Martyn Brown: B.C.'s great election "free ride"

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      The mountain is high, the valley is low
      And you're confused on which way to go so
      Come on and take a free ride!

      Once again, the election silly season is upon us in British Columbia.

      For some reason, I can’t get one song out of my head: Edgar Winter Group’s “Free ride”.

      It is already this campaign’s official theme song, if not also the political soundtrack of our lives. Perfect for a boomer’s dance that is as old as politics—free love from those leaders who try to buy our votes with our own tax money, for anyone naïve enough to drink the Kool-Aid.

      The media has also been into free rides. Green party Leader Andrew Weaver seems to have his ticket permanently stamped by Postmedia and Global, which seem keen on giving his party’s platform announcements top billing over those made by John Horgan’s NDP.  

      There are so many issues that have not attracted the media’s appropriate level of critical inspection.

      A case in point: in my opinion, all of the media have given Christy Clark an outrageous free ride on her appalling lack of judgement in inviting the sitting chair of B.C. Hydro aboard her campaign bus as a “special adviser”.

      I suspect the media would be all over it if his name was not Brad Bennett, son of the Social Credit icon—British Columbia’s original “tough guy” premier, Bill Bennett—and grandson of the legendary Wacky Bennett.

      Yet somehow, no one in the media seems to think it is an issue. That was also the case in 2013, when Bennett first rode on Clark’s campaign bus and served in the same political capacity, as a sitting director of B.C. Hydro.

      CBC Daybreak South somehow recently managed to get through a nine-minute interview with Bennett, without ever asking him about the real or perceived propriety of his dual role.

      Am I missing something, or is this not fair and important fodder for investigative journalism?

      Should a paid chair of any Crown corporation also be campaigning full time for the premier whose cabinet appointed him? Or for any party, for that matter? Who and what policy regulates that?

      I expect it must be technically allowable. Indeed, I am certainly not suggesting that Bennett has broken any rules or done anything unlawful.

      But to be honest, I wouldn’t even know who to check with on that point for such questions, given that B.C.’s conflict of interest commissioner has no authority over ethical conduct, as such, as I have previously criticized.

      Who is pushing the B.C. Liberals on that point, to give us all new capacity to demand a higher degree of ethical conduct of all public office holders, and to rule on what is or should be right and wrong? Certainly not the Victoria press gallery, with few exceptions.

      I gather Brad Bennett is not bound by the Standards of Conduct for Public Service Employees that apply to British Columbia’s public servants. At least, I think that must be so, given what that document has to say about political activity.

      It says, “Public service employees are free to participate in political activities including belonging to a political party, supporting a candidate for elected office and actively seeking elected office. Employees’ political activities, however, must be clearly separated from activities related to their employment.”

      “If engaging in political activities, employees must be able to retain the perception of impartiality in relation to their duties and responsibilities. Employees must not engage in political activities during working hours or use government facilities, equipment or resources in support of these activities.”

      “Partisan politics at the local, provincial or national levels are not to be introduced into the workplace. This does not apply to informal private discussions among co-workers.”

      Now I don’t know if Bennett will be collecting any money at all from B.C. Hydro as he is tootling around the province on behalf of Clark’s campaign. Plus, I believe he only works part-time for B.C. Hydro, in his role as chair.

      Yet it is likely hard for most citizens to reconcile the provincial government’s public service code of conduct with the example Bennett is setting in his senior role with B.C. Hydro, even if it does not technically apply to him. Is his conduct compatable with that standard? You decide.

      If I were him, I wouldn’t dream of campaigning for any party while serving as the chair of any government agency, board, or commission.

      Premier Christy Clark is campaigning in this election with B.C. Hydro chair Brad Bennett, the son of one premier and grandson of another.

      Issue extends beyond Brad Bennett

      Indeed, there ought to be a law against it, to explicitly forbid anyone who is serving as an Order in Council appointee from actively campaigning for any party.

      It just looks bad, if nothing else, for any such individual, who owes their role and any related remuneration to their political appointment by cabinet, to be on the hustings as a political “volunteer”.

      My sense is, most British Columbians don’t expect people who are being paid by the taxpayers or by utility ratepayers to double as partisans at election time, other than elected officials. Unless, of course, they have taken a formal leave of absence, which perhaps Bennett has done, or was not required to do.

