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BC Politics

Horgan Faces Galaxy of Star Trek-Like Perils

New NDP premier must vanquish foes without and within if government is to live long and prosper.

Bill Tieleman 4 Jul

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. Email him at [email protected] see Twitter @BillTieleman or visit his blog.

“If you can't take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here.” — Alien Q to Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation

NDP premier-designate John Horgan — a big Star Trek fan — is about to take command of British Columbia and boldly go in a very different direction.

“For years, life in B.C. has been getting harder and more expensive. That’s about to change,” Horgan pledged last week, talking about cutting health care waits, investing in schools and building a sustainable economy with good jobs.

And given that departing Premier Christy Clark and her BC Liberal Party desperately assimilated almost the entire platforms of the NDP and BC Green Party in its throne speech, one might think an amazing degree of cooperation awaits Captain Horgan.

But you would be very wrong. “It’s not safe” is an extreme understatement as Horgan will face Star Trek-like perils and enemies.

For starters, the BC Liberal Party is still in the first stages of grief — disbelief and denial. Next comes anger, and it will be fierce as 16 years of entitlements, perks and insider patronage disappear.

Second, the BC Liberals raised $21.3 million in the last 17 months — $8.2 million and counting in 2017. Despite finally agreeing to the NDP’s long demand for a ban on corporate, union and foreign donations, Clark is flush with cash and raising more rapidly, knowing that the tap will be turned off soon.

Plus, the BC Liberals can count on more big business-funded third party attack ads. Before the election started two groups led by retired business leaders spent multi-millions to vilify Horgan.

That means that in a possible snap election, the BC Liberals can dramatically outspend the NDP and Greens combined.

Third, it’s as simple as ABC: agencies, boards and commissions. The BC Liberals have appointed literally thousands of fellow travellers to an enormous range of bodies — from BC Hydro to the Turkey Marketing Board.

Horgan will need to purge a significant number of Liberal “Borgs” — in Star Trek terms — who are politically loyal to their party and in key positions that could allow them to sabotage the new government.

For example, a key campaign advisor to Clark was Brad Bennett, son of former Social Credit premier Bill Bennett and grandson to ex-premier W.A.C. Bennett.

Bennett was a fixture on Clark’s campaign bus, while at the same time serving as chair of BC Hydro, the province’s most important Crown corporation. The BC Liberals’ arrogance was such that Bennett initially rejected the need to take a leave from his position as BC Hydro chair.

“Why not?” Bennett first said when asked if it was appropriate for BC Hydro’s chair to campaign for Clark. “We all have our right, and I would argue, our obligation, to ensure we have a thriving democracy.” 

But media pressure forced him to take a temporary leave the day before the election campaign started. Now Bennett needs a permanent vacation.

More importantly, BC Hydro and its board need a complete overhaul. From raising rates 87 per cent since 2001 to signing contracts committing to pay independent power producers $58 billion over the next 55 years for overpriced electricity to borrowing hundreds of millions to give the government as a “dividend” to balance budgets, BC Hydro is as problematic as the Klingon empire on a rampage.

Fourth, the most dangerous people in government aren’t opposition MLAs, they’re senior bureaucrats with BC Liberal connections.

The BC Liberals have politicized much of the civil service and the upper ranks of deputy and assistant deputy ministers are particularly suspect.

John Paul Fraser, deputy minister of government communications and public engagement, should be one of the first to go. Fraser volunteered on Clark’s 2011 leadership campaign, worked with her ex-husband Mark Marissen’s consulting firm and is a longtime Clark friend. Being politically involved is fine — being a senior bureaucrat in the new government at the same time is not. (Fraser’s father Paul is B.C.’s Conflict of Interest Commissioner. The group Democracy Watch unsuccessfully argued he was in a conflict in deciding on a complaint against Clark because of his son’s role.

But there are several more DMs whose resumes are peppered with BC Liberal connections.

Others include lawyer Clark Roberts, now DM of the Ministry of International Trade but a former BC Liberal caucus political staffer; Neil Sweeney, now a DM in the premier’s office but previously a Clark campaign advisor and former premier Gordon Campbell’s deputy chief of staff; and Athana Mentzelopoulos, a DM in the Finance Ministry who was Christy Clark’s bridesmaid and friend, as well as a former federal Liberal political staffer.

None of that is to say any of these DMs lack skills or talent. But they are politically unsuitable to continue in an NDP government.

Prior to the current BC Liberal administration, the overwhelming majority of senior government officials were career civil servants who worked their way up the ranks.

But under Campbell and Clark, political connections to their party became increasingly essential. Clearly not every senior manager is a BC Liberal backer; some, in fact, were senior officials during the last NDP government from 1991 to 2001.

Then there is the roster of more than 250 government communications staff, all of whom are “order in council” appointments, meaning they were given their jobs by Clark and her cabinet, not through the civil service employment process.

This was one of Campbell’s more offensive initiatives. Only senior communications officials had been political appointments, but in 2002 Campbell fired everyone working in communications, removed the posts from the public service with its requirement for merit-based appointments and made them political appointees.

It means that every communications person in government is effectively reporting to Christy Clark, who can fire them at will, an unconscionable situation. Horgan needs to restore non-partisan communications to government, outside of top political staff who should remain OIC appointments. Again, many of these staff are not political but were forced into this situation by the BC Liberals.

As former NDP premier Glen Clark’s communication director in 1996, I feel particularly strongly that politicizing all communications officers was fundamentally improper.

And that’s only a very short list of the galaxy of challenges facing Horgan as he enters the unknown territory of an NDP minority government — one that he hopes will live long and prosper, while its enemies do not.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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