Cassidy Olivier’s article in this morning’s The Province is a good illustration of the clever way in which journalists gloss over inconvenient facts in order to suit their storyline.
The article concerns the preparation of a document entitled the “Book on John Cummins”, a four page outline of Conservative Party leader John Cummins’ policy promises and commitments. According to Olivier, the document was drafted by Sam Oliphant, then a research officer with the government caucus.
Olivier notes that Oliphant communicated from a private email account. He says this:
As noted in the recently-released Dyble report, which was drafted in response to the Liberal’s controversial ethnic outreach plan, the work political staff – executive assistants, ministerial assistants and government caucus – do often crosses into a grey area.
For example, drafting the book on Cummins falls within the duties of a caucus researcher. But overt partisan activities or discussion inside the workplace is against the rules outlined in the BC Public Service Act.
Olivier quotes an unnamed confidential source as saying that the purpose of a so-called “team” of political staffers was to use taxpayer funded resources for the benefit of the BC Liberal Party. Olivier cites no evidence in support of this assertion other than the statement of his source. This should make you suspicious. After all, it appears that some documents were provided to Olivier by his source, and yet none of the documents cited in the article provide any support for his contention. So all he has for evidence is the unverified, undocumented assertion of a “confidential source”. Pretty thin gruel, I’d suggest.
Of course, if all that is meant here is that the work of this team is meant to advance the interests of the BC Liberal Party, then I have to wonder, what’s the news in that? Does someone think that the government’s political staffers should be working to advance the interests of some other political party? There is a reason, after all, why they are called political staff. Their job is to advance the political interests of their employers. NDP caucus staff members don’t sit around dreaming about the public interest; they are hard at work advancing the interests of the NDP. And they, just like the political staff for government, are all paid for by taxpayers. And have been, for as long as these offices have existed.
So let’s deal with a few other aspects of this article that are offensive. I quoted the paragraph that points out, correctly, that drafting the Cummins document does fall within the duties of a caucus researcher. But it was pretty cute of Olivier to follow with this sentence: “But overt partisan activities or discussion inside the workplace is against the rules outlined in the BC Public Service Act”. The reason I say this is cute is because the Public Service Act does not apply to caucus researchers. Olivier wants us to think that if Oliphant was engaging in overt partisan discussion inside the Legislature it would be a violation of the BC Public Service Act. But in fact it wouldn’t, because those rules don’t apply to caucus researchers like Oliphant. Don’t you think that’s a bit unfair?
Olivier contributes to his self-created confusion when in the previous paragraph he says, “As noted in the recently-released Dyble report… the work political staff – executive assistants, ministerial assistants and government caucus – do often crosses into a grey area”. In fact, the Dyble report said nothing of the sort. Dyble made it very clear that his report would not deal with caucus staff.
And similarly, when Olivier points out that Oliphant was using a private email account, it would have been nice if he had taken the trouble to point out that the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act does not apply to MLA or caucus staff. As a caucus researcher, Oliphant was free to use any email account he felt like.
You can’t help but laugh when Olivier refers to the so-called Book on John Cummins as “at least one tangible product of the team” when he’s already made it clear that it was actually written by Oliphant, who was perfectly entitled to write it, and he has not produced a single other “tangible product” of the so-called team. It’s like he’s standing with a bag of square pegs trying desperately to pound at least one of them into a square hole.
Yes, it is a concern that his email of September 11, 2011 was sent to the private email accounts of government political and communications staff who are subject to the FOI Act, and as the Dyble Report and others have recently pointed out, this is an area in need of clarification. But let’s not be naïve about this. When I look at the content of the emails, there is nothing surprising in them. It’s just the work that political staffers do. They research the policies and positions of other parties, they look for weaknesses and inconsistencies, they dig out the scandals in the past lives of politicians, they meet in the Legislature to discuss these things, they prepare their bosses for the cut and thrust of Question Period, and they stand around in the hallways of the Legislature answering the requests of political writers for juicy stuff they can put in their columns. It’s the way politics works.
Of course, it would be a concern if political staff prepared documents at taxpayer expense which they then forwarded to the political party in whose interest they are working. That’s where the line is drawn traditionally, and I would suggest it is the right place to draw the line. But to repeat myself, there is no credible evidence to support that assertion here, just an undocumented claim by a confidential “source”. When all is said and done, here’s what we know: a government caucus staffer did something he is entitled to do and communicated it to people he is entitled to communicate with from an email account he was entitled to use; he probably ought not to have sent it to the private email accounts of ministerial and government communication staff members, but that’s the only questionable thing that’s actually happened here.
One last point. It’s pretty funny that when the story first appeared online last night, the actual quote from Oliphant was this: “In fact, I remember being asked to dig up stuff on John Cummins because your colleague Mike Smyth was looking for some information.” But in the online version I pulled down to write this piece, Mike’s name was deleted. I wonder why? Because it didn’t suit the convenience of The Province to admit that taxpayer funded provincial legislative caucus political staffers routinely supply attack facts to political columnists?