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B.C. Premier apologizes for plan to target ethnic voters

B.C. Premier Christy Clark hands out red packets during the Chinese New Year parade in Vancouver on Feb. 17, 2013.

Ben Nelms/Reuters

Premier Christy Clark has launched an investigation into a leaked document that outlined plans to harness government resources for her party's electoral advantage.

The strategic plan directs officials in the Premier's office and caucus to work hand-in-glove with key members of the B.C. Liberal Party to develop policy and political messaging that would appeal to ethnic voters and use government resources to build crucial election databases of names and addresses to help the party get in touch with them.

The 17-page planning document, released on Wednesday by the NDP opposition, describes apologies for historical wrongs to ethnic communities as a "quick win" to "improve our chances of winning swing ridings by better engaging supporters from ethnic communities and getting them involved at the riding level."

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It was distributed in private e-mails to a group of party operatives and government appointees in January, 2012, by Kim Haakstad, the Premier's deputy chief of staff and long-time confidant.

Anger within the Liberal caucus over the plan spilled out before a sombre caucus meeting on Thursday afternoon. The Premier's response was both swift and contrite. "I want to sincerely apologize to British Columbians," she said in a statement.

Ms. Clark's government has been dogged by controversy, fed in part by a pipeline of embarrassing leaks as her party counts down to the May 14 election still well behind in the polls. Increasingly, caucus unity has been frayed.

"The Premier has been let down by her staff," Moira Stilwell, Minister of Social Development, said in an interview on Thursday. Dr. Stilwell's Vancouver-Langara riding is one of the most ethnically diverse of the Liberals' seats, and she said she worries that the "offensive" e-mails will taint the province's plan to offer an official apology for the Chinese head tax.

Like other members of caucus, Dr. Stilwell said she was unaware of the plan, which was addressed to key aides to the Premier, including Ms. Clark's director of outreach, Pamela Martin. Many others who received it have since left government.

John Dyble, the Deputy Minister to the Premier, is investigating. His probe will determine whether any of those who received the e-mails followed through on the ideas.

"Clearly, it's wrong," said Randy Hawes, the MLA for Abbotsford-Mission. Kash Heed, the MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview, described the multicultural outreach plan as insulting and demanded accountability from the officials behind it. "Being a member of the ethnic community, that really concerned me."

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Despite the tie to her staff, an official in the Premier's office said Ms. Clark was unaware of the document. In her statement, she distanced herself from its tactics. "The document did not recognize there are lines that cannot be crossed in conducting this outreach and it is unacceptable."

But Ms. Clark was not in Victoria and left Deputy Premier Rich Coleman to answer questions.

"This wasn't acceptable and there will be consequences," Mr. Coleman told reporters after delivering a subdued apology inside the House while the Liberal caucus sat in silence. "The consequences of bad behaviour could go all the way up to termination. That will have to be dealt with very quickly. I expect answers within the next 24 hours." He acknowledged that the caucus was angry. "We had a conversation in caucus about this, and I let them know we were going to be absolutely sincere and apologetic."

NDP critics said the current investigation is not good enough.

"Mr. Dyble is out of his depth," said John Horgan, the NDP House Leader. He said the Liberal government has demonstrated a pattern of using public resources for political purposes and a one-day internal probe won't address that. "This looks like another quick fix. This is a profound breach of significant policies and statutes. Now is not the time to sweep it under the rug."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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