      What happens if the board of B.C. Hydro is required to meet for some reason during the campaign period? Presumably, Bennett would leave Clark’s bus and fulfill his duties as that company’s chair? On or off the payroll? It’s so confusing, to me at least.

      What are the rules around this for Crown corporation's board members and workers? What is the history and extent of other Crown entity appointees actively working on parties’ political campaigns while serving in those capacities?

      Many of those O.I.C. appointees are volunteers, as Bennett was when he served as chair of the board of governors for the University of British Columbia. Many others are not. There are literally thousands of those types of appointees to Crown agencies, boards, and commissions.

      What regulates those individuals’ political conduct in the governing party’s campaign activities? What is the history and extent of others from entities that are ostensibly arm’s length from government, actively and visibly working on party campaigns?

      What policy, if anything, is in place to prevent the premier from inviting the heads of other Crown boards from working on the B.C. Liberals’ campaigns or on future governing parties’ campaigns?

      Is it conceivable and appropriate that the sitting chairs of other boards, like regional health authorities, I.C.B.C., the B.C. Pavilion Corporation, or the Transportation Investment Corporation might all decide to go work for the governing party’s campaign at some point?

      The premier’s former chief of staff is the T.I.’s appointed board chair. Would a person like him be able to ride on the premier’s campaign bus or serve on a party’s central campaign, while perhaps also being compensated for his appointed duties? Dan Doyle is not doing any such thing, far as I know, but it does provoke the question: would that type of political conduct be allowable by anyone?

      Presumbly, all of those public entities have codes of conduct that support their founding legislation. But what, if anything, regulates all of their activities in respect of political conduct? Is there one overall standard for all such appointees, to preserve their optical neutrality and independence during political campaigns?

      I’m not sure, to be honest. But there probably should be. And the media should damn well look into it and ask all party leaders what their positions are on this issue.

      Fees paid to B.C. Hydro directors

      If I am reading its info correctly, B.C. Hydro reported that Bennett received $2,875 for his three months’ service in 2011/12, the year he was first appointed as a board director. He received $28,125 in remuneration and $3,288 in expenses in 2012/13. That increased to $32,125 and $15,724 respectively, in the following fiscal year.

      In 2014/15, he was paid $36,000 in retainers and meeting fees, in addition to $11,866 in expense payments. In 2015/16, Bennett collected $43,500 in retainers and meeting fees from that Crown corporation, on top of his $24,238 in expense reimbursements.

      Bear in mind, he was only appointed chair in September of that fiscal year, so we should expect he was paid considerably more for the most recent fiscal year, in 2016/17. Those figures are not yet published, far as I know. But Bennett’s predecessor as chair, Stephen Bellringer, received $70,250 for his services and only $1,316 in expenses in his last full year in that role.

      Now unless I am missing something, or my math is wrong, that adds up to $142,625 in fees and retainers from B.C. Hydro/Powerex for Bennett over four years and three months, not including the entire last fiscal year he served as its board chair.

      Tack on another $70K or so for that year, and it comes to well over $200K for his services—which, by the way, I am not at all questioning represents fair compensation. Though the annual increases for Bennet and other board members are interesting.

      I will bet that most working stiffs would welcome such pay hikes themselves. It might be something the media would want to ask Clark and Bennett about, as they are riding cheek to cheek, on the campaign bus.  

      I raise this issue as only one example of the free ride that Clark is getting from the media that has gone unprobed, to my knowledge. I have pointed out other examples, such as the lack of media diligence and scrutiny in following up on her party’s actions in identifying and repaying improper campaign contributions.

      Meanwhile, the campaign rolls on, with all parties promising no end of free or cut-rate “goodies” to curry votes with taxpayers’ money.

      No one likes paying the Clark government’s whopping increases in tolls, Hydro rates, MSP premiums, ferry fares, ICBC premiums, or other government-imposed costs. They are fodder for promises of free rides. But that is a subject for a subsequent column.

      I will resist the temptation to rain on the campaign gravy train that promises to carry us all away to a stronger BC and brighter future, as the B.C. Liberals’ platform promises. We will have to wait a few days yet for the fully costed NDP and Green platforms.

      But for now, you might as well sit back and enjoy the show. Free ride! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Anybody?

      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. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2005, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, and he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at