Saturday, May 05, 2007

 

Political dirty tricks are on trial too


Do we see rigged call-ins and dishonesty as just part of the political 'game'?

Paul Willcocks
Times Colonist
Sunday, May 06, 2007

It's hard to shake the feeling that Premier Gordon Campbell is waiting to see what you think about political "dirty tricks."

I'm curious too.

The trial of Dave Basi and Bob Virk on corruption charges could be one of those pivotal points, when we either accept that the normal standards of decency don't apply to politics or start demanding better.

Do we agree that a certain amount of sleaze and dishonesty are part of "the game," or do we expect participants to act -- well, like we expect people to act in our own lives?

The trial has pushed the issue into our faces. Defence lawyers have alleged that Basi's role as a senior aide to then finance minister Gary Collins included what most of us would call political dirty tricks.

They say he was in charge of lining up people to call radio call-in shows under fake names. If the premier or a Liberal was on, they asked easy questions. If it was a New Democrat -- or even Bill Vander Zalm -- they tried their best to make the "enemy" look bad.

When then North Vancouver mayor Barb Sharp, an opponent of the B.C. Rail deal, was to be on a radio call-in show, the defence alleges, Basi asked Collins if it was OK to line up a caller to "rip her a new (deleted, but you know what)."

According to the wiretap evidence cited by the lawyers, Collins said sure.

The defence lawyers also say Basi did some of the work as part of his government job and also had "media monitoring" contracts with the B.C. Liberal party to fund the efforts. Senior people in the premier's office -- including Gordon Campbell -- knew and approved, the lawyers allege.

And it went beyond call-ins. They say Basi paid a man $100 to heckle a Victoria demonstration against salmon farms, while pretending he was just a concerned citizen.

It's creepy stuff, the kind of activities that would keep most people from considering becoming involved or running for office.

All these are just unproven allegations. Campbell is refusing to answer questions because the case is before the courts, an iffy position.

But it's hard to see how he can keep avoiding the basic issues raised by some of the NDP questions -- does he approve of such activities, are they taking place now and if so, are government staff involved?

They're important questions for everyone in politics, from all parties, and not just in terms of this case.

It's a chance to set some clear ethical or moral limits for political activity.

Take a basic question like call-in shows. Former Socred Rafe Mair says in a column for The Tyee that as far back as 1975 his campaign workers were pressed into service to jam the lines when he appeared on a show, lying and asking soft questions -- and at the same time preventing callers with real questions from getting through. Many people in politics have similar anecdotes.

That doesn't mean everyone in politics is involved in dishonest or disreputable activities. It does suggest such activities are widespread and accepted, even by those don't take part.

But is it right to run that kind of operation? Is it acceptable to lie about who you are and why you are calling? Or is dishonesty just part of political life?

And do the moral standards change depending on who is telling the lie? Perhaps it's more serious when a government staffer, on taxpayers' money, phones in and lies than when a volunteer does the same thing.

It's kind of awful even to reread the last few paragraphs. The fact that we're debating whether dishonesty, deviousness and lying are OK in politics shows a sickness.

Campbell is on record, sort of, as being opposed to lying in the cause of politics. In 2005, a newly hired senior adviser in the premier's office called Campbell on a TV call-in show, used a false name and lobbed a softball question. Too many people recognized his voice and he quit the job.

Campbell said the resignation was appropriate, but offered only a weak condemnation. "It's always good to say who you are," the premier said. "Clearly it was a mistake. He's done the right thing."

That answer, tepid as it was, creates some potential problems for the government. The defence is alleging -- and remember, nothing is proven -- that Campbell and his senior staff knew about Basi's phone gang.

Politics has too often become a game. Laws are obeyed, but rules don't matter and ethics are for the squeamish.

And that attitude too is on trial in Vancouver.

pwillcocks@tc.canwest.com

Read Paul's full column at:
Political dirty tricks are on trial too


Comments:
Yes . . . & political dirty tricks have the same effect as criminal wrongdoing on the public:

The public's trust in the system is eroded when the manipulation that goes on behind closed doors is exposed - 'process' becomes a 'catch 22' for anyone, ethically trying to follow the rules when no rules are being followed - the public's best interests/rights be damned!!!

This trial may have a wider purpose to expose the depth of rot "everywhichway"
 
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