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Update: Cabinet meets amid pressure on Clark

Are Christy Clark's days numbered as premier of British Columbia? The 18 members of her cabinet don't think so.

They expressed their support Sunday after an emergency meeting at the premier's Vancouver office in Canada Place in the wake of the Friday resignation of Clark's closest confidant and architect of the controversial Multicultural Outreach Strategy. The mood is expected to be different at the legislature on Monday when she meets the Liberal caucus and Tuesday when the government is expected to face a confidence vote on the budget.

The 17-page leaked memo obtained by the NDP exposed the plan by Clark aides to target ethnic voters for the May 14 election. Deputy chief of staff Kim Haakstad sent the document on Jan. 10, 2012 to eight aides, including Liberal caucus executive director Primrose Carson and Liberal party worker Fiera Lo, now the executive assistant to Multiculturalism Minister John Yap.

All were using non-government email addresses in an apparent attempt to shield the document from being disclosed via Freedom of Information. The strategy contemplated apologies for the Chinese Head Tax and Komagata Maru incident to increase popularity among the Chinese and South Asian communities -- referred to in Haakstad's report as "quick wins" for the party. (An apology for the Komagata Maru incident was made May 23, 2008 in the legislature by Mike de Jong, while he was Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Ministry. The 66th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese head tax coincides with election day.)

Haakstad's email referenced a meeting scheduled for the next day. An entry in outreach director Pamela Martin's Jan. 11, 2012 agenda, which was obtained via FOI, shows a midday conference call about "Multicultural Outreach plan." Public workers are banned from using government time and resources for partisan political activities.

Haakstad resigned late Friday afternoon while Clark was in Prince George, preparing for an evening party fundraiser. Clark's deputy minister John Dyble was tasked to investigate, but NDP house leader John Horgan doubted the effectiveness of such a probe because Dyble has no special investigatory powers.

Protesters from the #SaveBCFilm campaign, which is seeking increased production tax incentives for the ailing feature film industry, greeted cabinet ministers for the 4 p.m. meeting. Clark waited until after her colleagues had left and for the local suppertime TV newscasts to sign-off before emerging for a 7 p.m. scrum. She apologized for the ethnic campaigning strategy and to claim cabinet is "absolutely united, and we have a lot of work to do."

In a 2011 profile of Clark's inner circle, Sean Holman wrote that Haakstad had accompanied Clark "wherever she goes," since being appointed Clark's executive assistant in 2001.

Also on Friday, members of riding executive boards in Surrey quit. They were unhappy with the imposition of candidates, rather than traditional nomination races, and the latest scandal. On his blog, Surrey-Tynehead Liberal vice-president James Plett cited "a pattern of arrogance, deceit and downright unethical behaviour of the B.C. Liberal Party."

He called the latest scandal "one of the most appalling things I have read about this party doing.

"What makes it so repugnant is that the government misused taxpayers' dollars to put together a document explaining how the government could misuse taxpayer dollars further and to offer apologies for absolutely horrible things all for a bump in the polls," Plett wrote. "Not to actually apologize for the events, but with the end goal of winning popularity points."

On Sunday morning, Surrey Liberal Vikram Bajwa, who lost a run for the Surrey mayoralty in 2011, issued a news release that called on Clark to quit. Bajwa said 89 party members had agreed to his declaration. He also urged Clark to cancel the $11 million taxpayer subsidy for the Times of India Film Awards, which are scheduled for April 6 at B.C. Place Stadium and appear to correspond with the tenets of the Multicultural Outreach Strategy.

Clark was not in the legislature when deputy premier Rich Coleman read an apology on Thursday.

Clark re-emerged in public locally on Saturday afternoon when she tweeted a photo of herself stuffing money into a donation can for a uniformed air cadet outside a store on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver. It was her first tweet since posting a photo on Feb. 28 of her Pink Shirt anti-bullying day appearance at Point Grey secondary school.

The rare Sunday meeting was described as an emergency meeting, but the Premier's office claimed it was planned a week earlier. The Liberal caucus holds a slim three-seat majority in the legislature that could be tested in a confidence motion that could force an earlier election than the scheduled May 14 vote. History suggests Clark's leadership could be on the line behind the caucus doors.

On April 2, 1991, Bill Vander Zalm quit the premiership after Ted Hughes' investigation found he was in conflict of interest over the sale of his Fantasy Garden World in Richmond. The Social Credit caucus elected Rita Johnston as B.C.'s first female premier at that meeting. Johnston was ratified as party leader in July 1991 but Social Credit fell to third place in the October 1991 election won by Mike Harcourt and the NDP. The Gordon Wilson-led Liberals were the new Opposition party.

NDP premier Glen Clark resigned Aug. 21, 1999 over accusations of giving preferential treatment to a friend who was seeking a casino licence. Clark was acquitted in B.C. Supreme Court three years later. Dan Miller was the unanimous choice of caucus as the caretaker premier until the Feb. 24, 2000 election of Ujjal Dosanjh as the NDP leader at the party's Vancouver convention. Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals, however, won 77 of 79 seats in the May 2001 election.

Clark's apparent leadership crisis comes after the failure to cut the NDP's lead in opinion polls. An Ipsos-Reid poll on reaction to the budget found 47 per cent disapproved and 72 per cent did not believe the Liberals' claim that it would be balanced. Angus Reid Public Opinion found the throne speech had no effect on voters, as the NDP increased its lead over the Liberals by one per cent to 16 per cent.

Minister Pat Bell is under fire after a Liberal supporter complained he was unfairly treated in bidding for the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George. Brian Fehr claimed Bell told him his company would be shortlisted. Fairness monitor Jane Shackell ruled the complaint was outside her mandate.

Shackell, also the fairness monitor on the awarding of the Evergreen Line contract to SNC-Lavalin, donated $700 to the B.C. Liberals on April 24, 2009. Fehr and his company BID Construction Ltd. donated almost $123,000 to the Liberals between 2005 and 2011. On Feb. 29, 2012, he donated $50,000 to the NDP through Nechako Construction.

The government is already facing a variety of investigations, from the RCMP probe of health ministry data breaches to a conflict of interest investigation into Clark’s role in the privatization of B.C. Rail. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is scheduled to release a report Monday into the Liberals' claim that no records exist in response to numerous FOI requests.

Vancouver-based reporter Bob Mackin regularly contributes to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

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