Jul 26/98: Nisga'a deal a PR flop


Gordon Campbell wants a referendum on what he calls 'the Nisga'a template,' while Glen Clark's government insists that legal opinion says none is required

The Province
July 26, 1998
Michael Smyth

[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]

The government's $2.3-million Nisga'a treaty sell job will be hitting the airwaves soon. But will Glen Clark and Joseph Gosnell be able to reverse the tide of public opinion after last week's public-relations nightmare?

The premier and the Nisga'a chief controlled the treaty agenda for about five minutes. They lost it in the onslaught of criticism and concern that greeted the announcement of a deal.

The Nisga'a team made a series of brutal PR gaffes:

Why fly the premier to Terrace and announce a deal -- and then refuse to release the text?

Why the confusion on the most basic detail: The cost?

Why distribute the treaty to dozens of affected third parties -- and then express shock and outrage when it inevitably becomes public?

It's almost like Clark wanted a confrontation -- and he quickly upped the stakes. For a guy constantly accusing his opponents of fear-mongering, Clark didn't hesitate to predict dire economic consequences if the treaty fails. And he was actually a little misty-eyed when he said he was putting his political career on the line over this one. Though I believe Clark's emotions are genuine, I don't believe he ever makes decisions without weighing the political consequences.

With Liberal leader Gordon Campbell and B.C. Reform president Bill Vander Zalm both attacking the treaty, Clark undoubtedly sees an opportunity to capture the middle-of-the-road vote. But he may already have lost it with last week's inexplicable blunders.

Now the question of a referendum is driving the debate, and Clark will have a tough time explaining why the Nisga'a get a vote and no one else does.

Campbell, meanwhile, continues to play it smart. In the legislature, he started calling the treaty "the Nisga'a template" -- seizing on Clark's statement that the treaty will be the model for 50 other outstanding land claims.

Clark, for all his political guile, has inflamed the debate when a low-key, carefully managed approach was the obvious strategy. I guess he just can't help himself. He just needs to be in the eye of the storm.

There's a crowning irony. After years of negotiation, a treaty designed to avoid more litigation and legal battles may end up right back where it all began: In court. The argument will go like this: The treaty effectively amends the Constitution of Canada, and must therefore be put to a province-wide referendum under the NDP government's own laws.

Attorney-General Ujjal Dosanjh insists that no referendum is required, and his office has rock-solid legal opinions to back him up. You're just not allowed to read those opinions. Or know how many opinions were written. Or know who wrote them. And that has been the problem all along.

Gordon Campbell is not the biggest threat to the Nisga'a treaty. Secrecy, stone-walling, name-calling and amateur-hour public-relations by the government and the treaty negotiators are.

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