social democratic governments are generally busy by nature; they want to be seen to be doing things to improve the world. (Yes, they’re often that utopian-minded.) Without a lot of money to throw around—Clark inherited a huge deficit from his predecessor, Mike Harcourt, and had promised to return the province to a balanced budget—activist administrations look to the regulatory side of government. It’s not as costly, and it creates the impression that they’re doing something. “But what happens is you end up with a lot of legislation that gets you into controversial stuff,” Clark says.

As an example he cites the NDP’s efforts to regulate groundwater in B.C. For safety reasons the scheme (subsequently abandoned) made perfect sense, except there were tens of thousands of wells on rural properties that seemed to be working just fine. Suddenly, the government was considering hiring a bunch of inspectors to go out and test the wells, then levying fees on those same well owners to pay for all the hires. “Now you have thousands of people living in rural areas who probably don’t have that much money and you’re going to impose a regulatory regime on their well water that they’ve had for 50 years without any problems,” he says. There wasn’t anything, it seemed in those years, that couldn’t use a little more red tape.

Dix agrees that attempting to do too much is a key problem he witnessed in his first stint in government. “It’s not whether something is progressive or where it sits on the political spectrum,” he says. “If you do too much, you don’t have the capacity to do it well. You have to decide what you’re going to do. We’re one province in a large open North American economy. There are limited options.” (This, by the way, is also what Clark says, almost word for word.)

Clark says Dix’s other concern is with government credibility. He cites the HST debate. The broad perception—that the Campbell government lied about bringing it in—damages the NDP as much as the Liberals: Dix believes that “anything that undermines government credibility hurts the legitimacy of any government that follows,” Clark says. “Especially a social democratic government that believes in government.” Which explains to him why Dix has so far refused to authorize personal attack ads to combat the ones the Liberals have been running. He believes negative ads erode government authority and integrity, and turn the public off politics. In order to win an election, a social democratic party needs people to be engaged. “Adrian’s view is people are tired and fed up with negative stuff and personal attacks,” says Clark. “And he may be right. I guess we’ll see.”

That Clark and Dix remain such good friends is, in some respects, remarkable given what they’ve been through. Their mutual admiration appears undiminished. “Glen has always been the same,” Dix says. “He’s always been incredibly optimistic, dynamic, and fun to be around. He’s a hard guy not to like.” Of Dix, Clark says: “It’s impossible come away from a meeting with Adrian and not think, ‘Wow, there’s one smart guy.’ He’s really passionate about doing good for people. That might sound trite and hokey, but it’s true. He’s been a loyal friend from the first day I met him.”

Loyalty. That bond was sorely tested the day Clark fired Dix over the memo-to-file fiasco. Neither man has discussed it publicly, certainly not in terms of what it did to their friendship. Or even what motivated Dix in the first place. He knew the Liberals would raise the issue as soon as he took over the leadership, and they did. And will again.

Dix talks about the events of the spring of 1999 with regret. “Anyone who knows Glen knows that the idea he would be even slightly interested in trading off government decisions against some sort of personal benefit is absurd,” he says. “I think Glen thought he could be ‘Premier Glen’ and ‘Glen From the Neighbourhood’ at the same time. You can sometimes be both, but not every day—people don’t view you the same way after you become premier. He found that out the hard way.”

As for the notorious memo, which recalled a meeting where Clark allegedly directed his staff to shield him from any decisions regarding a casino application from neighbour Dimitrios Pilarinos, Dix insists that “No one asked me to write it. What I did was just wrong. I never engage in moral relativism, never say that the things other people did were worse. It was wrong, it was wrong. I’m out there and I’ve admitted it and people will judge. But I’m not trying to hide my mistake.” But what was his motivation for writing and backdating the memo in the first place? Did he do it simply to protect his boss?

“It wasn’t a question of protection. Glen didn’t want to be involved in this whole thing. The discussion referred to in the famous memo-to-file happened, right. It happened. What was in the memo was correct, but backdating it was wrong. Not only wrong, it was stupid.”

He never does explain why he did it. In the days after his very public sacking, Dix had to face his friend back at the condo they shared. Little was said. The relationship remained strained for awhile, Clark says, and Dix admits that he was mad after losing his job. “Not a lot of people lose their job on the front page of the Vancouver Sun,” Dix says. “It’s hard. What happened was very hard.” But it passed. Soon, Dix was off doing his thing—he would eventually get a job as executive director of Canadian Parents for French, B.C.–

Yukon branch—and Clark would be putting out job feelers until Pattison hired him in 2001. There was also the small matter of the premier’s criminal trial.
If repeated opinion surveys are to be believed, the public seems prepared to give Adrian Dix a second chance. Meantime, many of those who once held Glen Clark in disdain marvel at what he has done post politics. Last year, Global TV did a three-part series on the relationship Clark has with Jimmy Pattison. The Odd Couple: The Premier and the Billionaire, as it was called, generated thousands of positive responses from viewers, according to Global.

As I wrapped up my conversation with Clark, he told me: “I think it’s important you don’t overstate my influence on Adrian. He’s really his own guy. I think Adrian will have a better chance of doing certain things—like saying no to people—than I ever did because he’s tough and focused and he knows that governing is not easy.”

For his part, Dix didn’t hesitate to say he turns to Clark for advice on a range of issues. When you’re in the day-to-day of politics you become consumed by small things and can lose sight of the bigger picture, he says. “So Glen has been very helpful in that regard. He’s a good sounding board.” Yet they have their differences. “I’m more the tortoise than the hare,” he says. “Especially in these times, I think that’s a good way to be.”

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