The B.C. Liberals are poised to offer an apology for the Chinese head tax just weeks ahead of the provincial election campaign – a strategy that a leaked government document characterizes as a “quick win” for a party that is struggling to court the ethnic vote.
“A lot of work and consultation with the community has been going on and I look forward to bringing forward an apology motion,” Minister of State for Multiculturalism John Yap told reporters Wednesday.
The genesis for the apology can be traced to a Liberal government plan to shore up its appeal to ethnic voters, outlined in an internal 17-page “multicultural outreach” planning document (PDF) obtained by the B.C. NDP opposition.
In the plan, officials in Premier Christy Clark’s office and caucus were directed to work hand-in-glove with key members of her B.C. Liberal Party to develop government policy, political messaging and crucial election databases. The plan was driven by concern that the NDP “excel” at meaningful engagement with ethnic communities “and we need to catch up.”
The document was e-mailed to a group of party operatives and government appointees by Kim Haakstad, the Premier’s deputy chief of staff, from her personal e-mail account on Jan. 10, 2012.
“What we object to, and what we think British Columbians would object to, is their tax dollars being used to prop up the B.C. Liberal election machinery. And I can’t tell you how wrong that is,” NDP House Leader John Horgan told reporters after raising the issue in Question Period.
Mr. Yap noted that he was not the minister responsible when the plan was first drafted, but he was reluctant to distance himself from it. He did, however, say that not all elements of the strategy were put into play.
“Since coming into the role, we did not follow through with some of the ideas because we felt we could do things differently and actually get good results,” he said.
He was not aware, he said, of any sharing of government data with the party “to build robust contact lists,” as the document says. He insisted Wednesday that he would not have endorsed that.
One example where the strategy was followed is on the head tax – a fee that Chinese immigrants were forced to pay to enter Canada between 1885 and 1923. The strategy directed the Liberals to identify “historical wrongs” that could be addressed for “quick wins” as the election nears.
Bill Chu, chair of the Canadians for Reconciliation Society, said the Liberals are making a mistake if they roll out an election-eve apology for the racist tax.
“They don’t understand what they are apologizing for. And the public needs to understand it – that’s important,” Mr. Chu said in an interview. “This is an insult to anyone studying history. You don’t create this for an election.”
That the Liberals would want consistent messaging between the government and the party is not surprising, but government appointees are not supposed to directly engage in partisan work on government time or using government equipment. Typically, appointees take a leave of absence to work on election campaigns, for example.
The strategic plan was circulated in private e-mails, but it ties government appointees into a clearly political objective. Mr. Yap suggested it helped clarify the roles of party and government, but the document repeatedly states the intention is to “make sure government, caucus and the party are all working toward the same goal and in a co-ordinated and effective manner” and to “improve our chances of winning swing ridings by better engaging supporters from ethnic communities and getting them involved at the riding level.”