Friday, May 04, 2007

How dirty do we want politics to be?

Premier Gordon Campbell is likely waiting to see what you think about political "dirty tricks."
I'm curious too.
The trial of Dave Basi and Bob Virk on corruption charges could be a turning point, when we either accept that the normal standards of honesty and decency don't apply to politics or start demanding_better.
The trial has pushed the issue into our faces. Defence lawyers allege that Basi's role as a senior aide to then finance minister Gary Collins included what most of us would call political dirty tricks.
They say he was in charge of lining up people to call radio call-in shows under fake names. If the premier or a Liberal was on, they asked easy questions. If it was a New Democrat - or even Bill Vander Zalm - they tried their best to make the enemy look bad.
When then North Vancouver mayor Barb Sharp, an opponent of the B.C. Rail deal, was to be on a radio call-in show, the defence alleges, Basi asked Collins if it was OK to line up a caller to "rip her a new (deleted, but you know)." According to the wiretap evidence cited by the lawyers, Collins said sure.
The lawyers also say Basi did some of the work as part of his government job and also had "media monitoring" contracts with the B.C. Liberal Party to fund the efforts.
Senior people in the premier's office - including Gordon Campbell - knew and approved, the lawyers allege. _
And it went beyond call-ins. They say Basi paid a man $100 to heckle a Victoria demonstration against salmon farms, while pretending he was just a concerned citizen.
All these are just allegations. Campbell is refusing to answer questions because the case is before the courts.
But it's hard to see how long he can avoid the basic issues - does he approve of such activities, are they taking place now and if so, are government staff involved?
They're important questions for everyone in politics, from all parties, and not just in terms of this case.
The trial has given us a chance to set some clear ethical or moral limits for political activity.
Take a basic issue like call-in shows. Former Socred Rafe Mair says in a column for The Tyee that as far back as 1975 his campaign workers were pressed into service to jam the lines when he appeared on a show, lying and asking soft questions - and blocking callers with real questions. Many people in politics have similar anecdotes.
But is it right to run that kind of operation? Is it acceptable to lie in the interests of getting elected? (And if it is, what else that would normally be considered wrong is allowed in politics?)
And does it matter who tells the lie? Is it more serious when a government staffer, on taxpayers' money, phones in and lies than when a volunteer does?
It's kind of awful even to reread the last few paragraphs. The fact that we're debating whether dishonesty and deviousness are OK in politics shows a sickness.
Campbell is on record, sort of, as being opposed to lying in the cause of politics. In 2005, a newly hired senior adviser in the premier's office called Campbell on a TV call-in show, used a false name and lobbed a softball question. People recognized his voice and he resigned.
Campbell said that was appropriate, but offered only a weak condemnation. "It's always good to say who you are," he said. "Clearly it was a mistake. He's done the right thing."
That answer, tepid as it was, creates some potential problems for the government. The defence is alleging - and remember, nothing is proven - that Campbell and his senior staff knew about Basi's phone games.
Politics has too often become a game. Laws are obeyed, but rules don't matter and ethics are for the squeamish.
And that attitude too is on trial in Vancouver.
Footnote: The trial is raising other ethical questions. Defence lawyers revealed that former Quesnel mayor Steve Wallace, an opponent of CN's bid to buy BC Rail, accepted $1,000 from the lobbyist for OmniTRAX, a rival bidder. Wallace says the money covered his travel costs for fact-finding community visits.


Robert said...

Paying someone's expenses is not appropriate.

Take for instance the situation today in the lower mainland where a number of mayor's had a trip to China paid for. This trip may be in violation of the Community Charter.

Brian Kieran needs to explain what was behind a cheque written to Wallace Driving School. Seems a long way from Pender Island to take driving lessons....

Anonymous said...

"Defence lawyers allege that Basi's role as a senior aide to then finance minister Gary Collins included what most of us would call political dirty tricks."

"...and also had "media monitoring" contracts with the B.C. Liberal Party to fund the efforts."

I wonder if that means that Basi should have been registered as a lobbyist ?

Anonymous said...

Sleazy bunch

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is sick. There are two groups of people who appear to condone this sort of thing:

1) People who do it because they see it as part of their job description, and they want to keep their jobs & get ahead in their careers, so they have no choice but to rationalize it.

2) People who don't give it careful enough thought to draw a distinction between what we all know happens in reality vs. what we think ought to be happening --i.e the principles to which we should hold ourselves and our public servants.

We all fall short of our principles at some point or another -- and some failures are more serious than others. It doesn't mean we throw out all principles and expectations and just accept anarchy, chaos & our lowest common denominator.

It stinks, no question. The gusto and vulgarity suggested in the quote above turned my stomach. These are the people we're counting on to house the homeless, protect kids, elderly, handicapped, environment & serve the public good?

off-the-radar said...

stinky mess indeed and largely ignored by mainstream media. Thank goodness for Paul's coverage, BC Mary's blog and Bill Tielman's columns in the Tyee.

What I worry about is the political involvement of the RCMP. Do we have an independent police force and judiciary?!

Budd Campbell said...

Ministerial Aides are political appointees doing political work paid by the Crown. The understanding is that they are there to help the government and the Minister to implement government policy in the Minister's department, to carry out the will of the electorate as expressed in the mandate they gave the government, to change public policy.

Basi and Virk appear to have had lots of other things to keep themselves busy, like playing stupid telephone pranks and running various low-rent rendezvous political heists, such as upending former federal Cabinet Minister Herb Dhaliwal in his Vancouver South electoral district association. So much for helping provincial Minister Collins to implement new policies.

What all this does is prove the whatever their prefered image may be, Gordon Campbell's Government team is most certainly not made up of business professionals who just want to run the BC Govt according to principles of efficiency and to grow the BC economy. On the contary, they are classic Liberal political junkies pure and simple. The bit about business is just propaganda, a cover story to hide a good old fashioned Liberal Party patronage crew.