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Municipal Politics

Ken Sim’s New Comms Director Has a Record of Playing Rough

Harrison Fleming served Alberta premier Jason Kenney by barraging critics with hard-right insults and attacks.

Charles Rusnell 28 Aug 2023The Tyee

Charles Rusnell is an independent investigative reporter based in Edmonton.

ABC Vancouver promised in its 2022 election campaign platform that if it won a majority of seats on city council, it would “limit partisan activity from mayoral office staff.”

But as the Breaker’s Bob Mackin observed in a Dec. 14, 2022 article, since Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim won a landslide victory with all seven of his council candidates elected, “it could be easier said than done to curb the partisan enthusiasm over the next four years.”

Now some political observers say Sim appears to have dropped the pretence of restrained partisan activity by his staff through his recent hiring of Harrison Fleming as his communications director.

As The Tyee reported in May, Fleming played a key communications role in the former government of UCP premier Jason Kenney, one of the most aggressively partisan administrations in the history of Alberta and Canada.

But another source in Ontario told The Tyee that Fleming had softened his approach during his latest stint working for a Progressive Conservative government minister there.

Several of Fleming’s former Alberta colleagues, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he modelled a hostile, bullying approach that roiled conflict and controversy.

He used Kenney’s personal Unite Alberta Twitter account as an amplified pulpit to attack the opposition, the federal Liberals, academics, union leaders, journalists, private citizens, even UCP MLAs who dared challenge Kenney’s leadership of his foreshortened reign.

He often employed sneering ad hominem language that was unlike any public communications from a premier’s office that political observers in Alberta had seen. Many tweets, like the one below, seemed crafted merely to belittle, rather than share substantive information.

582px version of Tweet 1

Fleming also harangued political staff to go after any “perceived enemies.”

“He would yell at the press secretaries if they weren’t being aggressive enough online, and he would call them out on the Slack channel for it,” said a former senior staffer, who spoke to The Tyee on condition of anonymity last spring.

“He would ramp them up,” said another senior staffer who also requested anonymity. “He would bully them, he would yell at them. He would make examples of them in front of group meetings to push them to say all kinds of inflammatory stuff.

“And this was while he ran the Unite Alberta account,” said the source. “He wouldn’t tweet under his own name.”

The first response by a former chief of staff interviewed last spring, upon hearing the mention of Fleming’s name, was one word: “Ugh.”

Sim did not respond to an email seeking comment. Fleming did not respond to a message left on his personal cellphone.

Vancouver, unlike many other Canadian cities, has active party politics that run slates of candidates that hew along partisan lines. The ABC party is closely aligned with BC United and the federal Conservative party as it now exists under Pierre Poilievre.

Vancouver Sun columnist Dan Fumano first revealed the hiring of Fleming by Sim in a tweet last week. 

When OneCity Vancouver, a municipal party, criticized the hiring, Wellington Advocacy vice-president Katy Merrifield accused OneCity of bullying Fleming.

Merrifield, as reported by The Tyee, also engaged in online bullying when she worked with Fleming in the Kenney government and is now closely aligned with ABC and Sim.

582px version of Tweet 2

Fleming left Kenney’s employ in October 2022 to work as a senior advisor to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce. A former Ontario colleague said Fleming wasn’t the same person or political operative that he was in Alberta.

“He had this really angry energy about him when he first came from Alberta, but that totally changed,” the former colleague said.

“This government doesn’t do the online bullying and the Twitter war stuff. But he really toned it down here,” the colleague said, adding without prompting that Fleming has excellent political communications and writing skills.

Fleming is freighted with some baggage that may not play well among a large segment of two populations in Vancouver.

In 2018, the UCP introduced a resolution that subsequently became law in Alberta. It requires schools to notify parents if a child joins a Gay-Straight Alliance. Fleming, then a member of LGBTory, a national group of gay conservative activists, conducted media interviews defending the controversial policy as “misunderstood.”

The ABC party also maintains a majority on Vancouver’s school board.

In a December 2021 interview with a Postmedia columnist, Kenney commented on the issue of COVID-19 variant uncertainty by referencing the city of Wuhan, China, where the first known case of the virus was detected.

"Who knows what the next variant that gets thrown up is? I don’t know. And what is the next bat soup thing out of Wuhan? I don’t know.”

Kenney’s comments caused an immediate storm of criticism, especially from Chinese Canadians who were incensed by what they called the bigoted, anti-Asian racist trope.

In a statement to media, Fleming, who was then Kenney’s acting press secretary, said “it is obviously ridiculous to suggest that these widely reported scientific theories are ‘racist.’”

In response to protests from the Chinese community in Calgary and Edmonton, Kenney issued an apology a week later to those who may have been “offended.”

One long-time political observer with direct knowledge of internal city hall politics said Sim’s hiring of Fleming fits with what they view as a move by the mayor and his party away from the centrist political agenda that underpinned their landslide election victory to a more hard-right approach to communications, governance and policy.

Now that ABC is facing political pushback to some of its more controversial policies, it may be bringing in Fleming to harden the political messaging, said the observer, who requested anonymity because it could affect their employment. Rhetorically, the source asked:

“You know Harrison [Fleming] better than I do. So what do you think is going to happen? Is he there to make things calmer and reasonable?”

Simon Fraser University political scientist Stewart Prest said it’s easier to be “post partisan” when a party is first elected. But once they start enacting policies, especially controversial ones, there will inevitably be criticism that, if unchecked, can eventually erode public support.

“I think that where the mayor’s office has come in for criticism is over the police sweep through the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver,” Prest said, referencing a forced decampment of homeless people. “And having been criticized, they may be looking to be ready to fend off such criticisms in the future, and perhaps even push back.”

Prest agrees there are similarities between Jason Kenney’s UCP government and that of Sim’s ABC municipal government. After Kenney scored a massive lopsided victory, he broadly interpreted it as a green light to rapidly enact policies that went beyond what was contained in the party’s election platform.

With its significant majority, the ABC party may do the same, Prest said.

“If they have a clear sense of the agenda they want to enact, they are in a position to go pretty far in that direction. So we’re watching now to see just what kind of government is emerging.”

But politically, Prest said, Vancouver is not Alberta. There are limits, and significant risks, “to the potential success of a really sharp turn to right-of-centre partisan-style politics.”

Historically, he said, “Vancouverites like to stay close to the political centre,” and the political centre in Vancouver is much more to the centre left than in Alberta. 

“And so to veer too far outside that box is a really risky line to take for the mayor’s office,” Prest said.

“I’m really interested to see what kind of culture of communication emerges out of this with these recent hires,” he said, adding that “it will be really fascinating to watch whether they continue to try to maintain that centrist line or if it becomes a little more strident, more overtly partisan.”

If you have any information for this story, or information for another story, please contact Charles Rusnell in confidence via email.  [Tyee]

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