Revolt against Basi-Virk payoffs was behind van Dongen's jump By John Twigg


The Daily Twigg  Vol.1 No. 33  March 28, 2012

B.C. Politics Trendwatch
In this issue:
1. The moves behind van Dongen's jump
2. New polls add to Premier Clark's woes
3. MLA Bob Simpson views feeding frenzy

Revolt against Basi-Virk payoffs was behind van Dongen's jump

By John Twigg

The sometimes frantic pace of B.C. politics seemed to take a bit of a breather yesterday as if everyone wanted to stand back and digest the earthquake from the day before when longtime B.C. Liberal MLA John van Dongen not only left that party but also instantly became the first sitting member of the upstart B.C. Conservative Party.

While lots of people had known for quite a while that van Dongen (Abbotsford-South) was amongst the most aggrieved Liberal backbenchers on the verge of leaving the Liberals in protest of Premier Christy Clark's evident mismanagement of numerous issues, very few if any other MLAs or any pundits knew he would take a second step into the Conservatives' ranks too. (I saw one suggestion that Independent MLA Vick Huntington knew it was coming, but no others.)

Clark sees Liberals as the only free-enterprise choice

Several versions of what had happened eked and leaked out about exactly what took place, including various versions from van Dongen, Conservative leader John Cummins, blogger Alex Tsakumis and other participants, and there were even more versions about what it all will mean and lead to going forward, and of course there was lots of misleading spin from Clark when she finally faced the media shortly after the noon newscasts yesterday to the effect that in her mind she's determined to keep the B.C. Liberal Party as the only practical way to preserve a free-enterprise coalition that can prevent the New Democratic Party from winning power in the 2013 provincial election (which sounds to me like a line coached into her by strategist Patrick Kinsella).

"The only thing that John van Dongen accomplished yesterday was making it a little easier for the NDP to get elected in British Columbia," Clark said, typically understating the gravity of her situation.

The gist of van Dongen's motives which I gathered from monitoring a lot of reports and making a few calls was that he had been quite upset about several issues going back a long time, especially when he stepped aside as Solicitor General over several speeding tickets he incurred in the run-up to the 2009 election and then afterwards being passed over for reinstatement by first former premier Gordon Campbell (whose drunk-driving conviction had not prevented him from remaining a minister) and then Clark, whose perhaps-more-than-peripheral involvement in the B.C. Rail scandals (yes, plural is cct) and other brushes with notoriety hadn't prevented her from winning the party leadership and succeeding Campbell in March 2011.

It was around then that van Dongen seemed to become fixated with several aspects of wrongdoing in and around the BC Rail corruption trial, especially with the now and still notorious settlement with former aides David Basi and Bob Virk, in which they admitted to corrupt practises in the bidding process for the sale of BC Rail but still got to keep their houses, avoid jail time and have their $6-million legal fees paid by the government even though it was against government policy to make such payments to guilty parties, and ostensibly that was because (in a version given again yesterday by Justice Minister Shirley Bond in Question Period) that the deputy minister to the Attorney General and the deputy minister of Finance decided upon the advice of officials - and unbeknownst to any politicians - that such a settlement would be in the public interest even though the timing made it look like a blatant partisan coverup of a scandal because it avoided a series of cabinet ministers beginning to testify about just what had gone on and maybe gone wrong in the troubled sale of BC Rail.

The whole deal still stinks, such as Campbell hiding the fact that the deal with Canadian National Railway, a company chaired by one of his main financial backers and lobbied for by his longtime strategy adviser Kinsella (who furthermore was working for three sides at once in the deal!), had several sweetheart provisions in it such as arguably a too-low price and certainly a too-long term of 990 years - making a supposed lease into a de facto sale - but especially galling to van Dongen was the sweetheart payoff to two junior Indo-Canadian guys to take the fall for everyone and do so on the taxpayers' tab.

