Clark's staff shuffle reflects need to keep anti-NDP coalition intact

The Daily Twigg Vol. 1 No. 6  Jan. 13, 2012

 

Clark's staff shuffle reflects need to keep anti-NDP coalition intact

Tory import Boessenkool must overcome a growing series of Liberal policy blunders

By John Twigg

The metaphor about cabinet shuffles being like "shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic" has been overused in politics and journalism but somehow it still seems to fit well on the tough situation facing the B.C. Liberal Party government now nominally headed by Premier Christy Clark.

Increasingly it is looking like Ms Clark and her many holdovers from the Campbell Liberals regime will be going down to an ignominious defeat in the next provincial election in May 2013, probably starting with dismal showings in two byelections expected to be called in coming weeks.

As we've pointed out here before, indeed in the first issue of my revived newsletters business, the problem is not merely the massive mound of garbage left behind by former premier Gordon Campbell but increasingly on top of that it is Clark and her cabinet and advisers who have been bungling issue after issue after issue, to the point that grumblings and biting critiques have moved from being only in a few top blogs like those of Alex Tsakumis, Bill Tieleman and others into the mainstream media columns of Mike Smyth, Vaughn Palmer and increasingly numerous others, with lots more echoes on open line shows.

The latest big bungle by the Clark CampLibs has come on what to do about the Harmonized Sales Tax, in which they are now widely seen to have done a very poor job of protecting and advancing B.C. public interests in negotiations to phase it out. When Finance Minister Kevin Falcon on Wednesday announced a concession from the federal government to not charge interest on B.C.'s repayment of the $1.6-billion signing bonus (required sooner or later after a referendum axed the tax), he claimed that was good news worth about $100 million in saved interest but critics quickly countered that amounts from half to 60 or even 100% of that $1.6 billion should have been forgiven, deferred or in other ways avoided through deft negotiations. (Further details about possible policy alternatives that could still achieve that will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Daily Twigg.)

Clark Liberals take $1.5-billion loss now to shield pre-election budget

But what did Christy Clark's team do, led by the supposedly hard-nosed Falcon? They accepted a bad deal too early in the process and really only made the whole thing even worse, apparently in a rush to get something done in writing in time for "booking" the whole hit in the 2011-12 fiscal year in the new budget to be introduced on Feb. 21. And what a travesty that is: in order to make it more possible for them to artificially show a balanced budget for the 2013-14 year on the eve of the provincial election they are willing to waste about $1.5 billion in 2011-12. The mind boggles at the perverseness of the politics.

That followed two more bungles on Tuesday when Falcon made a high-profile appearance at the Vancouver Board of Trade, and several other blunders and backfires on moves announced through the week by Clark after she returned from a holiday in Hawaii.

Most notable, and related to the HST problem, was Falcon's appointment of an Expert Panel on Tax to advise on what could and should be done about removing the HST and replacing it with the PST but also regarding several other specific aspects of business tax policy. That too sounded like a good idea but soon critics noticed that the panel was relatively small and business-focussed, that its chair - Sarah Morgan-Silvester - is Chancellor of the University of B.C. and thus a sort of employee of the Province, that its timetable is brief (to report by August) and that its mandate is in some ways quite limited. So what could have been a creative solution instead will more likely be a quickie process to find appeasements for the business interests who provide the bulk of the B.C. Liberal Party's campaign funds in the run-up to election campaigns.

To put it simply, the Liberals are not trying to find popular long-term solutions, they mainly want a few quick fixes to help give them a chance at re-election, however improbable that may now seem to be.

At the same venue Falcon also announced the launch of a "mybcbudget" website in which citizens could play a game of choosing which tax and fiscal changes to make in order to produce a balanced budget in 2013-14, which is more than a year hence but also when the Liberals' ridiculous balanced budget legislation ostensibly requires a balanced budget even though present plans suggest there'll be a deficit of about $500 million. Role players can solve that simply by slashing all government spending by two per cent, which shows how overly simplistic the game is and which soon exposed the website to some much-deserved ridicule: it's just another phoney ruse that apparently was developed not by the Ministry of Finance but by the more partisan Public Affairs Bureau. As Sun columnist Craig McInnes noted Thursday, "the choices offered are too broad-brush to be of any use in a real-world scenario."

Perhaps one merit of that website game is that it demonstrates anew how the B.C. Liberal governments are only too willing to waste taxpayers' money on silly propaganda ploys even at a time when money is tight for much more pressing problems; it usefully suggests that they are getting desperate and so are trying more and more foolish PR ploys.

