Saturday, March 17, 2018

Martyn Brown: Say Wha-a-a-a-t?

People change. I get that. But I still feel a flash of furious disbelief every time I see one of my soft-left acquaintances embracing the writing of a man who not so long ago was the powerful architect of a most terrible era in BC - one that we're still trying to recover from.

Martyn Brown is the former chief of staff of former BC premier Gordon Campbell. Everything that right-minded people hated about Campbell's devastating first term in office almost certainly had Brown's fingerprints on it. "He's a very powerful man for someone who has never been elected," noted Nisga'a leader Chief Joseph Gosnell at the time. 

I was stunned at the time that Campbell picked Brown as his right-hand man, knowing from my work as a journalist that Brown had led a movement committed to wiping out Indigenous rights. And I am stunned once again to see how Brown has reinvented himself as the voice of reason for a better British Columbia. 

Brown now writes very long pieces for the Georgia Straight, most of them fomenting loathing of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the Kinder Morgan pipeline. If it serves to foment more loathing, he will even celebrate Indigenous rights, which just kills me when I think back to the battle he helped lead from behind the scenes to extinguish those rights in the runup to the landmark Nisga'a treaty.

(I'm still gawp-mouthed at a sentence in his latest piece, where Brown invokes a Churchillian we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches zeal against the pipeline "for the harm it stands to suffer upon Aboriginal people, in flagrant contempt of Indigenous rights and title.")

Like I say, people change. I profiled Brown almost 20 years ago for the Times Colonist, when he was at the height of his political power - the only profile I've ever written in which the subject refused to grant me an interview. Maybe he's had a Damascus moment since then, a walk in the snow like his current enemy's father once had. He'll turn 61 this year. Maybe the Old Brown has been laid to rest.

But whenever I read the New Brown loving up the environment, Indigenous people and a better British Columbia, I keep hearing that saying about how the enemy of your enemy is your friend.

One of the people I interviewed for the profile on Brown noted that what was particularly fascinating about him was that he'd "never moved from his original point on the political spectrum - never wavered from his centre-right, populist, small-government beliefs." Keep that in mind, people. 

Here's my own very long piece that I wrote on Brown back in 2001:

(From the Victoria Times Colonist, December 4, 2001) 

If there was a moment that could be said to define Martyn Brown, it was surely the day 13 years ago when he issued a memo to the Social Credit caucus defending the severance the B.C. government had just paid to David Poole.

Brown was a 31-year-old political fledgling in the Socred research department at the time, one year out of university. Poole was Premier Bill Vander Zalm's principal secretary, the most powerful politico in government.

Poole had just been paid $100,500 in severance, prompting criticism from the New Democrat Opposition. Brown, director of caucus research for the Socreds, took it upon himself to write a memo explaining the deal. He'd been reading news of the criticisms, he wrote, and thought it "might be helpful" if he clarified a few details.

It was an unheard of breach of protocol, a young pup well down on the political food chain writing something directly to the MLAs. Carol Gran, caucus chairwoman, fumed that the memo was "unauthorized, contained editorial opinion and didn't reflect government views."

Brown quickly humbled himself. The memo had been ill-conceived, he told reporters. He regretted his audacity in writing it, acknowledging that "clearly, I stepped over the boundary."

There weren't many who knew it then, but they'd just witnessed the first solo flight of a political force. Martyn Brown was born to government in a moment that revealed him as brash and certain, engaged, loathe to make mistakes but principled enough to own up to them if it came to that.

All these years later, at the age of 44, Brown now holds the very position in Gordon Campbell's government that the late Poole held when Brown wrote his memo. As chief of staff, he's the boss of 200 appointed employees and Campbell's gatekeeper, top of the heap among political staff and arguably the most powerful non-elected person in government.

Brown's hand is said to be all over Campbell's New Era document, his influence felt in every corner of government. He's a driving force behind the contentious treaty referendum. His blessing is sought before Campbell makes a move, and he's widely credited by insiders for the Liberal win this spring.