Van Dongen planned showdown in caucus

Around then van Dongen began leading a revolt inside the Liberal caucus against Campbell, the existence of which was unknown to me until the last day or two, and apparently it wasn't known much by others either because when Campbell suddenly announced his resignation Nov. 3, 2010 a whole bunch of other issues and factors were blamed, especially the backlash against the Harmonized Sales Tax [which Campbell had brought in to try to hide the fact that he had lied about the size of the government's deficit in the 2009 election campaign] but also Campbell's abysmal plunge in opinion polls [he became the most unpopular first minister in the history of North American polling], and his audacious massive restructuring of the resource ministries to shortcut their project approval processes which furthermore had been planned in so much secrecy by Campbell and two deputy ministers that even the ministers involved were surprised by it and then there was a sudden shuffling of ministers too (which again omitted van Dongen).

But what the news of the day did not reveal was that van Dongen was livid at the deal given to Basi and Virk, which happened on Oct. 18, 2010, and which van Dongen was going to mount a showdown about in a caucus meeting just before the B.C. Liberal Party's then imminent convention in Penticton. But it never happened because Campbell announced his resignation shortly beforehand, albeit he clung to office until mid-March 2011, which was just long enough to vault him one spot into fourth place on the all-time longevity list of B.C. Premiers.

So van Dongen patiently waited until the leadership contest was determined, and even though he was openly disappointed and troubled by the selection of Clark (which apparently involved some questionable bulk signups of Indo-Canadians) he patiently gave her a year to act upon his concerns about the B.C. Rail process, which by then apparently included some comments about it that Clark had allegedly made during the leadership contest which van Dongen now says were inconsistent. And when Clark's one-year anniversary arrived and nothing had been done about it he issued an ultimatum and when it apparently was not acted upon he took the advice of a third party - possibly Tsakumis, based on hints dropped in his blog - who arranged a meeting with Cummins, and a week or so later the jump was made in public.

Van Dongen and Cummins of course had known each other somewhat for many years, both being from the Fraser Valley and both having been involved in the fishing industry (van Dongen was the provincial minister when Cummins was an activist Reform-Alliance MP and active fisher) but they apparently had not talked policy and strategy about such a move beforehand (which is plausible given the shock it caused).

When they did meet they quickly found they had lots of mutual interests, and lots of policy agreements, namely small-c fiscal conservatism, safe streets and a desire to give B.C. voters a viable free-enterprise alternative to both the corrupt Liberals and the socialist New Democrats. And so a simple deal was done and van Dongen would henceforth sit in the House as the revived party's first MLA, though technically he is an Independent without party status in the House (because party status requires four or more MLAs) plus he and his status would be enormously helpful in the Chilliwack byelection on April 19 (where the Conservatives have a good candidate in criminologist/pundit John Martin).

Several and various Liberal Party players tried to besmirch van Dongen's character, noting he has been in an evolving relationship for four years with his constituency assistant Sherri Wacker with whom he is engaged while a divorce is pending from his first wife, and suggestions he had become mentally unstable, but the vast majority of people in his riding supported the move, and Cummins explained away the impracticality of his party's previous policy of requiring party jumpers to first resign and then win a byelection because a possible six-month delay and the looming election made that silly, not to mention that there was no great ideological reversal involved.

Van Dongen retains lawyer McConchie

Van Dongen did cite several other issues of concern that influenced his decision, including that the last straw was the Clark cabinet's ever-changing explanations of what exactly had gone awry in the B.C. Place naming rights deal, and Clark's bungling management style in general, but the original thorn was the special payoffs to Basi and Virk and other related matters - an item so irritating to him that he has personally retained prominent lawyer Roger McConchie to pursue details about it - an activity also being pursued by the Auditor General through the courts, though Minister Bond claimed the government has been cooperating on providing documents so the much-called-for public inquiry is not necessary, she and Clark claim.

