Bill Tieleman the BC NDP Svengali?

Bill Tieleman denies being puppeteer of the BC NDP, but friends and enemies alike note his tight grip on the populist political strings.

Is Bill Tieleman, populist columnist, activist, and political strategist, the force behind today’s BC NDP?

The 2017 B.C. election is less than a year away, and already, the partisan campaigning is in full force. On the opposition side, nobody knows the art of politics (or partisan warfare) quite like Bill Tieleman—who is sure to play a prominent roll in the upcoming campaign. From 2011, our profile of the man with a tight grip on the populist political strings

It’s Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010
. Carole James is still the leader of the BC New Democrats; at least, she still thinks she is. But the revellers gathered at Vancouver’s St. Regis Hotel for what has come to be known as the annual “lefty party” seem unanimously of the view that James can’t last. The public attack three days earlier by senior NDP MLA Jenny Kwan and Kwan’s 900-word critique of James’s weaknesses seem too devastating. Everyone is speculating on the likely events of the coming week and a surprising number of people are asking this question: “Did you hear that Bill wrote Jenny’s statement?”

“Bill,” of course, is Bill Tieleman, the populist columnist, NDP activist and political strategist who, on this night, is also the Christmas party host – along with his old friend and lefty fundraiser Harvey McKinnon, NDP policy director Vanessa Geary and several others. The suggestion, offered with equal enthusiasm by people who are attending the party because of Tieleman, and by those who are here in spite of him, is that he is up to his patchy beard in the effort to oust James – that he is, in fact, the architect. 

After hearing the accusation for the fifth or sixth time, I put the question to Tieleman directly: is he, in this instance, the Svengali?

“That’s ridiculous,” he shouts over the din, all the while pointing out interesting guests (Angus Reid pollster Daniel Savas, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and his erstwhile rival Peter Ladner, Vancouver councillors Ellen Woodworth and Heather Deal, Vancity chair Patrice Pratt, NDP MLA Bruce Ralston, CUPE local president Paul Faoro and Vancouver Sun city editor Adrienne Tanner). The movement to remove James is widespread, unorganized and spontaneous, Tieleman says. It’s not something that any one individual could have orchestrated alone.

“So,” I persist, “that’s a categorical denial. You didn’t write Kwan’s letter, didn’t edit it, didn’t have anything to do with it?”

Tieleman smiles as if caught in a comfortable corner, replying, “Well, I didn’t say that.” After pointing out a few more interesting guests (former NDP MLA and B.C. Teachers’ Federation president David Chudnovsky, former City of Vancouver finance director Estelle Lo, publisher and political activist Mel Hurtig), Tieleman goes on to ponder what would happen if James were to step down: “Someone else said tonight that I might well be responsible for the elimination of both parties’ leaders.” And then he laughed loud enough to be heard easily over the music and the conversational buzz. 

Two days later, Carole James surprised everyone and no one with her resignation, thereby joining stale-dated premier and outgoing BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell on the dust heap where British Columbians collect disgraced, discredited and dismissed politicians. Two days after that, James told the Province that Tieleman was, indeed, responsible for her ouster, saying, “Bill Tieleman didn’t appreciate the fact that I’ve been working with both business and labour.”

Among political headhunters, that might actually be interpreted as high praise.

As for the other party leader, Gordon Campbell has never specifically attributed his downfall to Tieleman’s leadership in the politically fatal campaign against Campbell’s unpopular Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). And Tieleman is inclined to reject the credit there as well. He argues, convincingly, that both party leaders inflicted their own injuries. But few can deny that among political activists or journalists, Bill Tieleman did the most to ensure that Campbell’s and James’s self-inflicted wounds kept on bleeding. 

Tieleman in Abbotsford with his Triumph
Daytona 500, 1975.

Who is Bill Tieleman, anyway?

