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HomeMiscellanyBook review: Anecdote-packed chronicle of B.C.’s 2017 transition of power misses some historical perspective

Book review: Anecdote-packed chronicle of B.C.’s 2017 transition of power misses some historical perspective

  • A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for B.C., by Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman (Heritage House, 2018) 

Bob Mackin

Postmedia’s Rob Shaw and Global BC’s Richard Zussman have succeeded in collecting and packaging the narrative from 2017’s slow-motion collapse of the BC Liberals under Christy Clark and the unlikely rise of the NDP’s John Horgan to the premiership. 

Where A Matter of Confidence excels is the step-by-step story of the tense power-sharing negotiations in late May 2017 between the trio of BC Green MLAs and teams from the BC Liberals and NDP. In the election, Clark had lost six seats — including those of four cabinet ministers. The NDP picked-up seats in Vancouver, Burnaby, Maple Ridge and, especially, Surrey. But Horgan was short of a majority and he needed the Greens to reach the top of the mountain. 

The reader will easily lose count of the neat anecdotes, like Green MLA Sonia Furstenau’s fateful elevator ride and trip to a Starbucks with Horgan. He reminded her how the BC Liberals ignored her concerns about the toxic dump at Shawnigan Lake. That led to Furstenau’s outburst in the bargaining room when the BC Liberals were on the other side of the table. 

The Greens eventually shook hands with the NDP. Their confidence and supply agreement on May 30, 2017 came a day after Horgan and Weaver were spotted enjoying an international women’s rugby sevens match in Langford. It was only a matter of time before the June 22, 2017 Clone Speech, which made things worse, instead of better, for Clark. 

Clark loyalist Mike Bernier, the education minister, made one last, desperate play before the June 29, 2017 confidence vote, inviting Green leader Andrew Weaver to meet with Clark in her West Annex office. 

“You are driving your party off a cliff,” the book says she warned him. She also suggested he needn’t ally himself with any party. Her “be somebody, rather than a footnote in history” pitch flopped. 

After the NDP and Greens won the 44-42 vote, Clark, her eyes welling up with tears, walked beyond clapping sycophants in the hallways of the Legislature toward a waiting van. Destination: Government House. Mission: Make one, last plea to the Lieutenant-Governor, Judith Guichon. 

As Shaw and Zussman wrote, in another one of their anecdotal nuggets: “The minivan unceremoniously bottomed out on the legislature driveway due to the weight of all the staff, scraping and smashing the concrete below. Shortly after, the RCMP officer who was driving almost blew a stop sign. Everyone was nervous, including the cops.”

Clark walked alone up the driveway and into the mansion, where she spent part of 45 minutes in the drawing room, pitching Guichon on the reasons she should not let Horgan become premier and why there should be another election. “But she knew almost immediately that her message wasn’t getting through,” the book says. “So the end of the meeting was spent drinking wine, two women tied together for nearly five years saying goodbye.”

Clark was often economical with the truth and this day would be no different. When she emerged, she claimed Guichon was “retiring” to make her decision. But the decision had already been made to call Horgan for a meeting where he would be asked to form government. Clark and her staff would learn their time was up, via Twitter.  

Clark, uncharacteristically, left Victoria on a commercial flight home to Vancouver with her son Hamish. The book doesn’t mention her “Air Christy” scandal of dinging taxpayers for her flying photo op tours via charter jets or how she chose to live in a party donor’s house in Dunbar — items that had been covered in-depth by The Tyee and theBreaker, respectively. Clark and son arrived close to midnight in Dunbar. Before she sent her hungry 15-year-old to bed, she made him toast. 

Her political career was toast, but she didn’t know it yet. 

Later, A Matter of Confidence reveals how Bernier had another role. This time, in warning Clark and her inner-circle that Abbotsford MLA Darryl Plecas was on the verge of quitting caucus at the July 26, 2017 retreat in Penticton. The book details how Plecas stood-up in the meeting room and called Clark out for her smirk, her uncaring government and her terrible election campaign. Plecas’s gutsy move was first reported by theBreaker (but not acknowledged in the book) after Clark had claimed caucus wanted her to stay. 

The next morning, she went for a walk along Okanagan Lake with longtime aide Mike McDonald before deciding to quit politics. 

Instead of flying back to Vancouver, A Matter of Confidence says Clark took the scenic route with McDonald in a borrowed cream-coloured 2008 Mini Cooper and they stopped at the Dairy Queen in Princeton for chicken strips and a chili dog. 

The authors do offer criticism, from time-to-time, of Clark’s hubris. She brought ex-Finance Minister Carole Taylor on as a special advisor, and they met weekly. But much of Taylor’s advice was ignored. Taylor popped the idea of a tax on house flippers in Metro Vancouver. Clark, who did impose a 15% tax on foreign buyers, didn’t bite on Taylor’s proposal. 

