Christy Clark in for a rough ride as fallout from memo tests leadership

B.C. cabinet insists it's business as usual in wake of 'ethnic vote' memo. Not so fast, says our B.C. correspondent

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark fields questions in this file photo from November 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

It was all sunshine, rainbows and unity as British Columbia’s 18 cabinet members met in Vancouver Sunday in a show of support for embattled Premier Christy Clark. Deputy Premier Rich Coleman said there was “absolute unity” among the cabinet and the B.C. Liberal MLAs he’s spoken to. “There isn’t the angst that you guys think there is,” he told reporters gathered outside the Vancouver government offices.

It was Clark’s first sit-down with her inner circle since Wednesday, the day the opposition New Democrats released a leaked draft copy of a 17-page Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plan, a highly detailed strategy to woo ethnic votes that was circulated to senior party insiders, many paid by the public purse. Among the plans, which included a full-court press to have Liberal politicians at key multicultural events, was a strategy to issue a series of government apologies to correct such “historical wrongs” as the Chinese head tax and the refusal to allow a shipload of Sikhs to disembark when their charted ship, the Komagata Maru, arrived in Vancouver in 1914.

Such apologies offered “quick wins” for the Liberals the document said. The memo was circulated Jan. 10, 2012 by Kim Haakstad, a Clark confidante and then the premier’s deputy chief of staff.

Instead of a win, the cynicism implicit in the planned apologies and the mixing of partisan politics and government policy has devastated Clark’s leadership and the Liberal’s already faint hopes of catching the opposition New Democrats under leader Adrian Dix, who have long held a consistent and substantial lead in the polls.

Clark, who was away from Victoria for a series of campaign events and speaking engagements when the news broke, drafted an apology that was left to Coleman to read in a hostile legislature. Clark called the strategy “absolutely inappropriate.”

Late Friday, Clark said in a vague and terse statement that Haakstad had resigned without severance “after much consideration of her roles and responsibilities.” That resignation, and an investigation by four senior public servants that Clark initiated to determine if public funds had been misappropriated, have done little to quell the outrage within her party.

The real test of Clark’s leadership may come Monday when she meets with the B.C. Liberal caucus in Victoria. She’s expected to have a rougher ride from MLAs who are feeling the heat from constituents and their riding associations, though the prospect of the Ides of March coming early to depose her leadership would be a huge risk just two months before the May 14 provincial election.

Two outgoing Liberal MLAs, Kash Heed and Dave Hayer, both Indo-Canadians, called the plan insulting and demanded those responsible be held accountable. An outraged James Plett resigned as vice-president of the Surrey-Tynehead riding association, one of many in the area with a substantial Indo-Canadian membership. Plett also quit the party, writing in an angry statement that he was “horribly embarrassed” for his association with the Liberals. “What makes it so repugnant is that the government misused taxpayer dollars to put together a document explaining how the government could misuse taxpayer dollars further and to offer apologies for absolutely horrible things—all for a bump in the polls.” Meanwhile, 89 party members, most of Indo- and South Asian descent, called for Clark to resign after the group held a breakfast meeting in Surrey Sunday. They said Clark made “the ethnic vote a joke” in B.C. Coleman, however, said the calls for her resignation were overblown “nonsense. As far as I’m concerned, we will got into the next election with Christy, and we will beat the NDP.”

To hear cabinet members tell it, the extraordinary cabinet meeting Sunday was merely business as usual. While it was an unscheduled meeting it was not an emergency meeting they all insisted. In fact, when you get down to it, it wasn’t even an unscheduled meeting, said Transportation Minister Mary Polak. “From time to time, cabinet does get together outside of its regular schedule. What does unscheduled mean?” she asked. “As soon as you schedule it, it’s scheduled.”

So, nothing to look at here, folks. Move along. It’s not that simple, however. The party has clearly sprung a leak as often happens to fretful insiders in times of unscheduled, scheduled non-emergencies. On Sunday, the Province newspaper obtained a four-page spread sheet Multicultural Outreach—Coordinated Effort Meeting that placed Haakstad, other members of the premier’s office and senior members of the caucus in a planning meeting for the ethnic vote strategy.

Clark’s future may well hang on the results of the investigation into the strategy and on the party’s ability to stem the damaging series of leaks. Justice Minister and Attorney General Shirley Bond said the resignation of Haakstad was a first step. The apology and the launching of an investigation into the multicultural strategy were a vital start to putting the issue behind them. “From our perspective there needed to be action, and it needed to be taken quickly,” she said.

Clark, who was sworn in as premier two years ago on March 14, 2011, has been running from behind from the start. She replaced Gordon Campbell, who beat a hasty retreat after sinking the party’s popularity by imposing a 12-per-cent Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) on the province without any public notice or consultation. After the public rejected the tax in a referendum, Clark was forced to oversee a return to the previous provincial and federal goods and services tax. The combined PST and GST returns this April 1, reopening old wounds.

Just one caucus member had backed Clark’s leadership bid. But many of her former rivals and potential leadership candidates have left politics or signalled they aren’t running in the next election. Nor is there much appetite to take on the leadership now, when the polls indicate the party is doomed to opposition status unless there is a miraculous turn around in its fortunes.

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