When spin doctors make policy

By Leslie Campbell, October 2015

The provincial LNG fiction-writing exercise has some lessons towards October 19.

Here’s a cautionary tale, gleaned from a recently received Freedom of Information request, one you might want to keep in mind as we head to the polls this month.

After a year and a half of waiting, Focus received records that show in some detail how the provincial Liberals came up with a pivotal element of their winning 2013 election strategy: an LNG industry that would create 100,000 jobs, bring $100 billion to provincial coffers, and underpin the “BC Prosperity Fund.” When juxtaposed against Adrian Dix’s promise to keep Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline from becoming a reality, enough easily-influenced voters in BC opted for Christy’s Clark more economically pleasing vision of the future. But it was phoney baloney, conjured up in a three-week period in a “rush assignment” given to Assistant Deputy Minister of Finance Doug Foster by Clark’s newly-hired communications director Ben Chin.

Chin was formerly a CBC TV news anchor in Ontario and after running for the provincial Liberals there—and losing—he became VP of Communications with the Ontario Power Authority. In that job he infamously advised an OPA official—who was troubled by critical media reports—to "throw him some work" to get a particular journalist onside. "It would be a good score," Chin said. Clark hired Chin In December 2012, apparently for his expertise on controversial energy projects.  

The 571 pages released to us cover email conversations during January and February 2013. They consist mainly of communications between Foster and three private companies he engaged—the Deetken Group, Grant Thornton, and Ernst & Young—to produce numbers about the potential for LNG that would then be fed into Clark’s February 12, 2013 Speech from the Throne. But they also capture Chin's fingerprints on the file. 

Both Grant Thornton and Ernst & Young are accountancy firms. They were engaged to “independently” verify numbers provided by the Deetken Group—a Vancouver company that was in contact with proponents of an  LNG industry—that could then be used by the Liberals for their campaign. The emails show the scheme was hatched with such haste that at one point, after receiving critical numbers from Grant Thornton, Foster accidentally emailed them to Ernst & Young, in a heartbeat undoing any claim that the numbers had been “independently” verified. “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” wrote Foster when the intended recipient pointed out his error.

The day before Clark’s February 12, 2013 Speech from the Throne, neither Grant Thornton nor Ernst & Young had agreed to allow their names to be used with the numbers being released. In an email from Chin to Foster, Chin said, “It’s unfortunate that both consultant reports aren’t ready for [the Speech from the Throne] as that was the reason for why we asked for them in the first place.” Right. The reports weren’t actually intended to carefully consider the pros and cons of developing an LNG industry, they were for Clark’s speech.

Besides Foster encouraging the private firms to move quickly, there was no substantive input into the process from any provincial ministry, least of all the Ministry of Environment. So the impact of such an industry on emissions, for example, went completely unconsidered before Clark was given her winning election platform. Only months later was Clark told, in a cabinet document prepared for Environment Minister Mary Polak, that the numbers developed by Foster, Chin and Deetken could result in “a doubling of BC’s total emissions, depending on the number of plants and the technology and energy options chosen.” 

Meanwhile British Columbians had gone to the polls and cast their votes based on a hastily-concocted fiction, no emissions attached. 

Since then, the provincial NDP have been largely ineffectual on the LNG question. They even voted in favour of the breathtakingly low tax rate the Liberals brought in last December to insure Malaysian-based Petronas would agree to go ahead with its project. 

What do these provincial shenanigans have to do with this federal election? Well, at the very least it reminds us to try to elect Members of Parliament who have healthy BS meters, and who will demand evidence-based policy- making rather than the disposable stuff designed by spin doctors. We need such people everywhere—in the voting public and media, in government and in the opposition. 

Many who want to ensure that Stephen Harper isn’t re-elected on October 19 are urging people to “vote strategically”—to cast their vote for the party which can beat the Conservative candidate or form government. But it’s crucial to consider the person and his or her integrity, not just the party. First and foremost, we need good, honest, independent-minded people in the House of Commons. If such a person ends up on the government side, great. But as an opposition member he or she can also be extremely effective in keeping Canadians informed and the government more honest, its policies more sound. Would not people with integrity condemn their own party for pulling a stunt like the BC Liberals have with LNG? Think of the missed opportunities to develop other more realistic, future-oriented, environmentally sustainable industries.

That 2013 provincial election also offers another relevant lesson as we listen to the abundant federal polls: The Liberals had been consistently 10 to 20 points behind the New Democrats in every public opinion poll throughout the campaign right up to election day. It ain’t over till it’s over.

 

THIS EDITION marks over 28 years of publishing for Focus. In 1988, I wanted something I could sink my teeth into, but never dreamed Focus would be my focus for so many years. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do something I love for so long. Besides getting to write about things I believe in, working with other writers makes my heart sing. 

On that note, I’d like to say a public farewell to Focus regular Katherine Palmer Gordon. Katherine has been writing for us for over 10 years. She’s brilliant, skilled, and a pleasure to work with. Many of her articles focused on First Nations issues, about which she has great understanding from her many years of working with First Nations in treaty negotiations and economic development. We will miss her and wish her well in her next adventures.

I also want to congratulate Roszan Holmen who is a finalist for a Jack Webster Award in Community Reporting. Roszan’s investigative report “E&N: More Red Lights Ahead” (Focus, December, 2014), provided clear evidence about how the rail line had been allowed to deteriorate and raised questions about the costs of fixing it. The award for Community Reporting is given to a journalist “whose work demonstrates extraordinary enterprise, talent or courage in bringing vital information to their community.” 

Leslie Campbell looks forward to post election, non partisan, evidence-based tackling of such issues as climate change, infrastructure spending, homelessness, and crucially, proportional representation.