"We'll be working on a number of fronts to get to the bottom of the legal fees deal and other specific issues that I think are relevant to the people of British Columbia," he was quoted as saying by the Vancouver Sun, in particular statements Clark made to the media in January and February of 2011, and what her relationships were with lobbyist Erik Bornmann and others involved in the matter.

"There are no unanswered questions about BC Rail," Clark (again wearing a blue blouse) told the press gallery pack on Tuesday, but that of course is another gross misrepresentation, especially when Tsakumis has published allegations that RCMP had been investigating her role in the affair and which may even have included her leaking some of the documents in question when she was Campbell's deputy premier.

Anyway, the facts are that van Dongen won his seat last time with 59% of the vote, his fourth consecutive win, and almost everyone who has worked with him has been impressed by his dedication and integrity, including as a successful dairy farmer, a director at Dairyland, a church elder and as an MLA, so while the Liberals and even some New Democrats might like to tear him apart it won't be easy to do, and he does plan to seek re-election next year.

"I'm comfortable I made the right decision," he said. "I put my views out there and now I'm moving forward." And yesterday that meant moving files into his new office, doing more media and not participating in recorded votes and not seeking a spot in Question Period - but those will come soon enough, and NDP House Leader John Horgan quickly indicated he will give consideration to van Dongen's requests for time in the same way he now does for Independent MLAs Huntington and Bob Simpson.

So suddenly and once again there is a whole new paradigm in B.C. politics and what was previously a mainly two-way race is now suddenly a real three-way contest whether Premier Clark likes it or not, and clearly she does not.

New polls add to Premier Clark's woes

By John Twigg

As if B.C. Premier Christy Clark didn't have enough problems already, her struggles to keep her regime together were compounded Tuesday by two new opinion polls casting doubt on her waning clout.

A new poll from Vancouver-based Mustel Group, which hadn't published anything for quite a while, came out confirming that the New Democrats were solidly in the lead with 42% of the decided popular vote while the B.C. Liberals were lagging at 34%, the B.C. Conservatives were more than a flash in the pan at 17% and the Greens were a bit weak at only 6%. The undecideds were at 17%, perhaps a bit low for a mid-term snapshot.

That result was widely reported in the mainstream media even though it was with a relatively small sample of only 518 respondents with a margin of error of 4.3% 95% of the time, which is a bit high, and it was done by direct phone calls over a long period (March 5 to 19), suggesting it may have been a bit stale.

Still it came with a nice-looking graph ( ), its methodology was consistent, its interpretations were plausible and its findings generally fit well with what other larger polls have found recently.

The mainstream media also made much of an Angus Reid national poll of provinces' satisfactions with their leaders, in which Clark's again fell sharply to only 33% approval while her disapproval jumped 52% which the pollster noted made her the second most unpopular Premier in Canada, behind only Quebec's Jean Charest.

Clark tried to minimize the damage by claiming "Poll numbers sometimes are vastly different" but that was just another one of her typical misrepresentations because lately and historically most polls have been finding similar trends, especially if they are compared to previous results from the same pollster but less so when compared to each other.

B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix meanwhile had an approval of 47% and a disapproval of only 37% which are consistent with other polls' findings that he has recently passed Clark in B.C.'s ready-to-govern or best-to-be-Premier contest, and that furthermore was helpful timing because it tending to help blunt news stories about Dix recently having been caught using SkyTrain without a ticket, which he claims he had lost.

Polling critic Bernard von Schulman quickly published an analysis of the new data and other recent polls ( ) and concluded there is agreement that the New Democrats are over 40% but there is disagreement over whether the Liberals and Conservatives are more or less tied or whether the Liberals still have a large lead over the Conservatives, with some of the differences possibly due to different methodologies. (And I would add that some pollsters seem to favour Liberals more than Tories.)

My own view is that the relatively large Forum polls and the relatively insightful Angus Reid polls are both quite accurate, namely with the NDP in a large lead and the Liberals and Conservatives now more or less tied, but it is more or less academic because the byelections on April 19 will provide new benchmarks and then the countdown to the May 14, 2013 provincial election could make the outcome unpredictable, especially if Clark has some success with her apparent strategy which is to deliver a whole lot of job creation in the months and weeks before the vote.

