When things are cooked up in dark corners, away from sunlight and fresh air, nasty messes usually result. And there’s the lesson in the ethnic-outreach scandal: Don’t do things you wouldn’t want your mother (or grandfather or children or neighbours) to know about. If you can’t be proud of it in public, don’t do it.
It’s clear that members of Premier Christy Clark’s staff and other government officials knew they were breaking the rules when they schemed ways to attract ethnic votes. There’s a plethora of email evidence showing they tried to cover their tracks as they plotted to exploit historical wrongs for political gain.
Courting the ethnic vote has always been part of politics, and there’s nothing inherently wrong in that. Anyone in or seeking public office should create ties with all communities and should hear their concerns. And it’s mutually beneficial — doing the right thing can pay off politically.
Public business and politics are so intertwined, there are times when it’s hard to separate one from another. Question period in the legislature is a good example — legislators are involved in conducting public business, to be sure, but always with an eye on the next election. It’s less about making points and more about scoring points. It’s a game in which questions are asked that aren’t questions, and answers are given that aren’t answers. While there’s much dodging and ducking of issues, it’s all out in the open, conducted according to the rules.
In political give and take, lines can be inadvertently crossed, rules thoughtlessly broken, but that wasn’t the case for the ethnic-outreach conspirators. That they knew the rules is clearly evident in their efforts to cover up what they were doing. “Don’t let this get out” or “don’t tell them you know me” are not phrases used by ethical people confident in the correctness of what they are doing.
Late in 2011, the B.C. Liberals launched a campaign in which they referred to New Democrat leader Adrian Dix as “Risky Dix,” a phrase that evokes images of disgraced U.S. president Richard Nixon, nicknamed Tricky Dick by his detractors. But the B.C. Liberals should remember Nixon was not destroyed by the original wrongdoing, but by his subsequent coverup.
Beyond ethics, we must question the intelligence of those involved. Did they really think this political meth lab could go unnoticed? It’s hard enough to find firm footing in the shifting sands of political loyalties — did they not think that, sooner or later, someone would see good reason for bringing this dirty secret to light?
Clark has profusely apologized and heads have rolled, but a leader is responsible for the culture of an organization. This sorry affair was born and fostered in a fiercely partisan atmosphere, and its perpetrators were people closest to the premier. If they didn’t tell Clark about it, they must have thought she would approve.
NDP legislators have been making a lot of political hay from this issue, but they have their own dodgy debacle to account for. They siphoned off constituency funds for dubious purposes that have more than a whiff of politics.
They deserve credit for stopping the practice after it was questioned by the auditor general, but like B.C. Liberals who wanted to turn ethnic issues into “quick wins,” they should have asked themselves: “Will this look good in daylight? Would we want the public to know about it?”
Good could come of this chapter in B.C. politics if it reminds those in public life to stay safely on the right side of the rules and be open about everything they do.