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Christy Clark's Never Ending Campaign

A year after out-politicking the NDP, BC's premier is still in election mode. And one fast-growing job sector is spin agencies.

By Bob Mackin 14 May 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Veteran political reporter Bob Mackin is a regular contributor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee stories here.

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During July's byelection, premier without a riding Christy Clark tweeted this photo of her flipping burgers outside the Valley First credit union in Kelowna. (See sidebar for more about what the premier likes to tweet about.)

The bus bearing the Debt-Free B.C. slogan and Premier Christy Clark's face stood parked the day after the BC Liberals won a surprising return to running the province.

Now it was time for Clark, who had been premier for 26 months, to roll-up her sleeves and get governing. But that's only happened in fits and spurts, because when one campaign ended, another began. And another after that. In fact, there's plenty of evidence that British Columbia has become a parallel universe where the politician in charge never stops campaigning at all.

The second campaign started the minute Clark lost her seat in Vancouver-Point Grey to NDP challenger David Eby on election night.

Clark was temporarily relegated to typing notes to cabinet colleagues on a BlackBerry in the back row of the legislature, during the post-election, budget-passing session. Ben Stewart dutifully stepped aside, allowing her to run in -- and win -- the Kelowna-Westside seat. Quails' Gate winery owner Stewart was dispatched to Beijing as B.C.'s $150,000-a-year trade commissioner for Asia. China represents a big wine export market today, but Clark is banking on it becoming a major buyer of B.C. liquefied natural gas in a decade or two.

Back in Victoria, key staff were already working on plans for the road to 2017. And if there was any area of the private sector that immediately and directly owed job growth to Clark's return to serving as premier, it was the pro-Liberal spin industry.

Government Communications and Public Engagement, the $26 million-plus department headed by deputy minister and longtime Clark friend Athana Mentzelopoulos, created several rosters of preferred advertising agencies, public relations firms and design studios from which it would hire for projects, on a when and as-needed basis.

The 22-shop list under the advertising services tender included Clark campaign veterans Hogan Millar Media, Campaign Research, Response Advertising and KIMBO Design.

KIMBO also made it onto the five-agency list for new media advertising placement services.

Five companies were also picked for media skills training, including longtime Liberal shop Pace Group and Kirk and Co., which Liberal campaign manager and former Clark chief of staff Mike McDonald joined after the election.

Rebranding BC as LNG

The biggest campaign of all, for Clark and the hired persuaders she's enlisted, is selling the dream of a B.C. Liquified Natural Gas bonanza. The target audiences are British Columbians and various nations far beyond our borders.

LNG has been mentioned in 86 government news releases since Clark and her cabinet were sworn-in on June 10 last year.

Clark became particularly aggressive on LNG in late March, by taking the inner circle of cabinet to Ottawa to sign joint B.C. - federal accords.

In April, the Business Council of B.C. showed its loyalty to the Liberals and partnered with CKNW AM 980, Clark's former employer, on the "Putting B.C. to Work" series.

According to the radio station's website, Putting B.C. to Work "brings together the Business Council, who takes pride in being the Place Where Leaders Meet to Unlock B.C.'s Full Potential with CKNW as the place where business, government and community leaders turn to for up-to-date information. Working together, they will engage with British Columbians on issues of importance to the province's collective social and economic prosperity."

Greg D'Avignon, CEO of the Business Council of B.C., is also listed as a director of the April-launched Resource Works Society, which is run by Stewart Muir, the former Vancouver Sun deputy editor who is married to deputy minister and Clark pal Mentzelopoulos.

Resource Works describes itself as a non-profit that researches economic impacts of resource development "and to provide neutral, fact-based information to citizens and decision makers."

Directors include ex-Liberal attorney general Geoff Plant, KPMG partner Philippa Wilshaw, University of B.C. business professor Michael Goldberg and Teck senior vice-president Douglas Horswill. Teck Resources and Teck Cominco donated a combined $1.23 million to the BC Liberals since 2005. Muir, D'Avignon and Horswill met with the Liberal caucus on April 2.

Muir's bio on the Resource Works website doesn't mention his June 2013 to March 2014 tenure at Wazuku Advisory Group, the Liberal-allied lobbying and public relations firm. Wazuku partner Steve Kukucha was the so-called "wagonmaster" for Clark on her campaign airplane and bus during the election campaign.

Resource Works claims to be "open to participation by all British Columbians," but its website doesn't include information about membership or how the group is funded. Muir did not return a Tyee phone call before deadline.

D'Avignon told The Tyee the founding board meeting dealt with society governance issues, not budgets. D'Avignon said Resource Works is a non-partisan organization, but, when asked how Resource Works is funded, he said: "That I don't have the full information on, but there is a myriad of different companies, we put some very modest money into the pot as well. At the end of the day it's a broad cross-section of citizens and companies."

'Lyn Anglin, CEO of Geoscience BC, chairs the 16-member Resource Works advisory council, which includes former Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson, Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman and Tai Cheng, general counsel for China’s Fulida Group.

