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11th senior staffer leaves Clark's communication team

Jul 06 2012

The exodus of almost a dozen senior communications officials since Christy Clark became premier is raising questions about who is taking the blame for her government's woes.

Eleven communications directors have quit or been fired by the Clark administration since she became premier last spring.

The premier has also shuffled through three press secretaries, two communications directors and three deputy ministers in charge of government communications.

Political scientist Norman Ruff said premiers who are lagging badly in the polls tend to blame the communications staff when their policies fall flat.

"Admitting faults doesn't come easy to anyone, especially to politicians, so one tends to blame communications rather than the actual policy - in this case, the absence of a policy focus," Ruff said.

Clark's "policy vacuum" puts intense pressure on her government's communications staff, most of whom are political appointees and can be fired at whim, Ruff said.

The latest departure came Wednesday when longtime communications director Michelle Stewart left her job in the Health Ministry.

The government had wanted Stewart to take over communications at the Justice Ministry under Shirley Bond. Instead, amid a conflict over whether she would be forced to take the transfer, Stewart quit.

A veteran of both NDP and Liberal governments, Stewart was respected by both parties, and was considered one of the government's most knowledgeable communications staffers.

Approximately five of the 11 departed directors took internal jobs in the unionized civil service.

Three or four were fired. Longtime director Marisa Adair, who had also worked under an NDP government, left to join the B.C. Medical Association.

Communications directors are responsible for directly briefing ministers, hiring staff and strategizing on public messaging.

The government is forecast to spend $26 million on its 201-person communications branch this year, which it says is leaner and less expensive than when the Liberals took power in 2001.

The deputy minister in charge is Athana Mentzelopoulos, a former premier's office staffer and a bridesmaid at Clark's wedding.

The minister responsible, Margaret MacDiarmid, said she was not aware of any concerns about Mentzelopoulos's leadership causing departures.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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