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Opinion  

Rob Shaw: Viral TikTok video sparks investigation into B.C.'s clean energy grants

Video sparks investigation

There are many remarkable things about how the kickback scandal over clean energy grants played out at the legislature on Monday — the speed at which the NDP government was brought to its knees by a viral TikTok video, and the fact it had to do a mid-air flip-flop of its position to quell a surprising outburst of public anger, are two that stand out for sure.

But just as remarkable were the things Energy Minister Josie Osborne didn’t say, in calling for the auditor general to investigate the issue just four days after blocking that exact same probe. They include, in no particular order: I screwed up, my ministry got it wrong, and our government is sorry for not acting earlier to safeguard millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.

Such statements of regret usually accompany abrupt 180-degree changes in government policy, especially when the mistakes are so obvious.

But Osborne stuck Monday to what has become very familiar messaging for New Democrats — strike not a single note of humility, express not the tiniest hint of contrition, and spin, spin, spin your way out of trouble with clever wordplay.

That kind of political nonsense doesn’t work in the real world. Which is why New Democrats found themselves verbally dismantled by the straight-talking loggers who run Merritt-based Edison Motors, which manufactures North America’s only electric-powered logging trucks.

Edison CEO Chace Barber kept all the records from three years of failed applications for CleanBC grants, including suspicious interactions with accounting firm MNP, the company the NDP hired to administer some grants that was also simultaneously trying to sell its grant writing services to those same companies with a 20 per cent success fee on any money won.

It felt like a potential conflict of interest to have MNP responsible for awarding grants while also pushing grant-writing services, so Barber and his team took the issue directly to Osborne’s office about a month ago.

“We brought it up to the government and they kind of blew us off,” he said Monday.

Here’s Osborne’s version, also Monday: “As soon as my office was informed by Edison Motors, we took action.”

Here’s Barber response: “We showed them the information and then all they did was cancel our speaking engagement at their event.”

Here’s Osborne with the spin: “Program staff called MNP, spoke to them about the rules of the program to ensure that they understood the rules.”

Well then. A single phone call made to the company accused of wrongdoing, which denied it did anything wrong — good enough, concluded the NDP.

With that ironclad assurance, it voted to reject a motion by the three opposition parties Thursday to have the matter referred to the auditor general.

That was that for New Democrats, until those pesky truck loggers with their pesky conscience put out a TikTok video on the weekend outlining the whole sordid affair. It went viral, picking up more than half a million views within 48 hours. Suddenly the NDP government found itself staring at a social media tsunami.

Osborne convened the media Monday morning to announce convenient new evidence had emerged that necessitated calling in the auditor general after all.

“So this weekend, when this new information was raised, it raised more questions, and we want to get to the bottom of this,” said Osborne.

What new information?

“I won’t speak to the specific nature of the information.”

Where did it come from?

“I actually don’t know where it came from.”

Unconvincing answers by the minister that offered no transparency on the allegations, and no accountability on how they weren’t discovered sooner by a ministry tipped off to the problems more than a month ago.

“‘Trust us,’ is what the government is asking us to do,” BC United MLA Renee Merrifield said later in the legislature.

“Trust us that they’ve received some earth-shattering new information? I don’t think so.”

“Trust is won in drops, and it is lost in buckets,” added BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau. “And the last three days we've seen buckets full of trust be lost: trust in the administration of a grant program, trust in where public money is going, trust in the government oversight of how decisions are being made.”

The Energy Ministry made no effort Monday to refute anything in the Edison Motors TikTok video — including rejection letters for grants that came from CleanBC email addresses but allegedly changed to sales pitches from MNP email addresses when Edison Motors replied to ask why they were rejected.

Nor would anyone address a recording of a call between Barber and what he said was an MNP official who encouraged Edison Motors to pay for grant writing services but then remove MNP’s name off the paperwork so as to not trigger conflict of interest questions.

But by the end of Monday, you could tell the NDP was stung by the whole affair. The governing party made a rare concession to accept a BC United timeline for an interim report by the auditor general within 90 days and a final report by Sept. 1.

The public, then, will get some sort of answer before the October provincial election into what the opposition has dubbed the “carbon tax kickbacks.”

At that point, armed with actual information, voters can judge accordingly whether the NDP was asleep at the switch on these grants, tried to sweep the whole mess under the rug, or both.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.



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