The headlines were emphatic: “ ‘Quick wins’ amounted to little for NDP,” “ ‘Quick wins’ report lands with a dull thud.”
But behind the headlines is something unsettling: a window into a culture of seeming impunity, where players are told anything goes, do whatever it takes to win.
A single criminal charge for breach of trust by a public officer against Brian Bonney, former B.C. government communications director, is disturbing and should not be seen in the context of a goal or miss on a political scorecard.
It’s the latest manifestation of a political mindset that should worry British Columbians.
In November 2012, the Province reported that in 2011, the B.C. Liberal party’s CantAffordDix website “was crafted by government employees at the B.C. legislature under the watchful eye of the premier’s office.”
Lesson lost, though.
At the same time that the Province was reporting that news, “quick wins” — or the multicultural outreach strategy — was in full swing.
Emails that were released in June 2013 — as a result of investigation into the strategy by John Dyble, then-deputy minister to the premier — offer a glimpse into that anything-goes culture, even when redacted.
In one, executive assistant Mike Lee emailed then-multiculturalism minister John Yap and wrote: “It is absolutely critical that we do not leave any evidence in us helping them through this application.”
Yap replied: “I appreciate each of your efforts with the 3 RFQs [request for qualifications]. Great job. Let’s now hope for the best.”
In another set of emails, Bonney informed fellow political staff Lee, Fiera Lo, Barinder Bhullar and Pamela Martin, the premier’s director of outreach, that “Sepideh [Sarrafpour] worked hard to ensure that the 2012 World Partnership Walk did not invite the NDP this year. No NDP were in attendance.”
Not true, but revealing of their mindset nonetheless.
Bonney’s email was written in what can only be described as a mutual “high-five” over a 24 Hours front-page photo of Premier Christy Clark and Yap at the walk.
Three months later, it was the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver’s annual telethon that was the subject of their arm-twisting.
Bonney wrote: “The event director indicated he can adjust to what we want to do to maximize MJY [Minister John Yap] exposure.”
They were walking a fine line with both the walk’s organizer and the cultural centre, as the two groups are registered charities.
According to Revenue Canada’s rules, a registered charity may not take part in a partisan political activity, which it defines as “any activity that provides direct or indirect support or opposition to any political party at any time, whether during an election period or not, or to a candidate for public office.”
Fallout from the “quick wins” strategy for political staff was swift.
Kim Haakstad, then-deputy chief of staff to the premier, Bonney, Lee, Lo and Sarah Welch were found to have breached the public sector’s standards of conduct. Haakstad and Lee resigned. Others, including Martin, Bhullar and Dave Ritchie, were found to have engaged in misconduct with “mitigating factors.”
Lesson lost again, though.
Throughout this entire period, political staff were triple-deleting their way to career advancement.
As a result of B.C. privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s investigation into the scandal, George Steven Gretes, former assistant to Transportation Minister Todd Stone, was charged with two counts of “wilfully making false statements to mislead, or attempt to mislead, under the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.”
In her report, Access Denied, Denham found that Michele Cadario, a second deputy chief of staff to the premier, had also put political interests ahead of the public’s interest.
Cadario “bulk-deleted” emails daily in contravention of B.C.’s freedom-of-information law.
Others implicated in the affair included Evan Southern, then-director of issues management for the premier; Nick Facey, chief of staff to Citizens Services Minister Amrik Virk; and Jen Wizinsky, B.C. Liberal caucus research director.
Since April 2014, as a direct result of the “quick wins” strategy, standards of conduct for political staff are now in place.
They read in part: “Political staff will exhibit the highest standards of conduct. Their conduct must instil confidence and trust and not bring the Province of British Columbia into disrepute.”
Clearly, it’s still a work in progress.
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.