Unless you’re something of a political junkie, you could be forgiven for wondering who Bill Tieleman is, anyway. If you’re a fan of the populist press, you might know him as a regular columnist in the giveaway newspaper 24 Hours. If you’re among the “progressive” online literati, you’ll recognize his weekly output on the website The Tyee. Cable news watchers would have seen him ask tough questions on Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer’s program, Voice of BC, and CKNW fans will remember that he was a political panellist, with Norman Spector, on Bill Good’s open-line show between 2005 and 2009. Before that Tieleman put in 10 years on a similar panel on CBC’s The Early Edition, sparring regularly with Judy Kirk and Will McMartin. 

All the while, he has been running his own business, West Star Communications Corp., through which he provides “strategy and communication services to business, labour, non-profits and government.”

All of this makes Tieleman something of an exotic. First, he is a left-wing commentator in mainstream media – at a time when lefty voices have been surgically removed from here to the Quebec border. (Witness the Globe and Mail’s December sacking of its token liberal, Rick Salutin.) Second, Tieleman is a public-relations/government-relations strategist who somehow marries that function to the duties, and reputational risks, of being an outspoken media pundit. And third, he is a populist political activist willing to take to the stage with strange bedfellows such as former Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm in the fight against everything from the single transferable vote to the HST. 

You can argue that this kind of activist journalist is common south of the border. Commentators such as James Carville regularly move in and out of political strategy positions, all the while offering partisan analysis in the pages of major papers or over airwaves filled by newsy networks such as CNN. But Tieleman is something more. He’s actually a reporter – and a pretty good one. He doesn’t merely flitter about the edges of politics and media offering insider insight. He actually breaks stories. Tieleman’s tireless concentration on the Basi-Virk affair – a political scandal that mainstream media have tried their darnedest to ignore – is arguably the reason why former ministerial assistants Dave Basi and Bob Virk are spending the next two years under house arrest for breach of trust and bribe-taking in connection with the Liberal government’s sale of BC Rail. 

All of that begins to describe what Bill Tieleman is, without quite achieving any understanding of who. But if you’re trying to get to know him, Tieleman is an open book with a ream of blank pages. As an interview subject, he is solicitous and helpful in the extreme, but he has a celebrity’s knack of telling you everything you want to know about his life without telling you very much about himself.

The life and times of Bill Tieleman

Bill Tieleman was born in Vancouver on Feb. 18, 1957, to an activist mother (she was still working the phones for Nanaimo NDP MLA Leonard Krog well into her 80s) and a father who was, in his time, something of a Renaissance man. A veteran of the Dutch resistance and the merchant marine, Hendrik Willem (Harry) Tieleman came to Canada in 1952, thereafter learning a particularly colourful version of the English language from his workmates at a series of B.C. logging camps. He became a Mountie and sailed on the last voyage of the St. Roch; an aircraft mechanic in Richmond; a bush pilot in Tchesinkut Lake (near Burns Lake); and a businessman, buying first a heating oil distributor in Abbotsford and later a gas station and restaurant (Happy Harry’s) in Tofino. Accordingly, eldest son Bill Tieleman had an itinerant but interesting youth, finishing his high school in Abbotsford (where the current mayor, George Peary, was then the principal) before heading off to UBC. 

Tieleman’s political influences during this period were spotty. His first recollection of being lobbied, and of exercising his right to dissent, came in 1965. After prepping two of her young sons for Halloween – costumes, goody bags, UNICEF boxes – Pat Tieleman asked the boys if they would also wear buttons (“I’m for a Pearson majority”) proclaiming their support for the federal Liberal party of the day. Tieleman can’t account for the rationale or the passion of his position at the time (“I was only eight”), but he recalls that he and his brother Ralph both uttered a definitive “No!” 

Tieleman’s father was sufficiently a Social Credit supporter that he bought the boys a minibike to celebrate what would be W.A.C. Bennett’s last victory in 1969. But Harry Tieleman never expected the double blow that the Socreds would deliver in 1975, when they instituted catastrophic price increases in both ferry fares and ICBC premiums. For a businessman dependent upon cars arriving at a tourist community on the far side of an island accessible only by BC Ferries, it was too much; Harry Tieleman took out an NDP card and remained a loyal and active New Democrat for the rest of his life. 

