Christy Clark’s multicultural outreach outrage

A ‘quick win’ strategy to target ethnic voters moves the B.C. Liberals even closer to a loss
Prime Minister Stephen Harper (C) walks into Abbotsford’s Gur Sikh Temple with M.P Ed Fast (L) and B.C Premier Christy Clark in Abbotsford, British Columbia August 28, 2011. REUTERS/Ben Nelms (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION) - RTR2QGR6
Outreach outrage
Ben Nelms/Reuters

“Welcome to Bollywood East,” B.C. Premier Christy Clark enthused in January during a glitzy announcement that the province was spending $11 million to host the Times of India Film Awards in Vancouver. Clark dismissed insinuations the April 4-6 event was a sop to Indo-Canadian voters weeks before the May 14 provincial election, calling it “an incredible opportunity for us to sell our province.” But as a series of devastating leaks made clear in the past week, it also now appears part of an effort to buy ethnic votes for the B.C. Liberals with taxpayer funds.

It was a chastened Clark who appeared in Victoria on Monday in an attempt to keep her restive caucus in line, and to face the legislature for the first time since the opposition New Democrats released a leaked draft copy of a 17-page “Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plan,” a strategy to woo ethnic votes that was circulated to senior party insiders and staff, many of whom were collecting a paycheque from taxpayers. Among the strategy’s key points was a plan to issue government apologies for “historical wrongs,” such as the Chinese head tax and the refusal to let Sikhs disembark when their chartered ship, the Komagata Maru, arrived in Vancouver in 1914. Such apologies offer “quick wins” for the Liberals, the document said. The memo was circulated on Jan. 10, 2012, by Kim Haakstad, a Clark confidante and then the premier’s deputy chief of staff.

Clark spent most of question period on Monday admitting the strategy was a disastrous mistake and that she mishandled the resulting furor by sending Deputy Premier Rich Coleman to read her apology in the legislature, instead of doing it herself. “I want to apologize for the ideas in it and I want to apologize for the language in it, as well,” she said. She also said she’ll stand by the future results of an investigation she instigated last week. The lead investigator is John Dyble, who is both head of the public service and deputy minister to the premier.

The scandal has already claimed two victims—and the usually scrappy Clark would not outright dismiss the notion that her own future as premier is on the line. “When we have all the facts and when the report is tabled, we’ll likely be required to take further action, and I will take that action,” she said. Also on Monday, John Yap stepped down as multiculturalism minister, though he says he was blindsided by the strategy. “The document never hit my desk,” said Yap. “This is an issue that involves multiculturalism, and the responsibility rests with me.” On Friday, March 1, Clark announced that Haakstad had resigned without severance “after much consideration of her roles and responsibilities.”

Clark’s uncharacteristic acts of contrition appear to have appeased her caucus for now, if only because the prospect of switching leaders two months before an election is fraught with problems. Her cabinet also backed her leadership after a hastily arranged weekend meeting. Still, the cynicism implicit in the planned apologies and the mixing of partisan politics and government policy has devastated the Liberals’ 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.

An outraged James Plett resigned as vice-president of the Surrey-Tynehead riding association, which has a substantial Indo-Canadian membership. “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,” Plett wrote. Still, the Liberals seem determined to press ahead with a planned public apology for the Chinese head tax.

A disturbing side issue of the scandal is Haakstad’s use of her private email account to discuss the strategy with senior staff—insulating correspondence from freedom of information requests. By coincidence, on Monday, Elizabeth Denham, B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner, issued a report critical of the Liberals’ penchant for secrecy. An increasing number of public requests for information are resulting in claims of “no responsive records” available for release—including 45 per cent of all requests submitted to the premier’s office in 2011-12. Denham confirmed she’s investigating if Haakstad’s private emails contravened access laws.

Meantime, the flow of leaks to the media and the opposition have Liberals bracing for more revelations. Certainly, the ethnic vote document has taken the shine off next month’s Indian film awards, though the scandal itself is delivering the sort of political chicanery, intrigue and melodrama that would be right at home in a Bollywood script.