Using Power Well

Using Power Well: Bob Williams and the Making of British Columbia - Bob Williams
with Benjamin Isitt and Thomas Bevan
Gibsons, B.C.: Nightwood Editions, 2022, 235pp.

Review by Francis K. Peddle
Henry George Foundation of Canada
August, 2023

From Super Minister in the Dave Barrett government of the early 1970s to writing a definitive critique of the British Columbian forestry industry in 2018, Bob Williams was at the epicenter of just about every aspect of the modern history of the province. Now with the publication of his autobiography we are able, from the insider’s perspective, to discern how power might be used well but also to reflect on a singular life well and fully lived. At the age of ninety Bob Williams gives us not only a political, economic, and cultural history of British Columbia, but more importantly serves up a veritable banquet of dos and don’ts for future power seekers and power brokers. Using Power Well is a must read for British Columbians and indeed for all Canadians.

This autobiography can be usefully divided into the years leading up to the election of the Dave Barrett government in 1972, his frenetic days as a “Super Minister” and “Super Bureaucrat” until the 1990s, his tenure at the Vancity Credit Union, and a concluding chapter on lessons learned, life’s travails, and a trenchant call for an urgent and desperate need for the widespread adoption of the economics of Henry George. Bob Williams did more than any living Canadian to put the economic philosophy of Henry George into specific practices. He did so without suffering any fools or without letting the pathologies of political life deter him from certain principles.

As I write this review of Using Power Well in the late summer of 2023, the federal Liberal government, at a retreat in Prince Edward Island, is grappling with the affordable housing crisis, now seen as its most threatening political liability. A report entitled A Multi-Sector Approach to Ending Canada’s Rental Housing Crisis is said to inform the terms of reference for the discussion. The Minister for Housing, Infrastructure, and Communities, Sean Fraser, has declared it could very well lead to the adoption of certain policies. Nowhere in this report is there a mention of skyrocketing land values, formidable problems with site select, the privatization of economic rent, or how the Income Tax Act itself has for generations contributed to the housing crisis in Canada. The Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, mentions Henry George in her book The Plutocrats but there is virtually nothing her government has done, or cajoled, to further this economic philosophy. If Bob Williams were Finance Minister we would be having conversations, and fights, that are far different from milksop discussions about increases in capital cost allowances or codes of ethics for developers. The whole design of Canada’s system of capital depreciation in the federal tax code is fundamentally flawed. It encourages the inflation of land values, thwarts and contorts the land market, and enriches those who reap where they do not sow. The recent Greenbelt scandal in Ontario is a very old game indeed. Land speculation and the unrelenting inflation of land values are the real enemies of greater housing equality.

Early Years

Bob Williams’ early life seems ordinary enough. Unlike the baby boomers, my generation, his childhood memories are of the Depression and the depredations of World War II. He remembers fond days growing up in the northeast part of Vancouver and its immediate suburb of North Burnaby. After a stint in Vernon, in the BC interior, when his father was stationed at the Army camp there during the war, the family moved back to Vancouver and was immediately plunged into the post-war housing crisis. By 1948 the family was living in Renfrew Heights, which was a veterans’ housing project at 3526 Dieppe Drive. In those days the federal government was heavily involved in settling veterans into adequate and affordable housing. There was a general consensus that if society treated housing as a basic human right, as laid out in Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in December, 1948, then such problems as poverty, inequality, and the overall health and happiness of the populace would be much easier to redress and to attain. It is worth noting that Canadian John Humphrey played a leading role, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, in drafting The Declaration. I live in the Carlington neighborhood of Ottawa, which is also a “veterans neighborhood” from the 1940s and 1950s. The quaint matchbox houses, rarely more than a 1000 square feet in size, in what is now a mature, leafy inner suburb, allowed for the raising of families in a stable environment, both financially and socially.

