The B.C. legislature session ends this week. It can’t come quickly enough for Premier Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberals.
This is also the week we see the rest of the fallout from “ethnic-gate,” as the latest controversy over partisan activity by political staff has been clumsily labelled.
A disgruntled former B.C. Liberal caucus staffer handed the NDP opposition an internal memo setting out a strategy for ethnic “outreach” that strayed into forbidden territory, suggesting that ethnic-friendly government events could be staged and participants’ names collected and turned over to the party.
“This secret plan clearly demonstrates the Liberals are deliberately folding government resources and staff into their party’s campaign machinery, despite rules that forbid this,” thundered NDP house leader John Horgan. “We’ve seen this before, with the Liberals’ efforts to run a secret committee to subvert the public process around Burnaby Hospital, and in the attack website created by caucus staff and launched by the Liberal party.”
Casual observers might see this as a disturbing new development in misuse of public resources. It’s disturbing, all right, but it’s hardly new.
The “attack website” Horgan refers to is a case in point. While a website targeting NDP leader Adrian Dix was being cooked up in the B.C. Liberal bunker, a similar effort was being developed in NDP research down the hall. This partisan message detailed all the worthwhile things that could be done with the government’s $15 million advertising budget singing the praises of the government’s “jobs plan.”
But this one carried the logo of the NDP caucus, so it was within the rules. The average person, seeing two groups of staff on the public payroll, each slagging the other, might not detect much of a difference.
The biggest headline from the leaked memo was its reference to generating “quick wins” for the election campaign by staging apologies for historic racial injustices. It mentioned how former premier Gordon Campbell delivered a solemn apology in 2008 for the decision to turn away a ship carrying Sikh refugees from Vancouver harbour – shortly after the outbreak of the First World War.
What does a modern provincial premier accomplish by apologizing for a federal immigration decision made in 1915? Why would another premier now feel the need to apologize for a federal “head tax” imposed on Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923?
The answer is obvious.
Again, don’t expect much to change with an NDP government. Asked last week if he would stage an apology for the head tax, Dix delivered a well-rehearsed history lesson that made it clear he is anxious to do so.
Welcome to politics in an urbanized, globalized media culture. It’s more important to put on a show than to do the right thing. Hospitals are announced three times before they’re built, then announced again when they are staffed.
Politics is a lucrative career. Former B.C. Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt is one of the additional “outreach” staff hand-picked by Clark. The B.C. Liberals retort that the NDP caucus has a similar staffer named Gabriel Yiu, who has taken three leaves of absence to run for MLA, and is in practical terms a professional NDP candidate.
Yiu is running for a fourth time in Vancouver-Fraserview, having been defeated in 2009 by former West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed. That campaign was notorious for anonymous Chinese-language pamphlets claiming the NDP favours legalizing drugs and imposing a “death tax” on inheritance.
This latest scandal might produce meaningful reform. But the misuse of public money to further the interests of political parties is deeply entrenched.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com