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HomeBusinessAnalysis: How Horgan’s power-hungry New Democrats used old tricks to game the system in B.C.’s pandemic

Analysis: How Horgan’s power-hungry New Democrats used old tricks to game the system in B.C.’s pandemic

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Bob Mackin

British Columbia’s Coronavirus Pandemic, State of Emergency, Snap Election 2020 is all but over.

But for one more day of voting. And the counting, which could take until mid-November or longer.

All signs point to the NDP remaining in power. But with more power at the expense of the opposition BC Liberals and the NDP’s onetime junior partner, BC Greens. Infighting has begun inside the BC Liberals.

NDP Health Minister Adrian Dix (upper left) and BC Liberal critic Norm Letnick (lower left) on May 11 (BC Gov)

It will be a victory for political maneuvering and marketing. But not for democracy.

The election was supposed to be Oct. 16, 2021, according to the fixed dates law the NDP amended. But the NDP turned the pandemic into an opportunity for itself. As sure as winter follows autumn, governing will not be any easier. 

How did they do it?

In March, they neutralized opponents who put partisanship aside to pass a new $5 billion bailout plan in a day. Throughout spring, NDP ministers were joining hands with B.C. Liberals for town halls, to help flatten the curve. We’re all in this together was the mantra. Dogs and cats were friends. Kumbaya.

BC Liberals paused fundraising and organizing. BC Greens paused their leadership campaign. Both resumed in summer, but the NDP was already miles ahead. Behind closed doors, eyeing a post-Thanksgiving, pre-Halloween majority.

Andrew Wilkinson became the NDP’s second-best asset. Why wait and let the BC Liberals do to Wilkinson what the Ontario PCs did to Patrick Brown on the way to 2018’s election? A new BC Liberal leader without baggage could’ve put Horgan in jeopardy of losing.

Wilkinson was easy to define. A day oner with the Gordon Campbell administration in 2001 who left mid-decade to pursue his law career before returning in 2013 as a Christy Clark cabinet minister. It was laughable when BC Liberal campaigners used words like “fresh” and “new” to describe Wilkinson. The NDP painted him into a corner, as an elite Westsider whose natural habitat is a yacht club, not a neighbourhood pub.

As for the BC Greens, they were faced with choosing an unknown or a leader known to be an adversary of ex-leader Andrew Weaver. They chose the latter. Then Weaver endorsed Horgan instead of Sonia Furstenau.

NDP held online campaign prep seminars in June (NDP)

Contrary to Horgan’s claim that he woke up on the last Saturday of summer and decided to have an election, this was months in the making. While the NDP was patting BC Liberals and Greens on the back in the spring, they were plotting to stab them in the back in fall.

Rewind to the last weeks of spring. From June 9-24, the NDP held digital campaign and fundraising prep seminars on Zoom, under the banner of “Level Up.”

What was taught?

  • Using tools, targeting, and outreach to build a winning voter contact program”
  • Building a powerhouse fundraising plan that’ll help you raise money for your constituency”
  • “Building Facebook ads and digital campaign plans, and upping your social media game”
  • “Using SQL for fun — and profit!”
  • “How to be an incredible volunteer, and how to recruit them.”

The website also said: “In a socially distant election, Facebook advertising will be one of the best ways we can signal boost, extend our reach, and surround people with our core message and ideas they ought to be hearing about.

“Social distancing means phone calls are enjoying a renaissance — and that includes fundraising phone calls. In this session, we’ll learn what makes a compelling fundraising ask over the phone and get comfortable making that call.”

The day after Level Up ended, a series of six telephone town halls began.

Unlike Level Up, the “COVID-19 Recovery Ideas” were handled June 25 to July 16 by the Government Communications and Public Engagement department. Taxpayers footed the bill to build profile for swing riding incumbents who used the exercise to test market their messaging.

