Christy Clark’s Dangerous Site C Propaganda War

Politics and propaganda have never been strangers to one another, but what’s happening to political discourse around the world right now is cause for concern.

While much attention is paid to Donald Trump’s obvious attempts to mislead the public, a more insidious form of propaganda is playing out right here in British Columbia.

Case in point: B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s recent letter on the Site C dam, addressed to NDP Leader John Horgan and Green Leader Andrew Weaver.

The letter follows on the heels of Horgan’s request for BC Hydro to hold off on evictions and signing new contracts until after the B.C. Utilities Commission can review the costs and demand for the most expensive project in B.C.’s history. 

Horgan’s letter wasn’t addressed to Clark, but she found it in herself to reply anyway. 

Her letter includes the unsubstantiated claim that delaying the eviction of two families in the Peace Valley may come at a risk of a “$600 million cost increase to Site C” — a figure that Harry Swain, the man who chaired the review of Site C for the federal and provincial governments, has called “preposterous.”

The Prophet River First Nation and West Moberly First Nation also thoroughly debunked Clark’s claims in a letter sent to Clark and BC Hydro on Wednesday.

Clark has been mysteriously unavailable to respond to any of these criticisms since issuing the letter, which demands an answer within four days on whether Horgan and Weaver would like the government to issue a “tools down” request to BC Hydro and argues that the project will progress past the “point of no return” before the conclusion of a review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

What Clark is doing here is creating a zero-sum game — saying that if the province pauses to review the project, it’ll result in lost jobs and increased costs.

While that may intuitively make sense to some people that isn’t necessarily the case.

A team of experts from UBC recently found that by stopping Site C by June 30th, the province could actually save nearly $2 billion. And Swain has been saying essentially the same thing for years. One need only look at the economic devastation the Muskrat Falls dam is wreaking on Newfoundland to get an idea of what can happen when a government falls in love with a mega project there’s no demand for.

“If you represent things as a zero sum game, it’s easy to create conflict because then you’re all fighting over the same pie,” Jason Stanley, professor at Yale University and author of How Propaganda Works, told DeSmog Canada.

“It’s standard in propagandistic politics to limit the future, to fix things in the now, and then set up false dichotomies.”

Much of the punditry around Site C right now is about the prospect of 2,200 workers being handed pink slips if the project is cancelled. This messaging again plays into the zero-sum game framework. While it may be effective at scoring political points, it obscures the true debate. 

Imagine a scenario where a government creates a make-work project to build a road to nowhere. More than two thousand workers are industriously building that road to nowhere (being paid with your tax dollars) when an election is held. Would it be fiscally responsible for a new government to continue paying those workers to build a road to nowhere? Or would it be more responsible for the new government to assess whether that road may ever be useful and, if not, stop building it so it can spend that money on things like schools and hospitals?

This is essentially what’s happening right now with the NDP-Green promise to send the Site C dam for an expedited review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

If that review deems the $ 9 billion Site C dam unnecessary and the project is abandoned, it could free up public funds to create jobs in other ways, like say:

  • Building new transit lines
  • Building schools and hospitals
  • Investing in energy conservation and efficiency
  • Investing in 21st century renewables like wind and geothermal

Rarely are complex public policy decisions zero sum games.

"Please let me express my disappointment in how your government is choosing to proceed with this project," Weaver wrote in a response to Clark. "Your government is turning a significant capital project that potentially poses massive economic risks to British Columbians into a political debate rather than one informed by evidence and supported by independent analysis."

Indeed, what we seem to have here is Clark taking her last strangled breaths as her ship goes down.

In the process, she’s lowering the level of public discourse for all of us.

Photo: Premier Christy Clark, Province of British Columbia

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