It also should be noted that while critics such as myself and Tsakumis as well as Vaughn Palmer and Mike Smyth have often been harshly critical of Clark's numerous mistakes, it remains a fact that she has still done a few good things too, such as launching a much-needed review of the dysfunctional justice system (albeit with some questions about time and process), a review of business taxes and has been making a serious push to get developments happening, such as the recent approval of the contentious Jumbo Glacier project near Invermere.

I won't predict that Clark will still be Premier by the time the 2013 election rolls around, especially because Finance Minister Kevin Falcon probably would do a better job of managing the government, but I will predict that the B.C. Liberals will still have a full slate of candidates and they'll still win lots of their stronghold seats.

On the other hand the Georgia Straight had this interesting comment from University of the Fraser Valley political scientist Hamish Telford: “I think the problem here is that a feeling has started to set in with the voters that the B.C. Liberal Party has really lost its moral authority, its moral legitimacy to govern. When that sentiment seeps into the electorate, it’s very, very difficult to turn it around.”

While some pollsters such as Forum have been predicting an NDP landslide based on recent results, the reality is that the provincial election will not be held tomorrow and in fact will be held still more than a year from now. Which in B.C.'s volatile politics can be an eternity.

Independent MLA views political feeding frenzy

By Bob Simpson
Indep. MLA - Cariboo North

The feeding frenzy in the hallways of the BC Legislature continued Tuesday as the media scrummed any Liberal MLA who was silly enough to pause and face the cameras and give a reaction to the defection of one of their colleagues to the BC Conservatives.

In part, this was a result of the BC NDP using the Member from Abbotsford South as a poster child for a large portion of Question Period today. If some of the BC Liberals had laser vision, John van Dongen would have been burnt to a crisp — and I’d likely have been collateral damage as we now sit beside each other!

A defection from any party’s Caucus will dominate the news cycle for at least 24-48 hours, and the defector will get more than his or her 15 minutes of fame. When I was ejected from the BC NDP Caucus I got more press coverage and TV news exposure in 24 hours than I had accumulated over my political career up to that time; despite having made every effort to raise substantive public policy questions during the five years leading up to that event.

Public policy isn’t “sexy”; political scandal is. So, the latter gets major coverage. Unfortunately, news coverage of political scandal and intrigue simply adds to the cynicism that voters have towards politics and politicians in general. In the case of a defection or ejection from a Party Caucus, the principles that drove the actions of the MLA get lost in the political firestorm that results.

I hear echoes of my concerns about Caucus discipline and the cone of silence that covers internal Caucus debate in what John Van Dongen is now saying. He’s decided to raise his concerns publicly because he was unsuccessful getting them addressed privately, within the confines of a political party he’s served since 1995 and under whose banner he won 5 elections. John was a Cabinet Minister and served as BC’s “top cop” — if he has questions about the Basi Virk deal, then it suggests that something truly stinks about what the BC Liberals did to squash the public trial investigating the sale of BC Rail.

But, just as importantly, do party MLAs owe more to their political party than they do to the public? How long should MLAs be forced to work their internal party systems before they can choose to put the public interest ahead of their party interests and reveal their concerns publicly, without fear of being labelled a traitor?

The media firestorm surrounding defections and ejections from party caucuses never gets past the sensationalism of the actual event. After the 24-48 news cycle the media moves on, without ever substantively exploring the unhealthy and undemocratic dynamics within the party system that precipitate MLAs taking internal concerns into the public domain. A deeper investigation of the internal dynamics of political parties by the press, however, might force political parties to reform their internal “democratic” systems, which would go a long way to renewing our democracy overall and make being a Caucus MLA less of a soul destroying enterprise.
For other interesting columns by Mr. Simpson, see .


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