Charlie Smith at the Georgia Straight wrote Craig James helps minimize sting of B.C. Liberal government’s HST loss:
By releasing the numbers on a Friday in late August, James chose one of the very best times of the year from the perspective of government communications staff…
James did the B.C. Liberal government a second favour with his suggested wording of the question: “Are you in favour of extinguishing the HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) and reinstating the PST (Provincial Sales Tax) in conjunction with the GST Goods and Services Tax? Yes/No.”
Asking people who hated the tax to vote “yes” served to confuse the issue.
This was not the first or last time that James stood accused of serving BC Liberal Party objectives. After signatures on the anti-HST petition were verified in August 2010, Elections BC did not refer the petition to the Legislative committee as required by law. Craig James decided to stall the referral until court challenges were complete. According to David Schreck, writing in The Tyee:
Section 10 of the act states that if the petitioner obtains the required signatures and satisfied the reporting requirements to Election BC, then the chief electoral officer must send a copy of the petition and draft Bill to the select standing committee.
It doesn’t say the chief electoral officer must send a copy of the petition and draft Bill to the committee when he gets good and ready.
…Thanks to the outrageous decision of the temporary chief electoral officer, who was appointed by the government without all party agreement, thousands of British Columbians may question whether the government and its business allies unduly influenced Elections BC.
Whether it did or not, the damage is done. Craig James is respected by both sides in the legislature, but he comes to the position of chief electoral officer after decades as a legislative clerk. Legislative clerks come from a culture where the government is always right; it always gets its way.
In July, James was criticized for delays and indulgent treatment of a Liberal MLA and former Cabinet Minister who violated the Election Act during campaigning in the 2009 provincial election. More than two years after the vote, Elections BC asked the Supreme Court not to remove BC Liberal MLA Kash Heed from his seat in the legislature over spending and reporting offenses.
Harry Neufeld served without controversy as Chief Electoral Officer from 2002 until June 2010. Despite knowing the date Neufeld’s term expired, the Government delayed establishment of a Special Committee to Appoint a Chief Electoral Officer. That led to Liberals assigning, without consultation, Craig James as interim chief. He had been clerk of committees at the legislature for more than 20 years.
Shortly after, the interim Chief Electoral Officer made a major change at Elections BC. Ian Reid of The Real Story wrote about it:
James fired the deputy Chief Electoral Officer Linda Johnston, claiming he was reorganizing the non-partisan office to be more efficient.
Critics speculated the real reason for the firing had to do with Ms. Johnson’s ruling preventing the government from advertising against the anti-hst campaign. To critics, the firing looked suspiciously like government ordered payback.
Paul Willcocks of Paying Attention wrote this about James,
…in 10 years in the Press Gallery I never saw a hint of partisanship or sneakiness or anything but quality public service. The New Democrats have stated they have “enormous respect” for James.
But the Liberals put him in this mess and created the perception of possible political interference. And it was unnecessary.
The critical qualities in a chief electoral officer are competence, non-partisanship and absolute independence. Otherwise, the risks of real and perceived election-rigging undermine democracy…
This week, we appear to have indisputable evidence that Elections BC was inappropriately communicating with the Government during the lengthy HST referendum count. Contrary to public statements, it is revealed that Liberals knew the vote results long before they were announced on August 26.
Stephen Smart, CBC News Legislative Reporter, Victoria, talking about Finance Minister Kevin Falcon’s August 26 press conference on the day HST results were released:
[The Finance Minister admitted] a transition team was already in place. Negotiations on withdrawing from the HST had already begun with Ottawa and a date had already been set to go back [to PST].
In the background of this is the fact that Craig James has been given another plum appointment by the Liberal Government, without assent of the opposition. Vaughn Palmer noted:
There are two ways to appoint the senior clerk of the B.C. legislature. The way it has been always been done. And the way the B.C. Liberals did it Thursday.
The way it has always been done involves consultation among all parties represented in the chamber, leading to all-party agreement on the right way to proceed.
Rob Shaw at the Times Colonist explained conflict surrounding the appointment:
A low-profile but powerful job in the B.C. legislature sparked controversy Thursday after the Liberals installed a candidate without the endorsement of all MLAs.
…the Opposition NDP wanted the job vacancy posted publicly to seek applications from qualified people.
But the Liberals flexed their majority to approve the promotion of clerk of committees Craig James to the top post. James is also acting chief electoral officer, in charge of administering the referendum on the harmonized sales tax.
The clerk, who essentially acts as the chief executive officer of the legislature, oversees its rules and procedures and guides the Speaker in deciding all manner of issues. It is a lifetime appointment, with a salary of $250,000 a year.
James was installed Thursday by a standing vote that split along party lines.
The legislature is now in the unprecedented position of having a clerk who does not enjoy the full confidence of the house — the first time in at least 60 years such a situation has occurred.
Since Harry Neufeld’s term ended, Elections BC has been in the midst of controversy, criticized often for carelessness in protecting its non-partisan reputation. Repeating Paul Willcocks, the risks of real and perceived election-rigging undermine democracy. Willcocks also made this observation:
The legislative guarantees of independence and non-partisanship have been subverted, no matter who is in the job. There was no reason for the Liberals to create this problem.”
All but the scarred partisans of the BC Liberal Party must be wondering how this Government has managed to go so wrong in so many places.