UPDATE: 4 p.m.
In a statement, the BC Liberal Party denied allegations from Abbotsford MLA and Speaker Darryl Plecas, who claimed former premier Christy Clark told caucus MLAs to fire constituency assistants who refused to campaign for the party in 2017.
“We are staunch defenders of non-partisan constituency offices. As Caucus Chair, I can categorically state that any suggestion otherwise is patently false. This is why we were shocked when the NDP government chose to place political staff in their community offices. In contrast, BC Liberal Caucus constituency offices remain strictly non-partisan. The BC Liberals have requested a report on partisan activity in constituency offices through the Legislative Assembly Management Committee and we await its presentation.”
Shortly after The News published this article, the Liberals also put out a news release accusing the NDP of politicizing constituency offices.
“A Freedom of Information (FOI) request shows the Executive Assistant (EA) to the Minister of Children and Family Development billed thousands of dollars to the ministry for office renovations and equipment. With EAs placed in nineteen government ministries, the total figure to create office space for them is estimated to be at least $127,300,” the Liberal release reads.
Liberal finance co-critic Shirley Bond said in a statement those funds could have gone toward government, “and instead are paying to further the NDP political agenda.”
“We have repeatedly raised concerns, including in the Legislature, about the NDP decision to politicize constituency offices. This practice is totally inappropriate, and these types of funds would be better spent on front line services for British Columbians,” Bond said.
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Former Premier Christy Clark told BC Liberal MLAs to fire any constituency assistants who refused to campaign for the party in 2017, Darryl Plecas alleged in an interview with The Abbotsford News on Thursday.
The Abbotsford South MLA and BC Legislature Speaker said he considered such a move to be “immoral and possibly illegal” because constituency assistants and offices are publicly funded and supposedly non-partisan. He said he refused to comply, and that the order played a significant part in his decision to abandon the BC Liberals the following year in order to assume the Speaker’s role in the legislature.
Constituency offices and the assistants who work in them are funded with taxpayers’ money allocated to each MLA to help citizens. Constituency assistants are supposed to be non-partisan – a point that multiple BC Liberal MLAs have made in the legislature over the last year – even though many do engage in campaign work outside of office hours.
Speaking in response to a question about a group seeking to recall him for leaving the BC Liberals, Plecas told The News that before the last provincial election, Clark told all the party’s MLAs that they should replace any constituency assistants who were not willing to defeat the NDP.
Plecas said he believed the directive to be “possibly illegal” because of the non-partisan nature of the office.
“That’s using public money for a political purpose,” he said. “That’s also not an appropriate way to treat any employee, where somebody gets fired for their belief system. I simply said I just wasn’t going to do it. That’s not who I am. That’s not who I want to be.”
Since leaving the BC Liberals in late 2017, Plecas has been independent.
Tricia Taylor, a former constituency assistant for Plecas who left her job in 2017, independently confirmed that, in late 2016, Plecas returned from a meeting “very upset.” According to Taylor, Plecas mentioned that MLAs had been told that their constituency assistants should campaign for the party in the spring. She said, though, that Plecas made it clear that his staff weren’t going to be expected to be politically active.
Taylor ended up managing Plecas’s 2017 campaign for the Liberals, but another longtime constituency assistant who remains employed had no interest in partisan activities. (Taylor has since left Plecas’s office because her outreach work wasn’t possible given the confines of the non-partisan Speaker’s gig.)
Taylor said Plecas would have expected negative consequences for not complying with the order but “didn’t care.”
Over the last year and a half, the non-partisan nature of constituency offices and assistants has been repeatedly cited as worthy of upholding by BC Liberal MLAs, who have blasted the NDP for allowing the political staff of ministers to work in constituency offices.
MLAs have voiced their complaints several times, including in November 2018, when Liberal MLA Peter Milobar queried why constituency assistants were apparently involved in political meetings.
”Constituency offices exist to serve the public in a non-partisan way,” Milobar said. “They do not exist for the premier and his party.”
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Plecas has dominated B.C. political news this week after releasing a bombshell report on the extravagant spending habits of the two top officers at the provincial legislature.
The report has won Plecas praise, and it has also delayed a recall initiative that was launched by a Langley man in January.
Robin Roy had said Plecas’s move to serve as Speaker, which gave vital breathing room to the NDP-Green coalition, was a “betrayal” of his party and constituents.
Roy told The News Friday that the report was mostly “smoke and mirrors” and hasn’t persuaded him that Plecas shouldn’t be recalled. He said his group wants to scour the report so they can better answer the questions of constituents being asked to sign up to remove Plecas from office.
Roy said his group won’t formally be starting to collect signatures until February now.
“We want to dig through this,” he said.
Plecas said that while he doesn’t feel good about being subject to a recall campaign, he hopes that it will prompt a conversation about matters of party loyalty and the duty of elected representatives.
Canadian politicians, he said, are elected to do what they feel is in their constituents’ best interests.
“I’m a voice for the people first and the party second,” he said. “People didn’t elect me to do what I was told. I’m the voice for the people and represent the people.”
He said history shows the dangers that emerge when politicians don’t have the opinion to stand up against the leaders of their parties.
“Constituents have to know that the party isn’t first. They are.”