Government telephone townhalls showcased NDP MLAs and test marketed messaging (BC Gov)

It also involved the party’s polling and research contractor, Strategic Communications, on a government contract of an undisclosed amount.

The MLAs’ roster included Ronna-Rae Leonard (Courtenay-Comox); Bob D’Eith (Maple Ridge-Mission); Lisa Beare (Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows); Ravi Kahlon (Delta North); George Heyman (Vancouver-Fairview); Bowinn Ma (North Vancouver-Lonsdale); and Jinny Sims (Surrey-Panorama).

Meanwhile, the party advertised jobs for field directors to coordinate campaigns in regions and districts. The contracts would last until November.

The parades and festivals of previous summers were cancelled by the pandemic. Some of those swing riding MLAs found other ways to meet the public. Heyman, Kahlon and Ma set-up tables outside their offices and near transit stations to give away non-medical facemarks branded with their names.

Heyman was giving them away at least until Sept. 18, the Friday before the election was called.

Kahlon took it one step further, and mailed masks with a postcard to constituents. One of them Tweeted that he received his on Sept. 25 — four days after the election call. The postcard was emblazoned with a photo of Kahlon and the party’s “Working for You” slogan.

Heyman, Kahlon and Ma did not respond for comment. The branded mask giveaways were definitely not in the spirit of the Legislature’s Members’ Guide to Policy and Resources. They might even have broken the rules that ban MLAs from printing or mailing at Legislature expense “any material seeking financial support or containing any identification or information of a partisan, political nature.”

NDP MLAs gave away branded masks (Twitter)

Then the campaign began Sept. 21, with Horgan trashing the Confidence and Supply Agreement with the two-member BC Green caucus and the fixed elections date law. Horgan stood in front of two green garbage cans in a Langford cul-de-sac to announce the Oct. 24 election day. It is hard to believe the backdrop was a coincidence. Political handlers are sticklers for visual details.

Furstenau had been leader for only a week. She had a strong debate performance and put the NDP campaign on its heels, but not on its butt. She hasn’t mastered the 10-second soundbite, but did boast of raising more than $830,000 since mid-September.

Wilkinson made grand promises. A PST holiday for a year. Massey bridge. End the ICBC monopoly. It may have excited the base, but didn’t grow it. Instead, he was busy with damage control for Jane Thornthwaite and Laurie Throness bozo eruptions.

Democracy Watch’s Duff Conacher and IntegrityBC founder Wayne Crookes are contesting the legality of the snap election, but not the results, in B.C. Supreme Court. Conacher said Horgan is acting more like an old dictator than a new democrat. A line that could come back to haunt Horgan during the next four years (or until the next state of emergency snap election, whichever comes first).

The NDP will stay in power for how they exploited the pandemic. The most important decision that opened the door for the campaign was a little-known pivot made early in the state of emergency by the Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy.

An aide in the 1990s NDP government, McEvoy decreed that all public bodies in B.C. would be excused from disclosing records to freedom of information requesters for nearly two months. After the blanket holiday was over, he invited bureaucrats to return with case-by-case delay requests for rubber-stamping.

That ensured information about how the government is operating and how much it is spending could be kicked into November and beyond.

John Horgan announces the election in a Langford cul-de-sac (CPAC)

The pandemic also gave the NDP licence to shelve the 2017 promise to reform the FOI law and the 2019 pledge to add the Legislature to the law. They’re not even in the NDP’s snap election platform. Secrecy is that seductive.

The NDP also played good cop, bad cop with the media.

It designated media workers an essential service in the state of emergency orders, then restricted reporters to a single question during March and April news conferences. When it finally loosened up and allowed followup questions, it banned reporters from appearing in-person at government announcements. That lasted all summer long for Horgan and cabinet. Dr. Bonnie Henry maintains the phone-only policy.

The operator has control of the queue and the mute button. And the politicians always have their taking points.

It is an easy formula. Control the message and the flow of information, then you are halfway to victory before the opening face-off.

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