Martyn Brown: Disabusing John Horgan’s media master baiters

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      There’s a new baiting game that’s big these days with the deacons of Victoria’s legislative press gallery: it’s called baiting John Horgan.

      The object is two-fold: (a) to make him squirm with questions about hypothetical scenarios about resource development projects that they support and that they believe he secretly supports; and (b) to get him to say things that prove them right, that pit him against the environmentalists that they and their organizations hope to marginalize, and that give them something “newsworthy” to report and ridicule in propping up the B.C. Liberals’ reelection chances.

      Sadly for him and the NDP, it doesn’t take much for Horgan to give the gallery’s reporters and elder minor celebrities the chuckles and “wins” they seek to elicit.

      The slightest slip-up in his choice of wording, or awkward hesitation in answering, and he’s sure to satisfy Victoria’s master baiters. 

      Instead of disabusing them of their premise—that he’s quietly for the very resource development projects that both he and his party have formally criticized and opposed—he gives them just enough verbiage to at once confuse the issue and to help them have their fun.

      Horgan sometimes takes the bait

      Witness Horgan’s comments this week in answer to a question in a media scrum about his hypothetical response to a hypothetical decision by the federal government to approve the Kinder Morgan project. 

      After reiterating his party’s position opposing the project, saying that he found it “difficult to see how making Vancouver an export terminal for oil is in the interest of B.C.,” he took the bait.

      In trying to convince his pro-Kinder contrarians that they should not therefore run off and portray him as someone who is an unreasonable and irresponsible “captive” of his party’s green contingent, he committed the “faux pas” they sought to provoke.

      He added, “But I could be persuaded.”

      Horror of horrors! The reporters’ eyes lit up. Mentally exchanged high-fives all round.


      Instantly recognizing what the media would make of that tacit tip to a potential reversal in policy, he further muddied his mistake by elaborating.

      “I believe that’s the responsibility of public figures and people in responsible positions—someone who aspires to be the premier in 36 weeks. I want to make sure I know the facts and the details before I make comments.”

      Ooooh. He’s so screwed.

      Trust me, I know the look.

      I mean, there’s no way that any responsible journalist could conclude after that response that he’s really not at odds with those “lunatics” in his caucus who constitute the antijobs, antigrowth “forces of no”. 

      That is, not unless they tried for a second to honestly fathom his intentions, rather than delighting in trying to skewer him by citing his words to “prove” his discomfort with his own prior position and with the “unreasonable” greenies in his midst.

      Horgan's objections parallel those of Christy Clark

      Granted, Horgan certainly could have been more politically prudent in explaining his position. Or perhaps there was much more to his answer than was reported out of context. 

      He could have pointed out that his opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project has always been qualified by four objections. 

      Those objections are not dissimilar to the ones expressed by the Clark government in registering its disapproval of the project only weeks after the 2013 election that it won, in part, by disingenuously slamming Adrian Dix for his “Kinder surprise.” 

      Press gallery members have often mentioned that the B.C. Liberals exploited Adrian Dix's "Kinder Morgan surprise" before the 2013 election.

      Clark has her five conditions for winning approval of any such heavy oil project and Horgan has his four.

      They both agree that the lack of facts and details in answer to so many critical questions raised during the deeply flawed National Energy Board review process makes it impossible to support the project, as it has been recommended by the NEB to the federal government.

      Of particular note is this passage from Horgan’s July 2015 letter to the NEB:

      “The proponent refused to answer nearly 80 questions from the Government of British Columbia, including questions on spill response, pipeline issues, emergency response plans, geo-hazard risks, and more. In response, the province stated: ‘Trans Mountain’s failure to file the evidence requested by the Province in Information Request No. 1 denies the Board, the Province and other Intervenors access to the information required to fully understand the risk posed by the Project, how Trans Mountain proposes to mitigate such risk and Trans Mountain’s ability to effectively respond to a spill related to the Project.’”

      Who knows? Maybe the Trudeau government will decide that it must get answers to those questions—as well as to the nearly 2,000 other unanswered questions that were raised by intervenors—before it can contemplate offering its approval.

      Those answers certainly will not be forthcoming under the 157 conditions imposed by the NEB in granting its preordained approval.

      Nor will the NDP’s opposition to the project as it now stands be otherwise mollified by the lip service paid by the NEB to aboriginal consultation and accommodation, or to mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions impacts of the project’s construction.

      Again, Horgan might have added, let’s wait to see what the federal government says in addressing the concerns that the NDP and so many others specifically raised about the lack of any hard evidence or consideration of the project’s upstream and downstream climate impacts.

      Let’s see what the government might say about the need to fundamentally fulfill its legal and moral obligations to First Nations, which the NEB’s report does not adequately guarantee.

      Answers to all of those concerns must obviously be a precondition to granting any responsible government’s approval.

      Or perhaps the federal consultation panel will report back and impress upon the government what Horgan also said so forcefully in his letter to the NEB. 

      That the process was a sham.

      That it was undemocratic at its core.

      That it made a mockery of its evidentiary hearings by failing to provide for oral cross-examinations, or even allowing so many interested parties and individuals from being heard. 

      The NEB process for the Kinder Morgan pipeline was a sham, according to John Horgan.

      NDP has been remarkably consistent

      There has been no change whatsoever in NDP policy.

      Without way more information, facts, and hard answers to address the concerns it shares with the Clark government about land and marine spill prevention and response, there’s no way anyone in their right mind would support the project. Least of all the NDP.

      But answers to all of those fundamental objections, supported by hard measures and solutions that the NEB failed to impose, are the only way there might be something new to talk about.

      Do all that, to the satisfaction of the local governments and the thousands of British Columbians who are now dead-set against the Kinder Morgan project, as the NDP is, and maybe we can be persuaded.

      Highly unlikely, no doubt.

      Can’t imagine that happening.

      But until we hear what the federal government has to say about all of those ironclad concerns, the question is academic.

      That’s what Horgan likely meant by his comments in the scrum, as someone who does not want to contradict the eminently reasonable, fact- and principle-based reasons for his party’s opposition to the project that he advanced in his letter to the NEB.

      The media master baiters, of course, know this. 

      They had every opportunity to cut Horgan some slack and illuminate how his words were intended.

      But almost no matter what he said in answer to their hypothetical scenario, he was bound to lose. 

      He would either be portrayed as an unwilling patsy of his own party’s “forces of no", or he would be portrayed as he was—as a reluctant apologist for his responsible position, who, in his heart of hearts, is just like them: pro–Kinder Morgan. Neither of those representations is true. 

      This is their game.

      It is to portray Horgan as a Clark wannabe on resource job creation. As someone who is hogtied by the elements within the NDP that they view as being as stupid, naïve, and extreme as the far fringe of the Green party. 

      It is to goad him into newly disavowing Adrian Dix’s “politically disastrous” decision to oppose the Kinder Morgan project that Global, Postmedia, and other major mainstream media support—largely for the associated advertising dollars that flow from its partners in Big Oil. 

      It is to drive a wedge deep into the heart of the NDP between its environmental faction and its union donors and workers, to deepen and perpetuate the split that the B.C. Liberals and their major media backers perceive as their crucial winning tactical advantage.

      Hopefully most voters are wise enough to see what’s really going on and the NDP’s supporters will not also take the media’s bait.

      More importantly, hopefully Horgan will also learn yet another valuable lesson in the school of hard knocks that targets him and his party for all they are not and for all their critics know they never mean to suggest. 

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      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British ColumbiaContact Brown at