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Rights + Justice

Pat Kinsella's Bumpy Career

'Backroom boy' key to Campbell success no stranger to controversy.

Andrew MacLeod 16 Jun

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Kinsella: Has denied lobbying.

For a "backroom boy" who is supposed to avoid the press, Patrick Kinsella's name has turned up in a remarkable number of headlines during his 30-year career as a political insider.

In the latest instalment, Kinsella and his Progressive Group colleague Mark Jiles are at the centre of B.C.'s scandal of the moment, thanks to a report by the 24 Hours newspaper that uncovered documents from Washington State where the pair bragged about their company's close connections with members of the provincial and federal governments, as well as the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee.

The resume said they have done work for Alcan, Accenture Business Services, the B.C. Motion Picture Production Industry Association, Bechtel, Canfor Forest Products and others. The work for Accenture, for example, was "to promote and educate the BC government of the value of outsourcing a number of key government services." The result, the resume said, was "a ten-year, $1.45 billion agreement between Accenture and BC Hydro."

NDP wants investigation

It has long been suspected Kinsella and Jiles were lobbying the provincial government on behalf of various clients. Jiles registered as a lobbyist starting in December 2007, and then only for some clients. Kinsella is yet to register.

Neither Kinsella nor Jiles was available for an interview, though Jiles released a statement Friday that said the company registers whenever it does work that meets the definition of lobbying.

The NDP's Leonard Krog asked David Loukidelis, the province's information and privacy commissioner and registrar of lobbyists, to investigate. And in a June 9, 2008 letter, Krog and federal MP Peter Julian asked the federal registrar of lobbyists, Michael Nelson, to investigate Jiles and Kinsella's federal activities, especially those related to the Olympics.

Calls to the offices of Premier Gordon Campbell and various provincial ministers with whom Kinsella and Jiles claimed in the documents to be close were either not returned or funnelled to a public affairs bureau spokesperson. He said nobody would say anything about the situation while it was before the registrar of lobbyists.

Asked if anyone could confirm whether or not ministers met with Kinsella or Jiles, he said the way to find out would be to file a request on the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for their calendars.

Back in Ontario

Kinsella got his start in politics, and learned the influence of the backroom, in Ontario in the 1970s.

As early as 1979, the Globe and Mail identified Kinsella, then 38 years old, as a key insider who felt "he best understands the mind of the Ontario voter." He was the Progressive Conservative party president at the time, and among a group who met for breakfast once a week at the Park Plaza Hotel to advise then Premier Bill Davis.

As one article put it, "These men have never run for public office, but they have an enormous influence on government." Another said the group was at least as powerful as the cabinet.

"It's at these informal breakfasts, over bacon and eggs, that Mr. Davis receives his most trusted political advice," the Globe and Mail said. "By the time he walks into Cabinet the next morning, Mr. Davis has weighed and measured his advisers' council, and has pretty well made up his mind. He uses Cabinet meetings as a forum for discussion, not a place of decision."

Doing the dirty work

Two years earlier, Kinsella had been the party's chief organizer in the 1977 election. He'd become executive director of the Ontario PC party and "built it into a $700,000-a-year operation with five full-time organizers working in different regions of the province." His job, he told the paper, was to use that Big Blue Machine, as it came to be known, to get Davis re-elected with a majority government.

In 1980, Kinsella was part of a group that chose people to fill key jobs in the Ontario civil service. All but one in the group were "key backroom political advisers." Their involvement in filling the posts essentially politicized the civil service.

A 1981 article called the former insurance agent the "millwright" of the Blue Machine. "Mr. Kinsella will see that the trains run on time, that the graphics are co-ordinated, the phone lines are in and the election expenses legislation complied with."

He was also accused on occasion of doing the government's dirty work. An obituary of a former Ontario cabinet minister, Sid Handleman, identified Kinsella with the "seamy side" of politics. In 1979 Handleman had left the cabinet, was recovering from two heart attacks, and was thinking about leaving the government to look for other work. But the premier's office didn't want him to leave because they wanted to avoid a by-election, the Windsor Star story said.

Handleman is quoted in the story saying Kinsella approached him in the hospital and offered him a new role and "basically... $l0,000 out of party funds to avoid a by-election." Handleman says he turned down Kinsella's pitch to avoid scandal.

Recruited to BC

In 1981, B.C. Premier Bill Bennett sent Hugh Harris to observe the Ontario election. Kinsella described that time to Bob Plecas for his 2006 book on Bennett.

"I told him that in Ontario this job was being part of the cabinet meetings that Bill Davis had," Kinsella's quoted as saying. "I sat behind the ministers, and I was there to observe like a cabinet secretary. I was there to report on the party."

Kinsella was convinced to come west, and quickly got into his first political scandal in the province. "He ordered $15,000 of new custom-made furniture for his office," Plecas wrote. "When Bennett heard, he cancelled. Pat hadn't quite grasped the premier's view of spending money, especially taxpayers' money. The media went after him."

Before long Bennett reassigned Kinsella. "Bennett and Kinsella also recognized that being deputy minister and head of the public service was not Pat's forte," said Plecas. "He needed to be on the political side. Kinsella became principal secretary, and the premier's office became an even greater force on the cabinet, the party and the business community."