"He's the guy who bosses British Columbians around," says Nisga'a negotiator and elder Joe Gosnell, who has tangled with Brown on treaty issues. "He's a very powerful man for someone who has never been elected."

Yet Brown keeps a low profile. Outside political circles, his name sparks few glimmers of recognition. He clearly likes it that way; he refused all comment for this article.

But the picture that emerges from talking to acquaintances and co- workers reveals a man not much different from the memo-writer. He still hates being wrong. He's still focused, driven, and an immensely hard worker. And he's still doing what he thinks is the right thing, even if it rubs people the wrong way.

In fact, those who have known Brown the longest say he's barely changed at all since those early days of 1988, when he emerged from a legislative intern program to take a job with the Socreds. That he has since grown into a Liberal premier's muse is not a result of changes in Martyn Brown, but simply because the things he has always stood for have caught on.

Former B.C. politician David Mitchell, a professor at the University of B.C., described it as the "oddly stationary journey of Martyn Brown."

Brown, noted Mitchell, has never moved from his original point on the political spectrum, never wavered from his centre-right, populist, small-government beliefs. And eventually, government has come around to seeing things his way.

- - -

Born in St. Catharines, Ont. and raised in Scarborough, Brown moved to the Island with his family as a teenager. He worked in Kelly's stereo store for a few years when Victoria still had one, then finished up a bachelor of political science at UVic and was picked for the legislative intern program.

Brown spent a year immersed at the legislature as an intern before being hired in 1988 into the Socred caucus research department. It was trial by fire: on his first day on the job, Vander Zalm made his infamous comments about restricting abortions. "And ever since then it's been one thing after another," Brown mused years later.

UVic political science professor Norman Ruff taught Brown and remembers him as a bright and "capital-C Conservative" student. He too has been struck by Brown's new fit with the Liberals.

"In the years I've known him, he was always the same person he is now," says Ruff. "It was like he was ahead of where B.C. politics eventually went."

Brown was known as an exceptional "policy wonk" and researcher in his early days in government. Jess Ketchum, a political staffer from that era, takes "some of the blame" for introducing him to the political side of things in the 1990 election, when the Socreds were heading into the fight of their lives against the New Democrats.

Socred campaign manager at the time, Ketchum arranged a leave for Brown to work on the election, giving him "a really good taste of hard-knocks politics."

Only seven Socreds were left standing by the end of it. Jack Weisgerber, who'd been eyeing Brown for better things for years, was one of them. He took Brown on as his chief aide, a position Brown held through Weisgerber's 1993 transition out of Social Credit and into B.C. Reform.

And for a year or two, Reform flourished with Brown as its strategist. In 1995 when the Vancouver Sun named Brown "one of the new power brokers," the party was riding high in the polls. The press took to describing him alternately as Weisgerber's Svengali, spin doctor, mastermind and hidden puppet-master, words that are still bandied about today.

He and Weisgerber remained a team until the disastrous 1996 election, when Reform won just two seats. Brown wouldn't soon forget the painful lessons of the election. He'd mistakenly thought the right-wing vote wouldn't split because no one would vote New Democrat. The party subsequently won with 40 per cent of the vote.

Weisgerber retired. Brown quit B.C. Reform and the following year launched Citizens' Voice on Native Claims, a lobby group deeply opposed to the Nisga'a treaty.

But Brown didn't last long out of politics. By January 1998, he was special advisor to Gordon Campbell, an appointment that delighted Weisgerber.

"I thought Martyn really had a lot to offer Gordon," says Weisgerber. "He has good political instincts. His strongest point is an immediate grasp of a situation, a kind of instinctive reaction that's not always right, but right most of the time."

Brown had been drifting toward the Liberals since leaving Reform, seeing no other choice but to unite the right in B.C. if another 1996 was to be avoided. But he never recanted his Reform roots. Soon after Campbell hired him, Brown was quoted saying he was "only here because I'm convinced we are a genuine coalition."

His status with the Liberals has risen considerably since then. In just three years, Brown has gone from adviser to election strategist to chief of staff, his salary climbing from $60,000 to $148,500. He's credited with creating the new image for Campbell that got him elected, and is said to be "incredibly tight" with the premier.