Williams enjoyed his school years. He learned the arts of rebellion and social activism at the Britannia Secondary School. He has nothing but good things to say about many of his teachers. He was especially close to Nana Chasteauneuf, his maternal grandmother. Spending summer days at “Nana’s Camp” on the North Shore of Burrard Inlet was a near heaven experience in his youth. Williams never knew his paternal grandfather, William Arthur Pritchard, because he was raised by his stepfather, David Williams. “Bill” Pritchard was active in union organizing in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1919 he was sent to the Winnipeg General Strike as the representative of the BC Federation of Labour. The strike was one of the most momentous events in Canadian labour history. Williams’ grandfather was arrested along with six other strike leaders for seditious conspiracy and spent a year in jail. Bill Pritchard choose not to be represented by a lawyer. His W. A. Pritchard’s Address to the Jury is a classic in the history of our labour movement. It is ironic, and somewhat tragic, that Williams’ economic and philosophical mentor, Henry George, was attacked vehemently and disingenuously that same year in The Manitoba Tax Report. This too, like the General Strike, was a watershed moment in Canadian history, which led to a century long tax régime that resembles a “surrealistic zigzag pagoda of pestilent greed” to invoke the words of Ferdinand Lundberg. Bill Pritchard eventually became a reeve of Burnaby and was active in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). His grandson may have been predestined to a life of contentious politics, but he did not know that until much later in the 1970s when power had been achieved and it was time to put his social and economic imagination to good use.

Williams went to work for Vancouver City Hall immediately after high school. Like most at that age, he was uncertain what he wanted to do for a career. He started out in the sewer department, did some clerking, and ended up as a draftsman. In later political speeches Williams liked to quip that “I didn’t start at the bottom. I started below the bottom, in the sewer department in this town.” An astute observer of power wielding by politicians Williams quickly became sensitive to the influence of property ownership and land values on the exercise of privilege. He dappled in forestry and economics as an undergraduate. These were important formative times and interests, especially for his later tenure as Minister of Lands, Forests, and Water Resources in the Barrett government and one of his most trusted advisors. Even as far back as the 1950s urban planning had become a respectable discipline in the university setting. A scholarship from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation allowed Williams to enrol in the two year masters program in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. There he met Mary Rawson, who was also enrolled in the planning program. She became a lifelong friend and business partner. It was Rawson who introduced Williams to the works of Henry George and to Mason Gaffney, who was a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee at the time. Much later Gaffney would play a key role in some of the tax and fiscal initiatives of the Barrett government. Rawson was also the catalyst behind getting Williams into politics.

In the subsequent years Williams joined the CCF. In 1964 he became the Alderman for Vancouver East, an office he held for two years. For him the best part of the experience “was learning how to build coalitions with unlikely players” (71). The politics of municipal planning decisions are very rough and visceral. They were so as much in the 1960s as they are today. Urban planners are generally more sympathetic to the Georgist philosophy than most professional groups. They are very informed on the regulations governing land use and development. And they know very well how high land values and various forms of land monopoly interfere with sensible planning. The more economically informed planners, like Williams, also know that the public capture of community created land values would loosen up the land markets and make the life of urban planners infinitely easier.

In 1966 Williams was elected to the BC legislature as a member of the NDP caucus for Vancouver East. Other notable members of the caucus were Bob Strachan, Tom Berger, Bill Hartley, and Dave Barrett. They all had six cruelling years in opposition to W.A.C. Bennett’s government, which reigned supreme in BC in the 1960s. “WACy” Bennett was, however, very much a throwback to a bygone era. The freewheeling days of the 1960s made the government of the day seem more and more out of touch and increasingly comical. When Bennett called Dave Barrett a Marxist the response was “Which one? Groucho, Harpo, or Chico?” (102). The die was cast and Dave Barrett was elected premier in 1972. Williams quickly became a Super Minister advising Barrett on every aspect of government and omnipresent on just about every committee.