Clark herself joined that trend when she travelled to Port Moody (her former home riding and site of an impending byelection) to help announce a reversal of some contentious cuts to community gaming grants, which at first looked pretty good in the government's news release on Wednesday but which soon turned out to have been just another sham. Some good steps were taken, such as restoring eligibility for grants to certain types of groups (e.g. adult cultural) and promising to discuss shifting to multi-year awards, but a $23-million boost in annual funding left the total still $21 million short of the $156 million that had been in place for many years until it was slashed by money-mad Campbell, meaning more groups will be fighting for fewer dollars.

Those cuts were called a mistake by both Clark and Falcon (because those grants were enabling a plethora of useful activities) but tellingly they still failed to fully restore the funds. As Sun columnist Pete McMartin noted, they were greedy to keep what had become a government cash cow and were willing to use "bafflegab" to try to hide the fact that the government had been "looting" the system.

Interestingly Clark defended the merely partial restoration of that funding by noting "money is tight" and that it had been hard to find even $20 million but that too is a joke when you consider the even larger sums the province has been paying out for severances, legal fees, settlements and other costs in several contentious court cases, some of them stemming directly from corruption in the Campbell era.

That is especially the case regarding Legal Aid, another example where the government had been absconding with cash from a dedicated source, namely that about $50 million or more was diverted from the Legal Services Tax into general revenues, causing duty lawyers and others to withdraw services or in other ways protest the mismanagement, underfunding, understaffing and crowding in the much-too-dysfunctional court system.

Those examples all followed revelations that the Clark CampLibs also had been botching the Enbridge or Northern Gateway pipeline issue, in which people began noticing as hearings began in Kitimat that the B.C. government had gained very few if any concessions from the pipeline proponents to help improve the benefits for the province, such as minimal jobs at the Kitimat terminus, no details for employment training programs for local people, no per-barrel surcharge for an environmental protection and cleanup fund or for off-oil initiatives, only abstract equity arrangements with about half of the First Nations and native bands along the route and only vague assurances about oil tanker safety. Indeed the vast majority of input jobs would be in Alberta and Ontario.

Ms Clark ostensibly has an aggressive jobs strategy but on what is proposed to be one of the largest capital projects in Canadian history she has been keeping quiet, apparently for strategic political reasons. Better to say nothing than say something wrong or dumb? Perhaps the answer is she has already become so much of a puppet of her handlers that she can no longer think for herself and instead spouts whatever the issues management experts tell her would be the best thing to say for re-election positioning purposes. (Note for example that that website budget game is aimed at the pre-election budget and not the one coming next month for the next fiscal year.)

And while we're here, what is with their rush on the budget tabling? The fiscal year runs to March 31 so why should we rush to table a budget in February when before Campbell's time it usually was done in mid-March? That's another small but telling example of how the Clark regime has been merely re-using most of Campbell's leftovers even when they're soiled and rotten.

Clark shuffles senior staff to import Tory business clout

To try to break out of that trend Clark yesterday announced a notable shuffle of senior advisers in her own office, moving longtime federal Conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool in as her new Chief of Staff effective Feb. 15 (which is the day after the Legislature resumes sitting) to be responsible for operations including management of the cabinet process and personnel.

Clark's news release seemed to emphasize Boessenkool's "extensive public affairs and communications experience in government, non-profit and corporate sectors" and especially his having served as "a senior policy advisor and strategist to Prime Minister Stephen Harper" but it couldn't avoid noting that he has extensive roots in Alberta but few in B.C. though he reportedly was a player in Clark's leadership campaign.

"Mr. Boessenkool is currently a public policy consultant and an Executive Fellow at the University of Calgary .... has led an Alberta-based consulting practice , and was senior economist in the regulatory departments of two major utilities. He also served as a policy advisor to two finance ministers in Alberta, ... has been an adjunct research fellow as well as a policy analyst with the Toronto-based C.D. Howe Institute and has taught Canadian public finance in the economics department at the University of Calgary," the release said.

In other words he is a business-savvy heavyweight with presumably good connections inside the Harper regime in Ottawa, which are two key traits that have been obviously lacking around Clark.

Another source indicates Boessenkool also is well-acquainted with Patrick Kinsella, the powerful Vancouver-based consultant and sometime lobbyist who has been a close advisor to every non-NDP Premier since 1975, especially with Campbell and apparently now too with Clark. (He also was profiled in a recent article in the Globe and Mail.)