Another ex-Finance Minister, 2011 leadership runner-up Kevin Falcon, offered his advice during the election. He gave McDonald the phone number for the grieving parents of a child who had died at an unlicensed daycare in East Vancouver. Falcon suggested Clark call them and listen to their concerns. McDonald gave it to campaign director Laura Miller, but “nothing happened,” the book says. 

A Matter of Confidence also tells some of the story about how Clark beat Falcon in the 2011 leadership race, when accusations of impropriety swirled around stolen PIN numbers assigned to party members for the digital vote. Evidently, the book’s publisher did not halt production to add an update after damning evidence emerged from ex-BC Liberal communications director Brian Bonney’s breach of trust sentencing in Vancouver’s Provincial Court. Special prosecutor David Butcher told court that Clark’s only caucus supporter, Harry Bloy, used his connections that supplied him with blocks of PIN numbers that were then provided to other Clark supporters to vote by phone or online. “Block voting in a proxy process,” Butcher said.

The Quick Wins ethnic pandering scandal, of which Bonney was involved, got the space it warranted in A Matter of Confidence, though whistleblower Jeff Melland has publicly questioned the accuracy of Shaw and Zussman’s reporting of the documents’ route to Horgan. 

Triple deleting got only a paragraph, as did the health firings. Both, oddly, were grouped among what the authors called “little scandals” midway through the book. They were anything but little, especially the health firings. Shaw and Zussman do go into depth about the BC Liberals’ campaign to discredit respected childcare watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. Her no-holds barred investigations shone a light on tragic deaths of neglected and abused young people in provincial care.

In the foreword of A Matter of Confidence, Shaw and Zussman state the book’s mission is “to offer a glimpse into the decisions these governments made, or didn’t make, and the actions of those around the premiers during this time.”

They also said it is “too soon to pass judgment on their contributions to the province or how history will remember them.” 

But the authors did judge the contributions of some former lawmakers. They are not remembered kindly by the duo.

An inordinate amount of space and criticism were given to the reaction to ex-NDP MLA David Schreck’s Twitter comment about whether it was appropriate for Clark to show cleavage in the Legislature. The authors called him an “old fogey” and included an anti-sexist rant. They could have instead dispassionately explored the deliberate packaging of a politician unpopular with urban women, but who was aiming to appeal to working class, hardhat-wearing male voters in rural B.C.

Clark’s attire was no accident. She knew what she was doing in front of cameras. She also knew the power of a smile, a nod, a wink and the occasional jiggle.

Their treatment of Abbotsford’s John van Dongen was similarly unkind. Ex-cabinet minister van Dongen had been active in the caucus mutiny against Gordon Campbell in 2010. He eventually defected in 2012 to the BC Conservatives over Clark’s faltering leadership and the party’s questionable ethics. Plecas defeated him in the 2013 election. 

Instead of treating van Dongen as a free-thinking, dissident MLA concerned with government integrity, they outrageously cast him as a conspiracy theorist for simply seeking answers about Clark’s role in the controversial BC Rail privatization in 2003. Documents surfaced that suggested Clark had leaked confidential cabinet briefs, among other things. 

Ex-BC Liberal aides Dave Basi and Bob Virk maintained their innocence until suddenly in 2010 when they pleaded guilty to bribery in exchange for their $6 million legal bills being paid by the government. The trial was over and Campbell never gave British Columbians the promised full explanation. Van Dongen took it upon himself to look for answers. He even hired a lawyer, at great expense, in a bid to pry the $6 million Basi-Virk indemnity file from the government’s hands.

Instead of Clark facing up to van Dongen’s criticism, and explaining what she knew and when she knew it, she hid from the cameras and let Rich Coleman, her “Mr. Fix It,” attack van Dongen over his divorce. 

The biggest omission from A Matter of Confidence? Patrick Kinsella. 

The most powerful force in the BC Liberals’ backrooms in the Campbell and Clark eras. A campaign mastermind, bagman, lobbyist and dealmaker extraordinaire, who also found an ally in Coleman. 

Kinsella had appeared to work both sides of the BC Rail/CN Rail deal, helped Accenture privatize BC Hydro’s back office services, was key in what became River Rock Casino, put sponsorship packages together for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and was behind a failed privatization of B.C. government liquor warehousing and hauling. 

The Kinsella omission may be a function of the authors being relatively new on the scene. Shaw began covering the Legislature in 2009, and Zussman in 2014. Though Kinsella’s influence remained intact, the man in the shadows of B.C. politics opted for an even lower profile after 2010.

In A Matter of Confidence, you can be confident of reading the best narrative of the hectic and intriguing spring and summer of 2017, when the BC Liberal dynasty ended and the NDP returned to power. Particularly the day of that historic confidence vote, June 29. 

It is not the definitive primer on the rise and fall of the BC Liberal dynasty. That will be someone else’s job to write. 

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