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Coalition of the Willies

Jason Stewart | April 14, 2018
Coalition of the Willies
The Scrap the Speculation Tax website's developers have quite the infamous client list.
The Scrap the Speculation Tax website's developers have quite the infamous client list.

I would like to thank the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce for recently submitting a letter to their booster buds at Kelowna Now1  and bringing to my attention this website.

The letter begins:

"Today, a growing coalition of concerned British Columbians launched a campaign called Scrap the Speculation Tax demanding that Premier John Horgan and the provincial government reverse their decision to implement a Speculation Tax on BC and Canadian taxpayers."

These particular "concerned British Columbians" happen to be made up of pro business associations such as the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce, UDI Capital Region, UDI Okanagan, UDI Pacific Region, Canadian Home Builders Association – Central Okanagan Independent Contractors of British Columbia, Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, Peachland Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Victoria (really Tourism Victoria?), Business Council of British Columbia, Okanagan Mainline Real Estate Board, and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation as noted in the footer of the campaign website.

The letter goes on to outline what scrapthespeculationtax.ca foresees will happen once the tax is implemented: there will be less jobs, damaged businesses, worsened housing affordability, unfairly taxed hardworking BCers, and so on. We've countered and contextualized many of those arguments in our article here if you're curious. I looked beyond the actual published content on that site and found in its source code that the site's theme is called "Urban Development Institute" (as someone very familiar with the WordPress content management system they're using, one typically names the theme after the client). So we can assume that UDI was instrumental in the project – although its overall genesis is still unclear (more on this below) – and certainly attractive to the aforementioned pro business/pro development groups that formed this so-called "coalition".

The Urban Development Institute is the development/construction industry’s powerful lobby group. Sitting on the UDI board are the who’s who of the most influential firms affecting land use in BC. Development and real estate have become BC's new overemphasized sector of the economy (real estate and construction together represent roughly 25% of BC's GDP, about the same dependence Alberta has on the oil and gas industry). Suffice it to say, if you're looking for a non partisan opinion on any tax or measure that targets the overheated housing market in BC in an effort to control it, the UDI is not an organization you should to turn to for an opinion because it's all one note.

Hill+Knowlton Strategies scrap the speculation tax website
UDI and this coalition have aligned themselves with a real piece of work.

A whois lookup also reveals that the registrant of the domain name scrapthespeculationtax.ca is Hill + Knowlton Strategies Canada Ltd. UDI and this coalition have hooked themselves up with a real piece of work.

Flim Flam, Shills and Shams: Moustache-twirling Villains Find Fertile Ground in BC Once Again

Ever wondered why the development industry is so into the "we need a real speculation tax" line? I'm pretty sure it's because they want to sound like they care about the lack of affordability, like they're somewhere on the compassionate part of the YIMBY continuum. They don't. If they want only a flipping tax (the "real speculation" tax they infer), that is small potatoes in the face of massive market distortions of millions and millions of dollars in absentee cash buying up locals' housing. It's my opinion that they want to appear like they are on the side of good: balancing the businesss interests of the province with its housing needs, but really they just want to continue with pretty much unchecked supply. It's total bullshit.

The high price tag Hill + Knowlton PR/lobby group they've enlisted has more than a little overlap with powerful conservative political interests such as the Stephen Harper, Alison Redford, and Christy Clarke administrations and campaigns (to name a few recent local ones), and in some cases they overlap into unethical conflicts of interest.

You may have heard of H+K for its now infamous spinning of their Dr. Evil-level clients: they countered the hazardous effects of smoking for Big Tobacco throughout the 1950s and 60s, created the baby killing story that helped propel the US into Kuwait to start the Gulf War, along with covering up other human-rights abuses in many undemocratic nations across the globe.

Hill+Knowlton Strategies Kuwait babies
1991 was a good year for H+K's shams. They helped instigate the invasion of Kuwait/Gulf War 1 (above), and hoisted ex-Greenpeace's Patrick Moore to head the BC Forest Alliance, a pro-forestry fake grassroots organization (below).
Hill+Knowlton Strategies Patrick Moore fake grassroots astroturf

These days, a lot of their work is spin-doctoring for the resource industries, and especially unpopular or controversial areas like fracking and nuclear energy. In BC they have not only been spinning the tired jobs-versus-environment line for the likes of Enbridge and co., but, in the case of Howe Sound's Woodfibre LNG, according to BC's late, great contrarian and loudmouth Rafe Mair, they also outright lied through contract approval processes about its foreign (and convicted tax-evading) ownership.

Their flim flammery does not end at simple obfuscation or pitting resource workers against citizens concerned about the environment (while they rake in the contracts, tax breaks and profits). According to Rolling Stone, Hill + Knowlton are known for "specializing in the creation of fake grassroots organizations" or astro-turfing as it's (hilariously) called.

Sound familiar? Sound like our "hard-working British Columbians" targeted by the speculation tax as the scrapthespeculationtax.ca "coalition" claims? It should and they've been at it for ages. Remember the BC Forest Alliance back in the 90s – that "front group set up for the logging industry by Burson-Marsteller, the same PR firm that represented Exxon after the Valdez oil spill and Union Carbide after the Bhopal chemical disaster" (The Hill, 05/17/10)? Well, its BC director Patrick Moore went on to head the phony grassroots group the "Clean and Safe Energy Coalition" – the shill for US nuclear energy created by Hill + Knowlton. It's quite a cozy world, this astro-turf activism.

It's all the same bunch too, Burson Marsteller is H+K's sister company in WPP – the largest publicity agency in the world. So come on Kelowna, let's not let them pull the wool over our eyes with this one. Looks like Big Development is the new Big Resource is the new Big Tobacco.

And if you're a member of any of these organizations in this scrapthespeculationtax.ca coalition, are you comfortable with who is doing your bidding?

1. The Chamber of Commerce is directly connected to Kelowna Now's sister company Csek Creative – Csek has designed the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce website, and their CEO sits on the Board of Directors of the Chamber

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