Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking for a bonus from Premier Christy Clark. But, in the past 24 hours, I’ve had calls from several senior members of her staff who appear sincerely mystified by public and media outrage over the CLBC bonus fiasco. And, while it’s amazing to me that a government led by a former radio host has to have this one explained to them, I’m always here to help. So let me try to put it as simply as I can: The public and journalists don’t like being duped, Premier. And we don’t like it when politicians blame us for their mistakes.
There are many valid criticisms of the media, and I’m not about to defend all the wrongs of my trade. But most of the reporters I’ve met over the years take their jobs seriously. They strive, as much as possible, to present stories that are fair and balanced and, above all, accurate. Politicians might be surprised to learn that we actually get in trouble with our bosses if we write stories that are wrong. We have to write corrections and sometimes — plug your ears, Premier — apologize. So it’s infuriating when we get conned by politicians into writing something that clearly misled the public, and then we have to listen to those same politicians try to justify what they did.
And make no mistake, reporters were misled about CLBC bonuses and we, in turn, misled the public. I went back last night and looked at all the stories that were written last October after Social Development Stephanie Cadieux announced that she was getting rid of bonuses at Community Living B.C. Everyone reported that the bonuses were gone. The Times Colonist, the Globe and Mail, CBC, CTV. We didn’t say that the bonuses were just being called something different and given to the executives anyway. We said it was gone.
And why did we say that? Because that’s what the government told us. Here is the press release. Hard to see how you can get rid of incentive pay, but keep the pay. Cadieux can’t seem to get her story straight on this one, though. On the one hand, she told me this week that she was under the impression last October that bonuses were over and above salary, and could be eliminated. It was only later, she said, that government realized the bonuses were a salary hold-back that could not be removed easily. In almost the same breath, though, she told me that she never said – never even hinted – that the managers would be getting less money. So what was she? Naive or crafty?
Even if Cadieux didn’t know what was going on, the government is filled with people who did. They also have armies of communications people who call reporters within minutes if we make the slightest error in a story. Hell, they call if they see a tweet they don’t like. But did anyone call reporters last October to say, “Well, um, actually, the bonuses aren’t really gone. We’ve discovered we can’t legally do that. So they’ll just be called salary now.” No, they let the misleading stories stand.
It wasn’t until last week that an anonymous source tipped the Times Colonist to what was really going on: The bonuses for last year will be paid out and then a new system kicks in whereby the bonuses are just rolled into salary. Upshot: Executives and managers earn basically what they did before, with the added perk that they no longer have to hit targets and also get a boost in pension. Sweet deal if you can get it, especially after a year when you pushed people out of group homes and denied you were doing it.
But, once they were found out, did Clark and Cadieux admit that they misled the media and the public, and that they should have been clearer last fall about what was really going on? No. They blamed the media and the critics. We just misheard them that’s all. We don’t understand how things really work. The critics are wrong. It’s all “semantics,” to quote the premier.
Clark’s line now is that all Cadieux promised to do was get rid of those nasty performance targets — not take money away from hard-working executives. Clark also claimed, wrongly, that all of this was revealed in an internal audit of CLBC released in January. Except that there are no details in the internal audit. You can check it for yourself — there is a link to the audit at the bottom of this page — but the only reference to what might happen is three sentences on page 29, and it’s far from definitive as to what the new compensation package might look like. Clinging to that as proof of government transparency and accountability is like holding onto a twig when you’re heading over Niagara Falls.
No, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that reporters and the public were tricked into thinking the bonuses were gone when they really weren’t, and that now, rather than apologizing, the politicians seem almost proud of how they got away with it. And that’s why everyone is so angry, Premier. It’s not “semantics,” it’s about telling the truth and admitting when you’ve misled people. You might give it a try. If you save millions on spin doctors in the process, that would be an added bonus, wouldn’t it?
Lindsay Kines is a reporter with the Victoria Times Colonist.