Political observers say Brown's influence on Campbell is evident in Liberal policy. The party has moved markedly to the right and exchanged its "downtown Vancouver" outlook for one more in touch with the issues of rural B.C. and small business, not incidentally a population that Brown's Socreds had a particular affinity for.

Campbell has also hardened on treaties. The old Campbell talked occasionally of a referendum but for the most part left the treaty issue alone. The new Campbell sounds much more like Brown's defunct Citizens' Voice: treaties, yes, but not before B.C. voters are polled on how they want them handled.

Perhaps Campbell is in Brown's thrall, another victim of the puppet-master. More likely, he recognizes Brown's role in getting him elected premier.

"Gordon was so lost in the 1996 election," says one government insider. "He just wasn't up to the vicious campaign Glen Clark was running. But then he worked with Martyn all through 1998, and they really bonded. Martyn is so much about turning Gordon Campbell around."

Weisgerber says Brown is the consummate right-hand-man for a political leader, on top of every detail and a "straight shooter" intensely focused on the boss's best interests.

Noted for his impeccable grooming and style, Brown even knows how to keep that particular vanity in check as required.

"He's very conscious of looking neat and sharp, but he also knows you don't come out in a better power suit than the guy you're with," Weisgerber says. "He wants to keep the spotlight on the right person."

- - -

Brown cites his ongoing desire to stay out of the spotlight in declining to be interviewed for this article.

"I'm not elected," he says. "I don't think it's the role of staff to be talking about themselves or their role in government."

The increasingly tight leash on government communications staff speaks to Brown's distaste for others' loose lips as well, as does his edict forbidding anyone but ministers from being quoted in the press. Ruff remembers him as a "micro-manager," which would explain the current rumour that Brown vets every detail right down to the design of staffers' business cards.

Weisgerber says Brown's interpersonal skills have improved dramatically since his early days in politics.

"He didn't delegate well or suffer fools lightly," says Weisgerber. "He let it show too much. Fortunately, wisdom and maturity have made him more subtle."

But Brown isn't above a little vindictiveness. Reportedly still brooding over the rough treatment and cramped quarters accorded the Socreds after Social Credit lost the 1991 election to the New Democrats, Brown has in turn made life extremely difficult for the remnants of the NDP.

While lesser mortals usually tend to the details of divvying up office space after an election, Brown himself decided where the New Democrats would go -- jammed into one small office and a room in the basement.

"I'm not proud that it was New Democrats who did that to the Socreds back then," says one disgruntled NDP staffer. "But you'd think there'd be some magnanimousness in the man."

New Democrat MLA Joy MacPhail suspects a similar "mean-spirited" pitch from Brown convinced Campbell to get tough and deny her party official opposition status after the spring election.

"I've only actually met the man once," says MacPhail. "I've been in the same room with him more often than that, but only met him once. And I had to be the one to introduce myself that time. He's certainly no extrovert."

When Brown isn't working -- not often -- he lives a private life in Shawnigan with his wife Linda, who does office work in a veterinary clinic. The couple have no children. He's reputed to be an aggressive and exceptional downhill skier.

Brown was born in the Year of the Rooster, 1957. The Chinese horoscope sign fits him well. The Rooster is "neither complicated nor profound," reads his horoscope; rather, "he is very forthright and straightforward."

And just like Brown, a typical Rooster is always right. Untrusting of others. Devoted to his work. Extremely conscious of clothing and appearance. They're said to make excellent trouble- shooters.

Brown shares his birth year with Confucius, Wagner, Yoko Ono and Groucho Marx.

- - -

Brown's most notable venture into the public eye was four years ago when he and a group of like-minded British Columbians formed Citizens' Voice on Native Claims.

He was executive director of the group; John Pitts, former head of Okanagan Helicopters, was president. Other members included lawyer Harry Bell-Irving -- previously active in opposing the self- government provisions of the Charlottetown Accord -- and former federal Tory MPs Lorne Greenaway and Ron Huntington.

