VANCOUVER — British Columbia Premier Christy Clark says she’s not going anywhere.
As she emerged from a cabinet meeting in Vancouver Sunday night, Clark told reporters her members are behind her and the proof of that will be in Tuesday’s vote on the provincial budget.
“This group is absolutely united and we have a lot of work to do on behalf of the people of British Columbia” she said. “We’re going to get on to that work.”
The controversy blew up when the NDP released a leaked memo that suggested the Liberals should use government resources to court the ethnic vote in this May’s election.
Clark apologized on Thursday, her deputy chief of staff resigned Friday and, on Sunday, a group of about 80 South Asian Liberal party members sent out a news release demanding her resignation.
Several members of her cabinet stood firmly behind the premier, including Deputy Premier Rich Coleman, who said there’s absolute unity within cabinet.
Citizens’ Services Minister Ben Stewart left the meeting saying cabinet members “shared some inner feelings,” and there was disappointment that so many government people were involved.
Ministers leaving the meeting said they are confident an investigation into how the controversial memo came to be written will determine who was at fault.
“Today we’re here to roll up our sleeves, support our premier and to make sure that we move forward with an agenda that we have that we believe will be advantageous to British Columbians,” Justice Minister Shirley Bond said.
A spokesman in Clark’s office said Sunday the gathering was a “chance to plan for the week ahead.”
But party insiders told the Vancouver Sun the meeting was called on short notice to deal with internal unrest over how Clark has reacted to the scandal that erupted Wednesday. That’s when the NDP leaked the Liberal memo that set out a strategy for the Liberals to use government resources to help the party woo ethnic voters in the coming election. Use of taxpayer funds for political purposes is forbidden.
Transportation Minister Mary Polak told reporters outside Canada Place the meeting was being framed as an emergency only by the media.
She said the cabinet supports the premier.
“With the action that she’s taken, I can’t see what else she could do to correct the situation,” said Polak, in a reference to the resignation of Clark deputy chief of staff, Kim Haakstad.
Environment Minister Terry Lake called Clark “the hardest-working person I know.”
“No one is perfect, no government is perfect, we certainly don’t claim to be perfect,” he said.
The comments came shortly after a group of 89 mostly Indo-Canadian members of the B.C. Liberals called for Clark’s resignation in a news release Sunday, saying she had made “the ethnic vote a joke in B.C.”
At issue for the group was Clark’s decision to spend taxpayer dollars on the Times of India Film Awards, “which has no relevance in B.C. economy, culture or adaptation.”
Vikram Bajwa, a former Surrey mayoral candidate and spokesman for the group, said the party members “strongly feel” Clark’s decision to bid for the Times of India awards was an extension the Liberals’ strategy to woo ethnic voters in advance of the May election.
The awards, which recognize popular Bollywood films, will cost B.C. taxpayers about $11 million.
They are to be held in Vancouver April 4-6. Bajwa said contacts in India have told him Clark wanted to bid for the Times of India event rather than the competing International Indian Film Awards — a more established event equivalent to the Academy Awards — because the latter would be held in June, after the provincial election.
“We felt as Liberal members that this is going to [have a] backlash on our Indo-Canadian community during the run-up to and after the election.”
Bajwa said there are about 10 seats in Surrey and Richmond that will be decided by ethnic voters and Indo-Canadian Liberal candidates feel they could lose over the issue.
The resignation of Haakstad is not enough, Bajwa said. “We have to be very blunt that the buck doesn’t stop with Kim [Haakstad]. Premier Christy Clark ... is the only elected official, she’s the premier who made the deal in Bombay for the Times of India Awards. She should be coming forward and show some leadership qualities and resign,” he said.
Failure on Clark’s part to do so would be “handing the B.C. government to the NDP on a silver platter,” he said.
Bajwa added hundreds of Liberal party members in Surrey met at Sikh temples around the city Sunday to discuss the scandal, which has precipitated four high-profile departures from Surrey riding associations.
Clark will face her entire caucus Monday in what is expected to be a showdown between supporters and MLA’s upset with her handling of the situation.
Liberal caucus chairman Gordie Hogg spoke about the meeting only in general terms.
“People will be able to get together to express concerns and opinions and get a better grasp of what’s going on, and to get all the information we can,” he said. He would not speculate about what topics would be discussed or the likelihood of further calls for Clark’s resignation from MLA ranks.
A review looking into the circumstances around government’s bid for the Times of India Film Awards is underway, he added.
“After that we will have a chance to work from a position of understanding rather than assumption.”
But there are indications Clark could face a harsh crowd Monday. At least one Liberal MLA, Dave Hayer, an Indo-Canadian, condemned the ethnic voter plan Friday and sources say many in both Clark’s cabinet and caucus feel the premier should be taking more responsibility, and should be showing more contrition over the issue.
New Democratic Party house leader John Horgan said Clark’s government is “clearly in crisis.”
References to “quick wins” and blockbuster events outlined in the Liberal memo suggest the Times of India Awards are in fact a part of the party’s strategy to win over South Asian voters, he added.
“They’ve been working on this multicultural voting plan for over a year and it’s manifested itself in the most grotesque way, in the $11-million purchase of an awards show just in time for the election campaign.”
Horgan said the NDP would be asking the Liberals to explain “why it is they chose to create an awards show and stage it in the days before the election begins,” in the legislature Monday.
But one prominent political veteran and Chinese community leader said he thinks Clark and the Liberals can bounce back, if they admit fault.
“It really depends on how the party handles it,” Tung Chan, past-president of S.U.C.C.E.S.S. immigrant services society and Vancouver’s Non-Partisan Association, said Sunday. If the party pulls together and issues an apology, the Liberals may successfully quell the brewing unrest, he said.
There is nothing wrong with the party’s strategy to appeal to ethnic voters as long as they don’t use government funds, Chan added, noting he has made many calls for the provincial government to pay more attention to “communities of interest” over the course of his career. The New Democratic Party and the B.C. Conservatives likely have similar plans to appeal to ethnic voters, he added.
“The way I look at it, no political party worth its salt would not have segmentation of campaign strategies — it doesn’t matter whether it’s communities based on geography or demographics or based on gender or sexual orientation. Every party has some sort of strategy to outreach.”
Of concern is that the Liberals appear to have planned to use government funds and civil servants to implement the initiative. Chan added there has been no evidence to suggest that plan had been put into action.
“Having run campaigns and having seen other people run campaigns, that sort of line is always blurred. People need to keep an eye out [for it],” he said. “People are right to be indignant about it.”
— With files by the Vancouver Sun
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