Not long after Christy Clark became B.C. Premier, Dimitri Pantazopoulos, a pollster tied to Stephen Harper and his Conservatives, packed up his family, left Ottawa and moved to Victoria.
The Pantazopoulos family is spending their first winter there. The kids are settling in, they bought a puppy and they are marvelling at the temperate climes.
But the move wasn’t for lifestyle. Mr. Pantazopoulos, who worked with Stephen Harper in the early days of the Reform Party and has polled for right-of-centre candidates, – Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and former Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien – was lured west by Premier Clark, a Liberal.
Initially appointed her principal secretary on the strength of the voter tracking he had conducted for her successful leadership bid last year, he is now focused on interprovincial relations. Ms. Clark is also minister of that portfolio.
Then, last week, Ms. Clark named another former Harper conservative and strategist, Ken Boessenkool, as her chief of staff. He starts next month.
Although the relocation of two former strategists does not a trend make, their ascension to key roles in the B.C. Premier’s office certainly indicates that after having turned political Ottawa blue, Mr. Harper’s brand of conservatism is being exported.
British Columbia may just be the tip of the spear.
With a majority government in Ottawa, the political action these days is moving west to the provinces replete with oil, gas, potash and jobs.
“When it comes to people staking out bold positions, and saying ‘we’ve got to do this pipeline’ or ‘we’ve got to do this about health care,’ it usually comes from Quebec or now the West,” says Rick Anderson, a director of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
Mr. Anderson has a unique perspective – one of the first Ontarians to join the Reform Party ,he later became a top aide to Preston Manning. Several years ago he moved out to Calgary with his consulting business and just recently returned to Ottawa.
He knows both Mr. Pantazopoulos and Mr. Boessenkool – and the way Reformers think.
“What they bring in common is a preparedness to think outside the box, to ask the more profound questions, to challenge political convention or … correctness,” he says. “They are braver about putting public policy choices on the table ... a lot of things that used to be taboo to talk about are not taboo any more.”
Talk about taboo: Mr. Boessenkool, along with Mr. Harper, is a signatory of the controversial 2001 “firewall” letter, which basically told the federal government to stop telling Alberta what to do.
A few years ago, Mr. Boessenkool moved to Calgary from Ottawa, where he is working as a consultant. That had included lobbying for Calgary’s Enbridge Inc. in 2008 and 2009, which could pose a problem in his new job, given the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline project in B.C.
He had an earlier relationship with Ms. Clark and it was he who brought Mr. Pantazopoulos to Ms. Clark. The two men have worked together in conservative politics since the early 1990s.
For Ms. Clark, their presence is critical, given that the B.C. Liberals are a coalition of the centre and centre-right aimed at keeping the NDP out of power.
She has the left flank covered, having come back to B.C. after working in the Chrétien Liberals’ first government. But there is concern about the right.
The Clark government is not only threatened by NDP Leader Adrian Dix but also by former federal Conservative MP John Cummins, who is now the head of the B.C. Conservative Party.
So it’s helpful, for example, that Mr. Manning, the former Reform leader who knows Mr. Pantazopoulos, has already been in to talk to Ms. Clark’s caucus about what it takes to win. Mr. Manning is certainly supportive of Ms. Clark, as are former Harper B.C. cabinet ministers Chuck Strahl and Stockwell Day.
And then there are the connections to the PMO and Harper caucus that Mr. Boessenkool and Mr. Pantazopoulos provide.
Indeed, one can detect Mr. Pantazopoulos’s hand in the Prime Minister’s attendance last week at an atom league hockey game in which Ms. Clark’s son, Hamish, played.
Mr. Harper stayed for the entire game, which was an unexpected surprise. It gave Ms. Clark important face time with the Prime Minister in advance of her health-care meeting with the premiers.
No surprise she is supportive of the Prime Minister’s new and controversial formula for health-care transfers, which some premiers criticized. She likes that the federal government is not dictating to her on what is a provincial responsibility.
Meanwhile, the hockey game ended in a tie: 4- 4. There were no losers on that day.