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Les Leyne: Kickback probe could shape carbon-tax fight

How will B.C.’s carbon tax weather the political storm that erupted this week?
The B.C. legislature in downtown Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Energy Minister Josie Osborne may or may not survive the controversy over allegations about a kickback scheme in the independently-managed CleanBC grant program.

The more important question is how B.C.’s carbon tax can weather the political storm that erupted this week. It is the main source of funding for the grants that a Merritt company is voicing suspicions about.

Edison Motors, builders of electric heavy-duty trucks, says the consulting firm MNP LLP, which runs the program and adjudicates the applications, pitched them on a deal to coach the firm on how to write winning proposals in return for a “success fee.”

The claim is that after being rebuffed multiple times, it was suggested that if Edison retained the firm to help with applications, it would have a better chance at winning them. Then it could pony up the success fee.

The accusation surfaced as the B.C. United Party and the Conservative Party of B.C. have locked on to the steadily- escalating carbon tax as one of their main lines of attack on the NDP government.

The federal version is under fire across Canada as well. A carbon tax is the simplest most effective way to curb emissions and fight climate change. Until it gets debated politically and becomes weaponized.

Then it becomes a deadly effective topic for critics trying to appeal to voters’ concerns about paying the highest gas prices in North America, and their doubts about the climate change fight.

Now there are serious questions about the integrity of programs that the tax funds. If they bear out, it could have implications far beyond embarrassment of the NDP.

As the auditor general begins the investigation into CleanBC grants, one of the background questions is why the grant process was outsourced to MNP LLP in the first place.

The number of full-time equivalent employees in core government functions and service delivery agencies was 31,321 when the NDP took over in 2017. Now it’s listed at 45,159. But they still felt the need to contract out the grants program, to a firm that has billed about $70 million to the government in the last several years.

Green Leader Sonia Furstenau queried the extra cost, but Osborne said it was more efficient and government “doesn’t have the capacity.”

Some of the firm’s executives are registered lobbyists and the firm wrote a lengthy article three years ago advocating for more outsourcing of grant, incentive and loan programs. They dubbed it a “Collaborational Model for Operational Excellence.”

The paper said the pandemic was a “pivot point” where outsourcing work on those sorts of programs emerged as a good option for governments.

MNP LLP, a national consulting firm with offices in Victoria, Vancouver and elsewhere, had a few small contracts with the previous B.C. Liberal government. But it raised its game dramatically under the NDP, billing the government $22 million in 2021, $40 million in 2022 and $10 million last year, according to public accounts records.

Arguments over the program continued Tuesday, after Monday’s about-face by the government. The NDP had twice voted down moves for an investigation, but then suddenly referred it to the auditor general and the Finance Ministry’s comptroller general for investigation, on the basis of new information.

The specific move in the legislature was almost comical, because they had to formally undo the previous rejection. So Osborne moved that the refusal motion be deemed “null and void.” Then she popped up and moved for an investigation, so the government could support it this time.

“This is important. We take this seriously,” she said.

The opposition had another word for it. “Unbelievable.”

Just So You Know: It’s hard to muster much sympathy for the NDP being forced to defend the carbon tax against all comers.

They used exactly the same tactics after it was introduced by B.C. United’s predecessors, the B.C. Liberals. The NDP parked all their environmental smarts and criticized the tax heavily, solely because they thought it would be a vote-getter. “Axe the tax” was the war cry.

B.C. United is doing the same flip-flop in a different direction — vehemently criticizing what it created 16 years ago.

They’re both following the circle of life, but going in opposite directions.

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