Political Baptism

Chapters 6 through 9: “Taking Power,” “Super Minister,” “Achievements: 1972 - 1975, and “Bypassing Bureaucracy” are the most riveting in Using Power Well. They should be assigned reading in every political science class in BC as well as throughout Canada. At the beginning of “Bypassing Bureaucracy” Williams lists nineteen significant achievements during the Barrett government’s short three years in power. To mention only a few:

- social housing on an unequalled scale;
- the Agriculture Land Reserve;
- the establishment of BC’s first major Indigenous-owned resource corporation;
- enormous expansion of public transit to the suburbs;
- establishment of various task forces and a royal commission on forestry.

Andrew Petter, past-president of Simon Fraser University, captured well the tortured politics of the Agriculture Land Reserve in an article a decade after the fall of the Barrett government entitled, “Sausage Making in British Columbia’s NDP Government: The Creation of the Land Commission Act, August 1972 - April, 1973" (BC Studies, No. 65, Spring, 1985). See also Petter’s “Background Paper on Robert Williams.” The creation of the Agricultural Land Commission, with celebrated municipal lawyer Bill Lane as its first chair, and Mary Rawson as one of its commissioners, was a core initiative. Many imaginative ideas were floated by Williams in order to keep or expand Crown ownership of vital land resources. Residents of BC owe Williams considerable gratitude for some of the most magnificent parks in the province such as the Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park in the Okanagan.

For this writer there are two things that stand out the most during these frenetic years. Indirectly, they are things that today most affect the fiscal fabric of Canada and its myriad of problems in housing, poverty, inequality, transportation, and ecology. Williams recruited Mason Gaffney, the most respected land and resource economist of the day, to head an institute at the University of Victoria to conduct research on the resource sector. The well known conservative think tank, the Fraser Institute, was set up by a vice-president of the Macmillan Bloedel forest company as a direct response to the UVic operation run by Gaffney. With his great knowledge of the forest industry Williams was aware more than most that the lack of proper settlement in B.C. was wholly attributable to the great power of the forest companies with their unrelenting rent-seeking and systemic avoidance of paying any taxes on their unearned riches (217 - 218). In Mason Gaffney he had an economic advisor who was the world’s foremost Sherlock Holmes when it came to sniffing out economic rent and the many overt and covert ways in which it is privatized. Many years later Gaffney published “The Hidden Taxable Capacity of Land : Enough and to Spare,” International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2009. This is the primary treatise for a research agenda on land and other natural resources that was originally cultivated by Williams and Gaffney back in the 1970s.

The second most important thing that Williams did with respect to accurately identifying the amount of economic rent in B.C. was in the area of assessment reform. He was instrumental in making the BC Assessment Authority the premier and highest ranked operation of its kind in North America. Williams rightly and proudly cites this status in Using Power Well. The separation of land and building values on all assessments for property tax purposes is crucial for lowering taxation on productive activity involving labour and capital and recapturing the underlying societally created land values for public purposes. Many other provinces in Canada fall far beyond BC when it comes to their assessment databases and the lack of economic intelligence around land values. Of course, it is in the interests of privilege-holders to keep this knowledge hidden from view and disguise what is really going on. Williams was very proud of what he accomplished at the BC Assessment Authority. In a speech to the Conference for Union of Russian Mayors, in Moscow on April 29, 1993, he demonstrated to the audience the centrality of the accurate assessment of land and building values for tax reform. Williams told me that after the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015 he came to recognize that the missed opportunity of turning Russia into a model Georgist economy in the 1990s was one of the great tragedies of human history. He discusses his endeavors in Russia during the heady days of the 1990s in the chapter 11 “Super Bureaucrat” (186 - 189). The world is now living the horror of an oligarchic dictatorship slaughtering the innocents of a neighbouring nation.

