Premier Gordon Campbell returned from his Hawaiian vacation yesterday to face an immense horde of reporters, all wanting answers to the myriad questions swirling around the police raids on the legislative buildings.
The only problem was the premier wasn't ready to provide many answers, if indeed he knew the answers himself. Indeed, after a scrum of almost 40 minutes - very long by Campbell's normal standards - one could be forgiven for ending up more confused than one was in the beginning.
The premier came to the scrum in his office with a number of messages he wanted to get out, messages he repeated frequently. As much as anything, he wanted the public to know that he is convinced the government "acted appropriately" in firing David Basi, the more senior of the two ministerial aides whose offices were the targets of the Dec. 28 search warrants.
Why treat Basi differently than Virk?
That has become one of the most perplexing questions since Basi was terminated abruptly only 24 hours after the police raid. Basi was fired, but the other aide involved, Bobby Virk, was only suspended, and is still receiving his full pay. No one in the government has been able to explain why the two men were treated so differently when there is no obvious difference in their legal status.
Like Finance Minister Gary Collins did last week, Campbell stressed the difference in the two men's jobs. Virk worked solely in the Ministry of Transportation and Highways while Basi had to work with the whole cabinet and caucus and the NDP opposition in supporting Collins's role as House Leader, responsible for moving all legislation through the House.
It is true that Basi's credibility may have been strained to the point where it would be difficult for him to function in working with the legislative agenda. However, that doesn't explain why he couldn't have been suspended like Virk or even transferred to another job where he would not need to be so highly visible. Neither does it explain why the government this week paid Basi about $54,000 in severance pay. It was, Campbell said, the equivalent of about eight and half months salary and benefits. Given that aides have no job security, holding power "at the pleasure of the cabinet," the settlement was interesting. (Other government sources said it was based more on Basi's past history as a civil servant, not his 30 months as a political appointee.)
When these sorts of specific questions were asked of the premier, he only reiterated that the government had acted appropriately, given the information available to it.
What did Campbell, Brown and Coleman know, and when?
However, Campbell steadfastly refused not only to disclose that information to the crowd of reporters but even to state how much information he, or his Chief of Staff Martyn Brown, or Solicitor General Rich Coleman had, when they made the decision to fire Basi. He had not seen the search warrants, he said, and he didn't know specifically what the police officers had been looking for. That, however, still doesn't answer the question of just how what information he may know.
Basi's lawyer, Chris Considine, said the mere fact of the government payout should make it clear that Basi has not himself done anything wrong. Campbell didn't want to go quite that far, although he wouldn't suggest that Basi WAS a suspect either.
Campbell said Coleman had warned him before he left on his annual Maui vacation that "something might come up" during his absence that would require Coleman to be able to get hold of him quickly. The premier said he'd surmised that "something" was probably a police investigation of some sort, given Coleman's specific position in cabinet. However, he stressed, Coleman at that point had provided him with no more details, and certainly no mention of drugs, organized crime or the corruption of a police officer - all of which are themes that apparently run through the year-long police investigation that finally ended up in the legislative halls.
Coleman told him of the specific search warrants involving the legislative buildings only on the Sunday morning as the police were removing boxes of documents and computer hard drives from the offices of Basi and Virk. However, Campbell said, Coleman had also given Brown some type of briefing on the issue, even though Brown is not an elected official and was in fact, Basi's and Virk's boss in government, as much or more as their individual ministers.
Basi's work for Martin well known - but not to Premier?
The other key point that Campbell wanted to make was that he was not happy with Basi, Virk or any of the other cabinet appointees in his government involving themselves in federal politics. He described the B.C. Liberal party as a "very broad-based … a Coalition" that included members who, in federal elections, voted Liberal, Alliance, Conservative, and maybe even NDP. Thus, for those involved in the provincial party to become passionate advocates for one party or another federally was likely to lead to uncomfortable situations in-house.
A political appointment with the B.C. government, he suggested, should not be seen as "just a job … I like to look on it as a calling." If any appointees had left-over time or energy, he said, he'd like to see it applied to provincial politics where "there's lots of work to be done."
However, he said, he was not personally aware that Basi and Virk had been deeply involved in federal politics as supporters of Paul Martin as he sought the leadership of the federal Liberal party. That might well be true in the case of Virk, a relatively quiet and low-level supporter, but the statement simply defies credulity in the case of Basi. Anyone from the Greater Victoria area with even a passing interest in federal politics knew that Basi was one of Martin's leading supporters in the region, and indeed in the province. He had been involved in controversial takeovers of riding executives as long as five years ago and as recently as early December of 2003. Campbell said he wasn't sure either whether Collins (who's returned to Hawaii to continue his interrupted vacation) or Reid knew of their aides' federal activities either. And he did note that no matter what his wishes, he couldn't stop aides from involving themselves in federal politics on their own time, that being the right of every Canadian citizen.
Brave face, deep tentacles
And despite the brave face being put on events by federal Liberals in B.C., there seems little doubt that at least some tentacles of the investigation are going to lead back to them. There is no other rational explanation for the fact that the police also acquired (either voluntarily or through search warrants) documents from Mark Marissen, the head of the Martin campaign in B.C. (as well as the husband of deputy premier Christy Clark), from Bruce Clark, the head fundraiser for the Martin campaign in B.C. (as well as the brother of Christy Clark), and from Eric Bornman, the operations manager for the Martin campaign in B.C.
The lack of useful answers to date has done nothing to make life easier for the premier or his government as the investigation unfolds behind the closed doors of RCMP headquarters and prosecutors' offices. Tidbits of information dropped and/or speculation link the investigation with everything from money laundering to recent raids on marijuana grow operations on Vancouver Island.
Almost wistfully, during the scrum, the premier said one of his goals was still "to restore the trust of the public in government." Unfortunately it would be hard to think of much that would shake the public's trust in government any more than the ongoing investigation with its ever-growing numbers of unanswered questions.
Barbara McLintock is a contributing editor to The Tyee.
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