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HomeMiscellanyExclusive: Throne speech disaster highlights BC Liberal waste and secrecy, and NDP lethargy

Exclusive: Throne speech disaster highlights BC Liberal waste and secrecy, and NDP lethargy

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Bob Mackin

The BC Liberals spent an extra $12,000 of taxpayers’ money on two familiar faces for the creation of their ill-fated throne speech in June 2017. 

And it took the NDP government until a year-and-a-half later to find and disclose what the two contractors were paid to deliver. 

Staff in then-Premier Christy Clark’s office hired a University of British Columbia business professor under the banner of “policy advice related to innovation and clean technologies.” 

Tansey and Clark in Manila (BC Gov)

James Tansey invoiced $4,777.50 (including GST) through his One Ton Consulting for 26 hours of work, including advice about the carbon tax and a “disaster check” on three paragraphs about housing from a draft of the ill-fated, post-election throne speech. In May 2016, Tansey, in his role as the executive director of the UBC University Sustainability Initiative, was in Manila for meetings with Philippines-based real estate and development giant Ayala Corporation during Clark’s trade mission. Clark was photographed with Tansey at the signing of a letter of intent for Ayala to develop research and training with UBC.

“No obvious disasters,” Tansey replied on June 14, 2017 to an email from deputy minister of corporate priorities Neil Sweeney. 

Chief of staff Mike McDonald sent Tansey confidential draft material on June 11, 2017. The seven pages sent to Tansey, however, were deemed policy advice or recommendations, one of the sections of the law that governments use in order to avoid public disclosure.  

“Very rough,” McDonald wrote. “There’s a lot more to review in coming days.”

Tansey wrote in a June 13, 2017 email to McDonald and Sweeney “this is how I would start a throne speech if it was up to me.” The attached two pages, however, were not disclosed for the same reason.

McDonald and Sweeney communicated with Tansey via non-government email addresses, contrary to a 2013 order from then-Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in the wake of the Quick Wins scandal. “The use of personal email accounts does not relieve public bodies of their duty to comprehensively search for requested records and to produce them,” Denham wrote. “The use of personal email accounts for work purposes can give the perception that public body employees are seeking to evade the freedom of information process.”

Ex-Clark press secretary Samuel Oliphant’s contract for “writing services” was originally worth $5,000, but was increased to $7,500 by Deputy Minister Kim Henderson, three days before he finished his assignment and billed $7,402.50, including GST. Oliphant’s June 23, 2017 invoice said he worked 47 hours at $150 per hour. The NDP government finally released a draft copy of the June 22, 2017 throne speech in late 2018, confirming the nature of Oliphant’s writing services assignment.

The throne speech became known as the “clone speech,” because it copied from the NDP and Green platforms. The Clark strategy was to cling to power and force a new election, after the Greens opted to form an alliance with the NDP to defeat the BC Liberal throne speech on June 29, 2017. When the government fell, Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon asked Horgan to form a new government.

The quest for answers began in late September 2017. After noticing the existence of no-bid contracts for Tansey and Oliphant, theBreaker.news requested copies of their contracts, correspondence and the related deliverables. Contractual and financial information was disclosed later that fall.

In a Dec. 4, 2017 reply, staff in Premier John Horgan’s office said “although a thorough search was conducted, and a discussion with previous staff responsible for initiating the contract, we are unable to locate records identifying specific deliverables.” 

theBreaker.news complained to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which has the legal power to search and seize documents from anyone and compel people to testify under oath. Instead of using those powers, an OIPC investigator referred the file to a written inquiry. Government lawyer Troy Taillefer, who previously worked as an OIPC investigator, managed to extricate the documents and provided them to theBreaker.news in late 2018. 

Ex-Clark aides McDonald (left), Sweeney and Oliphant (Kirk and Co.)

Covering letters from the Office of the Premier that accompanied the long-awaited documents said it “believes its search for records, which included contacting members of the previous administration as well as the service provider, was extremely thorough and potentially beyond its legal requirement.” 

Tansey declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement with the Office of the Premier. Oliphant did not respond.

McDonald, Sweeney and Oliphant were reunited later in 2017 at a BC Liberal-aligned Vancouver communications company, Kirk and Co. McDonald as chief strategy officer, Oliphant as vice-president and Sweeney as the chief executive of subsidiary Kirk Environmental. 

In early 2018, a Provincial Court judge released internal party email after BC Liberal operative Brian Bonney’s breach of public trust sentencing. The email showed that McDonald coordinated party volunteers and staff to make fake pro-Clark phone calls to open line talk shows on CKNW before the 2013 election. 

During the 2017 election, the NDP promised long-overdue reforms to FOI laws, including a duty to document law and fines for deliberate destruction or deletion of records. Those promises remain unfulfilled. 

The only major policy statement on FOI reform by the Horgan NDP government came when government house leader Mike Farnworth said Feb. 6 that the FOI law would be amended to cover the Legislature. That came a day after a joint letter by the Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ombudsperson and Merit Commissioner. The three independent watchdogs urged adoption of transparency and accountability measures in the wake of Speaker Darryl Plecas’s report on overspending and corruption in the Legislature. 

Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz were suspended Nov. 20 and are under RCMP investigation. They both say they are innocent.

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