When former Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart stepped aside to let Premier Christy Clark run in the riding following last May’s provincial election in which her party won but she lost her seat, both he and Clark were quick to tell reporters his decision was made with no reward in mind. Nothing asked for, nothing offered, they stated unequivocally.
In fact, at the time, insiders in the premier’s office heaped praise on Stewart for being the only Liberal MLA who offered up his seat with no expectation of something in return.
Stewart, they enthused, made his decision for the good of the province.
Of course, the fact that Westside-Kelowna is about as safe a Liberal seat in B.C. as one will find didn’t hurt either.
So Clark jumped at the offer and, as expected, easily won the resulting byelection.
Stewart, who had stood by her side during the byelection campaign, adding his personal popularity to her bid for votes, only offered to make himself available to help Clark assimilate into her new riding after the votes were counted.
As far as the world knew, he was heading back to the winery business. (Stewart is the co-owner of Quails’ Gate Winery in West Kelowna.)
At the time, it appeared his direct involvement with the “new” Liberal government was over.
But three months later, the other political shoe has dropped.
Two weeks ago, Clark named Stewart B.C.’s investment and trade commissioner for Asia, complete with a salary of $150,000. That amount is, coincidently, about the same as he would have made if he had stayed on as an MLA and been reappointed to cabinet.
In the world of politics, no seemingly selfless act ever goes unrewarded.
Whether he asked for it or not, Stewart has been well compensated for stepping aside to let Clark run in the riding he so easily retained for the Liberals on election night last May.
But like it or not, the optics make it look like a political payoff.
Stewart doesn’t have an background in dealing with Asian companies in his past cabinet portfolios and he does not speak Chinese, Japanese or Korean. But he’s off to Beijing, where he will be based, with the mandate of increasing the B.C. government’s presence in China, Japan and Korea and developing markets for this province’s apparent economic saviour, liquefied natural gas.
So it’s up to individuals to decide if Stewart’s appointment is old-fashioned political pork-barrelling, or the appointment of a proven businessman to a position that could help B.C. attract Asian investment in the future.
It may very well be the latter, but it sure looks like the former.
Alistair Waters is the Capital News’ assistant editor.