“It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play” sang the Beatles so many years ago. That refrain sprang to mind when I was reminded Monday that “20 years ago today, Michael de Jong was first elected MLA.”
Coincidental perhaps, the rhyming of those two phrases, and while the Beatles certainly soared to great heights, they lasted as a band for only 10 years. Michael de Jong’s career as a provincial representative for the various iterations of West Abbotsford began on Feb. 17, 1994 when he dashed the Social Credit Party’s hopes for revival and ended the 33-year political career of Grace McCarthy.
Not that the deciding factor on that fateful night was huge. As I recall, initial returns had Michael ahead by only 32 votes, then it rose to the mid-50s and finally in a judicial recount the winning margin was 66. Not bad for a virtually unknown 30-year-old with but a couple of years as a school trustee under his political belt before tackling the mighty warhorse McCarthy.
Despite the narrow victory, de Jong’s win was significant in that it heralded the rise of the BC Liberal Party. Gordon Campbell was also elected in a byelection on that night – his success strengthened by the fact he was running in an already established Liberal riding, the seat vacated for him by a previously elected member of the party.
In 1991, the Socreds were turfed in favour of the NDP, the Opposition seats filled by 17 MLAs from the upstart BC Liberals as a result of party leader Gordon Wilson pointing out during a televised leaders’ debate that the incessant bickering between Mike Harcourt and Rita Johnson was “why nothing ever gets done in British Columbia.”
That remark led him and 16 other unknowns into the Legislature.
However, it wasn’t too long before dissension grew among the ranks and Wilson, along with paramour Judy Tyabji, was deposed.
When Campbell took possession of his seat as Leader of the Opposition in 1994, he leaned on the fledgling MLA from Matsqui to help keep the NDP’s feet to the fire.
Quick of wit, sharp of tongue, it wasn’t long before de Jong became a media darling for his pitbull antics in the Legislature. I don’t think he necessarily ‘taught the band to play’, but he was certainly the conductor of Question Period.
After two years in Opposition, the 1996 provincial election was seen as the watershed moment for the BC Liberals. It wasn’t to be, and five more years on the other side of the house honed the debating skills of Michael, to the point that when the Liberals shattered the NDP in 2001 it was a given that he would be one of the party’s strongest and most effective cabinet ministers.
And so it went, first as Minister of Forests, then Labour and Citizen Services, Aboriginal, Attorney General, Solicitor General, Health (with perhaps one or two others I’ve forgotten) and now Minister of Finance. In fact, as I write this, he is standing the Legislature of British Columbia presenting a balanced provincial budget, one of only two across this great nation.
Not bad for a boy from Matsqui Prairie.
Sgt. Pepper would be proud.