Chapter 12 “Banking for the People” reminisces on Williams’ years as chair of the Vancity Credit Union. During this time as a Director of Vancity he cultivated a multi-year exchange program in co-operative economics in Bologna-centred region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Williams always saw Vancity’s strength as a regional player with an emphasis on decentralized approaches. Williams took Vancity from a near bankrupt organization in the 1980s to an entity with $20 billion in assets that includes among other endeavours a regional development corporation, a community foundation, an ethical growth fund, and the Vancity Capital Corporation.

With the election of the Mike Harcourt government in 1991, Williams was appointed to head up the Crown corporations secretariat. He was also a deputy minister and secretary of the cabinet committee on Crown corporations. He states that one of his proudest achievements in this role was the creation of the Columbian Basin Trust (183). He viewed the giveaway of the Kootenay River dam sites to Cominco as a fundamental violation of the government’s obligation to protect public assets. In 1998 he was appointed by the Glen Clark government to serve as chair of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. How he managed to do all of this and still be a publican, running the well known Railway Club at 579 Dunsmuir St. In Vancouver, is a sight to behold.

Ethical Economics

An overarching theme of this autobiography is that there can be no divide between ethics and economics. Economic-decision making, at the level Williams was involved during his public life, requires imagination, tolerance, tenacity, and a broad cultural perspective. But most of all it cannot lead to the wise exercise of political power unless there is a moral “ought” at its very core. For Williams that core lies in the unhesitating protection of public assets and resources. Henry George in Progress and Poverty (1879) made the most powerful case for that principle in modern economic history. His was a philosophy of reconciliation on many different levels. Instead of an economics of trade-offs, we are presented with a system of public finance where equity and efficiency mutually reinforce each other, where urban planning is not stymied by urban land markets, and where the conflict between capital and labour is greatly reduced. This ethical backdrop and these reconciliations can be detected in every decision Williams made while in public service. Ethical economics must be the mainstay of ethical politics.

This ethic of the unreserved protection of public-owned resources comes through clearly in Williams’ Restoring Forestry in BC (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2018). He bemoans the incredible decline in the gathering of information about the state of forestry in BC. It should be remembered that 94 per cent of the province is Crown land. He calls for a Forestry Charter to protect and preserve the province’s greatest public resource. He advocates for a forester general, who would be an officer of the legislature and who would report to the House annually. Williams is attempting to navigate between “the status quo, which really represents liquidation and rent theft, and their main opponents, the total preservationists” (25). This is a reconciliatory policy of both free and community enterprise largely located in the regions with the stewardship and monitoring of the forests undertaken as public-sector functions. A co-operative business structure would coordinate the various regional enterprises and interests.

Lessons for Power Brokers

Autobiographies are by definition retrospectives. Lessons learned for future generations are necessary to elevate them above mere idiosyncratic personal histories. The final chapter of Using Power Well presents us with insightful observations on how political power ought to be exercised. Empowering local people and communities is only possible if unjust possessions are righted. A good example would be the historic land grants to Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway on Vancouver Island which squeezed the Cowichan First Nation into the tiniest communities on the island. This is where Henry George, Williams, and redressing historic wrongs go hand in hand. Land reallocation through land value taxation leads to just land reform. This is the great challenge that Williams foresees, “Diversity and a greater love and respect for the land would prevail to benefit us all” (214).

Williams finishes Using Power Well with some acerbic comments on the private extraction of economic rent. In one memorable sentence he declares that “It is now the resident area for the great economic freeloaders in our society” (221). It is clear that he sees our future as mostly determined by how we deal with this issue, the not so sleeping elephant in the room. Politicians will be forever hoisted on their own petard unless they confront the rent extraction problem head on. Williams cautions politicians to maintain a healthy scepticism about institutions and the inertia that often intransigently settles into their processes. He admonishes us to be aware that “leaked information and sabotage” are the greatest weapons in the bureaucratic arsenal (223). Williams is an inveterate anti-institutionalist and applies his critical acumen to both government functionaries and the captains of industry. Economic democracy is not possible without the retention of economic rent for the common good. Bob Williams spent his life in that quest and we can only concur in his self-assessment that he used power well.