Support for South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale MP Russ Hiebert is strong among Conservatives in the local electoral district association (EDA) – if you talk to current board president Andrew McVie.
But talk to other longtime Conservatives in the district, and a different picture emerges.
They will say that support – already shaky among some still rankled by the way Hiebert was “parachuted” into the district when first elected seven years ago – is thinning among experienced local movers and shakers.
Some speaking on the record, others off, their story is the same. Hiebert has alienated the politically astute in the EDA, they say, through communications with constituents that look more like a continual election campaign; through a reliance on “spin” to cover problems such as the MP’s high expense bill for 2008-2009; and through a reluctance to admit error or listen to advice.
Compounding the problem, they say, has been the refusal of the party’s national office to entertain the idea of a nomination process in which Hiebert could be challenged by other candidates.
As proof of frustration, they point to key members who have either resigned or declined to run again for the EDA board which has – in turn – allowed pro-Hiebert members to take control.
One of those who resigned is EDA past-president Jim Scott, who said the repeated call for senior party members in the riding to display their support for Hiebert – in the face of personal misgivings – has flushed out many loyal Conservatives from positions of responsibility on the board.
A flash point for many, Scott said, was the spending scandal which broke in May of last year, when it was revealed that Hiebert’s expenses for the previous fiscal year were the highest for a B.C. MP, and the second highest in Canada.
Hiebert claimed the reason his expenses were so high was due to travel costs incurred in keeping his young family together, and has since reported much lower expenses.
But this has not satisfied some, according to Scott and other party insiders, who viewed Hiebert’s response as “spin” covering the fact that his spending in other areas – such as telephone and printing costs – was also high.
“Even before the spending scandal hit, the board began to change its makeup based, in part, on the growing influence of Russ’ staff members on the board and their handling of EDA matters,” Scott said. “By the end of last year, the event chair resigned, the communications chair resigned, the secretary resigned and I resigned… This year, key board members did not come back onto the board, such as the scholarship chair and the first vice-president.”
A Hiebert spokesman in Ottawa said the MP deferred comment on the issue to McVie.
McVie said he is surprised to hear of rumblings of discontent among the party faithful. He said he knows of “a few” people who have resigned from the board, but had not been directly approached with concerns.
“At our general meeting on Jan. 29, some 30 folks let their name stand for board office – which happens to be the maximum number of members for the board,” he said.
“Nobody put their name forward in opposition, so they were all acclaimed.
“Naturally there’s a normal amount of turnover in any given year. But as far as us losing key people… I’d say far more really key people stayed than left.”
One person who is no longer prepared to work with Hiebert is former EDA communications chair David Wiens, who resigned last August. Wiens cited the spending scandal and what he describes as Hiebert’s “penchant for spin” as the reasons for calling it quits.
In Wiens’ resignation letter, the associate dean of the school of business at Kwantlen Polytechnic University said he had long had concerns about spin in Hiebert’s communications, but “I reached the breaking point early this summer when he attempted to pass off his MP cost overruns as a family matter.”
Wiens said that since about 25 per cent of the overrun had to do with travel involving Hiebert’s wife and children, it could not be the main reason, but said the MP had “deliberately spun” it as a family matter because it would appeal to his base of support.
“I was prepared to ignore the poor quality of his communication to the riding – essentially a self-serving, continuous campaign rather than messaging that informs and encourages the people he represents – but this spinning of the budget overrun is simply too much to stomach,” Wiens wrote.
Wiens told Peace Arch News he had rejected an open invitation from Hiebert for him to look at his books as an attempt to deflect attention from his use of spin.
“I said, ‘That’s not the point.’”
Wiens said that during his involvement with local Conservatives, he had fought long, losing battles with Hiebert and former campaign manager and EDA second vice-president Mike Martens over the use of spin and lack of directness in answering media questions.
Wiens also disagreed with the style of Hiebert’s “householder” flyers.
“I told him, ‘Russ, you ceased to be a politician when you were elected – you’re now representing everybody in the riding – the tone has to change.’”
But Wiens said Hiebert’s response to criticism was to demand unquestioning loyalty.
Such assertions are strongly contested by McVie, who said Hiebert is always seeking advice and input from EDA members.
“Was bad advice not being taken? Maybe. There’s always a lot of advice floating around. But I’ve always found Russ very responsive.”
McVie attributed the tone of Hiebert’s communications to “constant election fears” that are being promoted countrywide by the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois.
McVie also disputed the term ‘overrun’ – “Russ was the least under-budget MP.”
Scott, who said he served as president in 2009 and 2010 to mend the rift between social and fiscal conservatives – divided by such issues as abortion and family values – noted the spending scandal “was a punch in the stomach to the fiscal conservatives – they demanded a strong accounting from Russ Hiebert as to where all the funds had gone.”
“Russ retreated to his core group for advice and basically came out with what many thought was spin,” Scott said.
“Over the years, Russ has been given heartfelt and meaningful advice from members representing all aspects of the community that would have avoided most of his problems or would have, at least, lessened them. However, Russ has sought advice from a small group of people that he, in fact, controls. Thereby, Russ has chosen to take his own path, and where it leads, I don’t know.”