Brown's group took out full-page ads in Victoria and Vancouver newspapers urging the citizenry to wake up before the Nisga'a treaty was a done deal. Raising the spectre of fewer rights for non- aboriginals on Indian land and a "third level" of government, Citizens' Voice contended that the draft agreement reached that year with the Nisga'a tipped the scale in favour of aboriginals.

"There was always the nub of an issue in the Citizens' Voice stuff, but let's call it what it was: Fear-mongering," says one critic close to the treaty process.

Nisga'a elder Joe Gosnell was quickly drawn into the debate: "Despite their motherhood statement that `we agree with the treaty process,' " he said at the time, "I think their overall agenda is to completely wreck the treaty process in B.C. and halt the Nisga'a treaty."

The group faded away shortly after a Supreme Court ruling affirmed the existence of aboriginal rights. But Brown carried on, taking up with the Liberals within weeks and no doubt playing a major role in Campbell's 1998 decision while in Opposition to sue the provincial and federal governments over the now-ratified Nisga'a treaty.

The Liberals lost. They'd planned to appeal, but abandoned that after winning the election this year and realizing they'd essentially be suing themselves. Brown was said to be devastated at the decision not to go ahead.

Brown was once on the political fringes with his ideas around treaties. The Citizens' Voice viewpoint was routinely quoted in an array of right-wing publications, from the Fraser Institute to Alberta Report and the U.S. anti-abortion Life Advocate.

And Brown's days guiding B.C. Reform strategy connects him directly to past Reform resolutions calling for the minimum wage to be scrapped, the civil service to be slashed, public-sector strikes banned and English declared the only official language of B.C.

But the extreme is now the mainstream. A referendum on treaties is now a certainty. The minimum wage is effectively scrapped as a result of the Liberals' 500-hour "training wage." The civil service is headed for a bloodletting.

With a new job in the highest echelons of government and a receptive ear in Gordon Campbell, Brown's moment has arrived.

- - -

Politicos expected Brown would last "five minutes max" with Campbell. They've now had to concede that the partnership appears to be working.

But the future is never certain for a chief of staff, and Brown will be lucky if he lasts two years, says one past insider. "You make too many enemies, because you have to take on the premier's enemies. That's the nature of the beast."

There are already hints of trouble: dissension in the caucus, conflict between Brown and senior staff in charge of the civil service, growing concern among a handful of remaining "Liberal- Liberals" that the party has essentially become Reform.

There's also the question of what happens to an ideologue like Brown if his political masters start doubting his unswerving advice.

"Look how the world has changed since the election," says the insider. "It was fine that the Liberals did their independent reviews and told staff to manage money wiser, but they went out and spent those savings on a tax cut. Now we've got Sept. 11 and the softwood lumber disaster, and it's not working."

It seems odd that Brown hasn't been drawn into the political arena himself after all this time. But Weisgerber says Brown has always understood where his strengths lie.

"I'm not sure that Martyn would be nearly as good trying to campaign for himself as he is in the position he's in," says Weisgerber. "They're very different skills, and I think Martyn knows that."

As for strokes to the ego, Brown gets his away from the public eye.

"He gets enormous satisfaction out of political wins, whether big ones like an election or the kind of things that go on day to day," says Weisgerber. "For instance, the Throne Speech, which got described by a number of media as one of the most comprehensive they'd seen. Hearing that would have given Martyn a lot of satisfaction."

Fans turn up in the strangest places. Brown has an unexpected one in Adrian Dix, who did the same job as Brown for former New Democrat premier Glen Clark.

Dix doesn't profess to know Brown well, but clearly admires him.

"In 1996, when it would have been easy for his career to go the route of joining the Liberals, he stuck with Jack Weisgerber and Reform because he was committed to that," Dix says. "He's not simply a political fixer. He obviously has strong beliefs."

They're dramatically different than his own, Dix adds, but at least Brown hasn't swayed from them. That's not common in the fickle world of politics.

"I think he has greatly improved things for the Liberals," says Dix. "And I have to say he's a person of principle. Even if I profoundly disagree with some of them."