The changes also see former chief Mike McDonald, a lifetime red Liberal, shifting to a new post as Principal Secretary responsible for strategic planning on policy and communications, and liaising with the Government Caucus, which befits his long associations with Clark's political career.

As well, it noted Dimitri Pantazopoulos - another ex Tory - will continue as a senior advisor to the Premier, continuing his focus on federal-provincial relations, trade, and policy development.

Blogger sees Liberal bagmen considering ousting Premier

The gist of McDonald's impending departure was reported by blogger Alex Tsakumis on Jan. 6, who also revealed that "some prominent party bagmen are extremely nervous" about the downward trends of both Clark and the party in opinion polls and were planning a meeting to try to gently push her out, the colorful words of why from one of his sources I'll leave for surfers to find and read for themselves.

"There are now louder voices in caucus talking about defecting or sitting as independents and the calls for her replacement or removal are significantly more audible and in more public circles," wrote Tsakumis on a blog that is one of the most-visited in the province.

"Ms. Clark truly doesn’t understand her role as Premier and the longer she stays, the greater the disgrace and the swifter the degradation of the office she tenuously holds," he concluded, after numerous other harsh criticisms of her performance.

So adding that to what else we know suggests that Clark came back from Hawaii and realized she had to make some major changes to try to turn up her momentum and that meant increasing her Conservative connections both to improve access to the Harper federal regime and to try to back out of the inroads being made recently by the B.C. Conservative Party led by new leader John Cummins.

Cummins however was quick to prick Clark's balloon by noting that he has been busy signing up British Columbians rather than Albertans.

"Premier Clark has appointed an Albertan super-lobbyist as her chief of staff," said Cummins. "Ken Boessenkool has lobbied for some of the biggest companies in Canada including the Bank of Nova Scotia, Cameco and GlaxoSmithKline."
 
"Instead of focusing on the economy, she is shuffling the deck chairs of the Titanic. In 2012 British Columbians are facing the worst unemployment rate in the West, higher MSP, ICBC and Hydro rates, the highest tax bill for average families west of Quebec, and the highest gas taxes in Canada. Today is further proof that the only people getting ahead in Liberal B.C. are lobbyists, cronies and insiders."

Interestingly a poignant capsule comment of Clark's predicament is seen in a pathetic little statement her office issued yesterday explaining why she wasn't with Prime Minister Harper when he was visiting Seaspan in North Vancouver to announce that contract negotiations have been completed to enable Seaspan to begin work on seven ships in a contract worth $8 billion - and on which Clark had previously tried to take some credit, mostly wrongly.

"I am delighted that Prime Minister Harper will visit British Columbia today for an official signing of the Seaspan contract," she said, obliquely admitting that she didn't know he was coming and that apparently she had been deliberately not invited.

"The awarding of this contract to a British Columbia firm represents a major step forward in implementing Canada Starts Here: The B.C. Jobs Plan. This contract is a great example of a fair and transparent federal procurement process, and an even better example of British Columbia's business rising to the challenge of a major competition.

"I am travelling in northern British Columbia today and not able to join the Prime Minister at the signing. But I send my best wishes to everyone in attendance, and I look forward to many years of productive work ahead," she said, not mentioning that she was at a jobs and economic development forum in Prince George, which could be the scene of some key swing ridings in the next election.

While it's true that Clark stepped up lobbying efforts for Seaspan to get major awards after the government in Campbell's last months had been neglecting to do so, and that it was Clark's decision to show support by launching some new training programs at community colleges aimed at shipwrights before the selections were made, the reality is that the decisions were made in Ottawa based mainly on merit, and for Clark to grandstand at Seaspan on announcement day was really a cheezy theft of Harper's limelight, and so when he came to North Van she was nowhere in sight - which speaks more volumes about how Clark's fortunes are sinking more than soaring.

One expects she will take a bit more of a provincial-rights approach when she hosts a Council of the Federation meeting in Victoria on Feb. 16 but that too illustrates how Clark is increasingly squeezed: on one hand she has to pander to Tories to try to keep her shaky coalition together but on the other hand she needs to be seen sticking up for B.C.'s rights in order to bolster her popularity.

Maybe Clark can pull that off, and there are still two budgets and about 15 months before she has to face the voters - if she lasts that long! But one gets the feeling that her ship has sailed and its name is Titanic.

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John Twigg can be contacted at: john@johntwigg.com