Resource Works operations director Bert Chen, a former aide to Langley Conservative MP Mark Warawa, joined in February after working six months as research director for British Columbians for International Prosperity.

Training days

At the end of April, the government announced its ambitious "B.C.'s Skills for Jobs Blueprint: Re-engineering Education and Training" which would redirect $3 billion over a decade to skills training intended to support an LNG industry.

A month earlier, Jobs Minister Shirley Bond was spouting the government's line about a million job openings by 2020. The Skills for Jobs Blueprint, however, quietly announced the goal posts had been moved to 2022.

Clark and deputy premier Rich Coleman, who is also the LNG minister, jetted off to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong for a week.

Clark's fifth trade mission in three years, May 2-9, allowed her to partake in familiar campaign behaviour: posing for photos in ethnic clothing and posing for photos while wearing a hardhat. She also banged the gong at the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

The junket included an audience with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, meeting with Tan Sri Dato' Shamsul Azhar Abbas, CEO of state oil company Petronas, and a letter-of-intent signing in Singapore with Imelda Tanoto, whose company wants to build an LNG plant at Woodfibre, near Squamish, in time for the 2017 election.

Governing's a drag

While the never-ending campaign by Clark and her team has pumped out photo ops and press release visions of a better tomorrow, the BC Liberal government hasn't had an easy time when it comes to the grind of governing. A number of broad policy and program announcements have had the effect of spreading nails under the tires of the Christy Clark's high-balling campaign bus.

Clark made waves at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention by announcing construction would begin by 2017 on a bridge from Richmond to Delta to replace the Massey Tunnel. There would be no referendum, which angered the Lower Mainland mayors who oppose the Liberal election promise to put rapid transit funding for Vancouver and Surrey to a public vote.

Rookie Transportation Minister Todd Stone had to juggle that hot potato, along with B.C. Ferries fare hikes and service cuts and a $100-million computer glitch at ICBC.

The controversies overshadowed the gimmicky public meetings about raising highway speed limits.

There were no public meetings for contentious reforms to allow resource and development-led reductions in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Twitter and email were the only methods for British Columbians to comment on relaxing liquor laws aimed at selling more booze in more places; public meetings about a plan that could adversely impact community health and safety were not part of the communications plan.

Don't expect a break in the price of beer -- because publicans and peddlers and everyone else in the province will be hit with 28 per cent BC Hydro rate hikes over five years, by order of cabinet. The B.C. Utilities Commission was bypassed yet again.

In perhaps the biggest slap in the face for the Liberal government, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin awarded the B.C. Teachers' Federation $2 million in damages and ordered the government to reinstate collective bargaining rights. Griffin found that the government aimed to score political points by goading the teachers into a strike. Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender, an advertising executive by trade, were critical of Griffin and didn't waste time in ordering an appeal.

Clark has had a long-running dispute with the BCTF, which appears to be more about neutralizing a powerful union that is attached at the hip with the NDP than really about governing.

Count the teachers union, then, as one more opponent Premier Christy Clark will keep running against this year, in the campaign that never ends.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

WHAT'S CHRISTY TWEETING ABOUT?

If Premier Christy Clark's Twitter account is any indication, soccer is on her mind more than her constituents.

By The Tyee's count, she has tweeted 17 times about her riding since she was sworn-in as Westside-Kelowna MLA on July 30, including a Sept. 11 group cabinet photo by Okanagan Lake. By comparison, Clark has tweeted 19 messages about the Vancouver Whitecaps.

During the byelection campaign, which ended July 9, Clark tweeted 27 times. Between winning and swearing-in, she sent five more Kelowna-related tweets.

Campaign-time tweets included a shot of her appearing at an all-candidates debate, something she did not do in Vancouver-Point Grey. The Election Act's section 233 bans advertising on general election days, not byelection days, so her "The #westsidekelowna byelection is today - vote, RT, and make your voice heard" tweet was within the law.

During and after the byelection, food was a common theme. She tweeted about appearing at a community pancake breakfast, handing out free cake to Canada Day volunteers, visiting the West Kelowna Food Bank and flipping burgers outside the Valley First credit union.

The food-and-folks strategy was employed during the provincial election when Clark was featured in a Liberal infomercial at a British-style diner and a Tim Hortons outlet.

The rare post-byelection tweets about programs and services included two about the expansion of RapidBus and videos regarding the $1-million repaving of the treacherous Westside Road and relief for victims of the McDougall Creek flood.

Meanwhile, Clark maintains her principal residence in Vancouver where she is fond of footy. Her Whitecaps' game tweets include one critical of the officiating: "Beautiful Day. Great game. Now all we need is a ref." On opening day she tweeted pictures of herself with other BC Liberal politicians. And one pointing at the Whitecaps' logo on her sock.

She is also fond of critiquing players' hairstyles: March 8: "Morales! He's going to make this a fantastic season. Doesn't hurt that he rocks the Grace Jones haircut."

— Bob Mackin

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