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HomeBusinessExclusive: As Horgan ponders an election this fall, NDP blurs the lines between governing and politicking

Exclusive: As Horgan ponders an election this fall, NDP blurs the lines between governing and politicking


Bob Mackin

The B.C. NDP government is refusing to say how much it spent on a recent telephone town hall campaign that showcased swing riding candidates and involved the party’s key campaign contractor.

Between June 25 and July 16, the Government Communications and Public Engagement department ran six telephone town halls under the banner of “COVID-19 Recovery Ideas.”

Stratcom’s Penner.

“Final amounts for the telephone town hall will be released during Public Accounts, summer 2021,” said a statement emailed to by Lisa Leslie of the Finance Ministry.

Contractors were St. Bernadine Mission Communications (creative), Jungle and Vizeum Canada (media buying) and Strategic Communications, which was “supporting the town hall by providing in-house technical resources.”

Strategic Communications is also known as Stratcom, the NDP’s Vancouver-based polling and data analytics agency. During the NDP’s first two years in government, Stratcom billed taxpayers $1.1 million for patronage contracts. Three-quarters of the contracts came from GCPE and the remainder via the NDP caucus in the Legislative Assembly.

The geographically targeted events were hosted by Kim Emerson, a former radio and TV reporter now with GCPE:

  • July 7: Lower Mainland (Finance Minister Carole James, Finance committee chair Bob D’Eith);
  • July 9: Vancouver Island and Coast (Agriculture Minister Lana Popham and Parliamentary Secretary for Seniors Ronna-Rae Leonard);
  • July 14: North, Interior and Kootenays (Jobs Minister Michelle Mungall and Parliamentary Secretary for forestry Ravi Kahlon);
  • July 16 (Environment Minister George Heyman and Tourism Minister Lisa Beare).

Apart from James and Popham, the rest of the above MLAs represent swing ridings.

Leonard won the 2017 election night count in the new Courtenay-Comox riding by a scant nine votes over BC Liberal Jim Benninger; the margin of victory expended to 189 votes after absentee ballots were counted. BC Liberals held the old Comox Valley riding between 2001 and 2017.

D’Eith (Maple Ridge-Mission), Beare (Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows) and Kahlon (Delta North) are rookie MLAs who beat BC Liberals in swing ridings. Heyman is in his second Vancouver-Fairview term after knocking-off BC Liberal incumbent Margaret MacDiarmid in 2013.

Other virtual town halls were held on themes, with other swing riding winners. June 25 with James, D’Eith and Bowinn Ma (North Vancouver-Lonsdale) on “building B.C.’s recovery together” and July 13 with Mungall and Jinny Sims (Surrey-Panorama) on “supporting small businesses.”

Tourism Minister Lisa Beare (BC Gov)

Sims won the riding after BC Liberal Marvin Hunt moved to Surrey-Cloverdale in 2017. Ma upset BC Liberal incumbent Naomi Yamamoto in 2017.

The BC Liberals won a two-seat edge over the NDP in the 2017 election, but the NDP governs with the support of the two-member Green caucus and former Green leader Andrew Weaver.

Polling in a pandemic 

The Stratcom website trumpets the merits of telephone town halls to identify key supporters.

“The cumulative and individual participant data (including responses to polling questions) can be used to identify the most engaged supporters as well as inform future communications, engagement and fundraising strategies,” it reads.

Stratcom CEO Bob Penner and president Matt Smith did not reply to

Besides showcasing various NDP faces on the taxpayer dime, could Stratcom be sharing the data gleaned from the government telephone town halls with the party headquarters at a crucial time?

Various opinion polls indicate the NDP would win a majority if an election were to be held now. But B.C. remains under the coronavirus pandemic state of emergency, which would make an election campaign logistically challenging.

In June, the NDP held a series of training seminars online. The program for the NDP’s Level Up included a seminar on using Facebook for “a socially-distant election.” 

In response, NDP president Craig Keating would not deny his party is preparing for a possible fall 2020 vote. 

On July 23, Premier John Horgan admitted a fall 2020 election is not out of the question, even though his mandate ends in October 2021. “There’s an opportunity this fall, there’s an opportunity next spring, there’s an opportunity next summer,” Horgan said.

Horgan made that statement at a news conference two weeks after the Cullen Commission public inquiry into B.C. money laundering announced witness testimony would run until April 2021. That means it will not meet the original May 2021 final report deadline. Meanwhile, the RCMP continues to investigate corruption in the B.C. Legislature uncovered by Speaker Darryl Plecas and his chief of staff, Alan Mullen. 

Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy did not respond to for comment about Stratcom’s involvement in the telephone town halls.

His spokeswoman, Michelle Mitchell, would not specifically address the issue of the telephone town halls. She relied on a section of the law that states the commissioner and anyone acting under the commissioner must not disclose any information obtained in performing their duties under the Act.

“The OIPC was aware of the series of telephone town halls,” Mitchell said. “At the end of the day, the onus is on the public body or organization to ensure its programs comply with B.C.’s privacy laws.”

In the February 2019 report, Full Disclosure: Political Parties, Campaign Data, and Voter Consent, McEvoy wrote: “it is important to recognize the rapid advancement of technological tools to profile and micro-target voters and the temptation for political parties to deploy them. The risks these developments could pose for B.C.’s citizens and our democratic system of governance are significant.”

B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy (Mackin)

Penner is a fellow at the Broadbent Institute, the NDP-aligned think-tank that publishes the PressProgress website. He is listed as an expert in campaign strategy, fundraising, public opinion polling and voter contact.

In September 2017, before the NDP government added his company to a list of preferred communications suppliers, Penner penned a “Dear NDP MLAs and Ministers” open letter in The Tyee, suggesting ways they could succeed in government.

Under the second point, “Listen and Research,” Penner suggested the NDP needs to use polls and focus groups to know what people really think and he acknowledged the importance of data.

“Opinion research is not there to decide your agenda or policies of course, but it can help inform them,” Penner wrote. “Good politics shouldn’t be ‘data-driven’ as many people are fond of saying these days, but rather ‘data-informed.’ Listen and understand well, using the tools that work best. But then, armed with this information, make sure decisions are driven by your judgment, strategy, political commitments and overall vision.”

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