Kinsella is also quoted by Plecas explaining how the party used to sell access to Bennett. For a $5,000 donation, people could dine privately with the premier three times a year. A similar scheme in 2002 that involved Kinsella met a flurry of negative press.

Kinsella ran Bennett's 1983 campaign and pulled off a narrow, unexpected victory over the NDP's Dave Barrett. Plecas attributed the victory to Kinsella's careful attention to opinion polls, which showed Bennett's message of restraint and fiscal responsibility resonated with voters.

Opponents also blamed "dirty tricks" such as providing slanted polls to the media and manipulating public opinion by planting fake news stories with radio stations across the province. Kinsella's role is known thanks to a lecture he gave to students at Simon Fraser University following the victory. As Alan Fotheringham put it in the Financial Post, "He was only too glad to lay out how he had tricked the media, manipulated the public and generally gave a primer on cynicism."

Taking the blame

Life on the political inside comes with a certain amount of risk, and in his long career Kinsella has been accused more than once of giving bad advice or backing the wrong horse.

In 1985 Kinsella returned to Ontario to run Progressive Conservative Frank Miller's election campaign. "Miller had a reputation among the media has one of the most talkative cabinet ministers," observed the Montreal Gazette at the time.

"Thus reporters covering the election have been angered by the tightly-controlled style of Miller's campaign," the paper said. "It is being managed by Pat Kinsella, who kept tight wraps on British Columbia Premier Bill Bennett's successful 1983 campaign. In one incident last week, reporters were shoved out of Miller's way as they sought response to the new energy agreement."

Kinsella explained, "The accessibility is going to be there. The difference is, the accessibility is going to be controlled."

After the election, observers tried to explain how the Tories blew a 25 point lead in the polls at the start of the campaign. The Gazette blamed Kinsella's strategy. "The rigid, peek-a-boo style that developed from the strategy, compounded by Miller's refusal to enter into a televised debate with [Liberal leader David] Peterson and [NDP leader Bob] Rae, generated so much hostile media coverage that even confirmed Conservatives were repelled."

Kinsella later accepted blame for the defeat, the party's first time without a majority government in the province in 42 years.

Losing campaigns

Kinsella returned to B.C., where in 1986 he managed former Social Credit attorney general and Oak Bay mayor Brian Smith's losing bid to lead the Social Credit party.

The winner, Bill Vander Zalm, reportedly told Kinsella he was unwelcome in the movement, but within a few years was again turning to him for advice. He also ran the Socred's campaign under Rita Johnson's leadership in 1991 in an election the party lost to the NDP's Mike Harcourt.

The Financial Post observed at the time, "He has a lot at stake personally, as chairman of the Progressive Group, a government relations firm formed in 1983. Its easy and profitable access to government would obviously be diminished if the NDP wins."

After the election, with the NDP in power, Kinsella turned his attention to federal politics. In 1993 he worked on Kim Campbell's campaign to become leader of the Progressive Conservatives, but later that year he was to be dumped from the election team.

"Insiders say Kinsella has been personally supportive of Campbell during her first election campaign but that she needs someone strong enough to give her strategic advice she'll accept," the Toronto Star reported. "And they feel Kinsella has not played a needed role of explaining policy to the media travelling with Campbell, or of mopping up behind her public errors." After the election, part of the blame for Campbell's defeat went to Kinsella. The Toronto Star found, "Kinsella, did not have the skills (or inclination) to alleviate the tensions between Campbell and the press. He regarded the media with ill-concealed contempt." He would later back Belinda Stronach in her 2004 campaign to be Conservative leader, and Christy Clark in her 2005 battle to be the NPA candidate for mayor.

Gordo's guy

It is with Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberal Party that Kinsella has arguably found his greatest success since his days working with Davis in Ontario.

A federal Conservative, he got involved in the BC Liberal party after Campbell became leader. In 1996, he acted as a backroom campaign adviser to Campbell, then in 2001 he co-chaired the campaign that handed the Liberals a 77-2 victory over Ujjal Dosanjh's NDP.

In 2005, when the Liberals were re-elected with a 46-33 majority, Kinsella chaired the advisory committee that oversaw the campaign.

Political commentator Norman Spector once worked with Kinsella in Premier Bill Bennett's government, though he said they are not in contact now. There are all kinds of questions raised by the documents that need answers, he said.

Kinsella would be seen in Liberal circles as the "rainmaker," he said, the person who holds the keys to victory. "[Campbell] doesn't have anyone more important to him than these two people."

Questions about Kinsella's influence on Campbell and whether or not he was lobbying were raised as early as 2002 when the Terrace Standard reported on Kinsella's work for Alcan, and in May 2003 when Joy McPhail asked questions in the legislature about his involvement with CN Rail.

And in 2004, Sean Holman, who got the Washington documents causing the latest scuffle through an FOI request, wrote about Kinsella's failure to register as a lobbyist.

Kinsella faced similar questions in B.C. as long as two decades ago. In 1989 he told the Vancouver Sun the Progressive Group does not lobby. "Kinsella says the firm provides public relations assistance and advises companies on government policies that may affect their operations," the article said. "He stresses that lobbying -- promoting clients' interests to politicians or bureaucrats -- is not in the firm's bag of tricks."

The statement Jiles released last week says more or less the same thing. The federal and provincial lobbyist registrars may or may not disagree.

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