Tieleman’s start in journalism

At UBC the younger Tieleman cut his teeth in journalism, writing for the student newspaper, the Ubyssey, and putting in some part-time shifts at the Vancouver Sun before being elected in 1979 to be the national bureau chief for Canadian University Press. “I arrived in Ottawa the day before [former prime minister John] Diefenbaker’s funeral and saw everyone you’d ever want to see in federal politics in that funeral procession,” he says. 

Returning to UBC the next year, Tieleman finished his master’s in political science (under the contrarian Phil Resnick) before heading off to Toronto for six years of eastern activism as a fundraiser and administrator for Oxfam, the Canadian Peace Alliance and the progressive fundraising firm Stephen Thomas Ltd. 

Through the latter, Tieleman earned what would turn out to be insider status with the BC NDP. He was looking for an opportunity to return to Vancouver, and it turned out that the Stephen Thomas rep here was Gerry Scott – then a Young Turk, now an old hand with the BC New Democrats. Scott was on his way back to school, opening up a job for Tieleman, but it turned out to be a short-term position. In 1991, soon after Tieleman’s return, Scott’s then wife Joy MacPhail won the NDP nomination in Vancouver-Hastings, vacating her position as the director of research and legislation at the B.C. Federation of Labour. She urged Tieleman to apply, and then B.C. Fed president Ken Georgetti liked Tieleman enough that he later promoted him to the role of assistant to the president and communications director. 

Six degrees of Bill Tieleman

In telling all this history, Tieleman can come across as an inveterate name-dropper. In the B.C. Fed years, he says, “I met everybody. I did media training for [then premier] Mike Harcourt.” Even when he’s just chatting about his agenda for today, Tieleman seems compelled to slip in references to the famous or well-
connected. For example, on our way to the Shaw Tower in downtown Vancouver, where he has to record a Voice of BC segment, Tieleman says, “Jimmy Pattison’s office is in this building. I run into him quite frequently.” Then, just as I’m beginning to think, “Yes, yes, of course you do,” we round the corner and there – all loud jacket and striped tie – is Jimmy Pattison: “Bill Tieleman! How are you?” It turns out that, in one job or another, Tieleman really has met “everybody.” 

Back in his B.C. Fed office, in February 1996, Tieleman picked up the phone to hear this: “Bill. It’s Glen Clark. I’m announcing that I’m running for the NDP leadership tomorrow and, well, I have some notes but it’s not really a speech. Can you help me out?” Indeed he could. Georgetti offered a leave of absence so Tieleman could take over as chair of Clark’s campaign communications team. This set off a flurry of media speculation that Georgetti was really the Svengali, manipulating the puppet Clark through Tieleman. Tieleman stayed with Clark through a successful leadership bid and a provincial election victory in May 1996, but he beat a path back to Vancouver soon after, largely in deference to his wife, Shirley Ross, and stepdaughter, Erin (then 12, now 26). Neither wanted to move to Victoria and Tieleman himself had no desire to settle in to a bureaucratic sinecure. 

Back in Vancouver, Tieleman worked awhile longer for the B.C. Fed before setting up West Star and beginning to pursue journalism and punditry with the vigour that has brought him so much influence and attention. A “backroom boy” only in the mind of the ousted Carole James, Tieleman is the most obvious of political players, a megaphone in one hand and a pen in the other. And everybody who knows him also knows that he is dangerous with both.

This is so not how the game is supposed to be played.

You can see that conviction in Tieleman’s eyes, along with a mixture of shock, outrage and the kind of trepidation that verges on fear. Tieleman is standing – all alone in a crowded room – while a raging David Suzuki sets forth an update on the true nature of things. 

Tieleman’s shock is understandable. This is not the kind of outburst you expect in polite company, let alone at a party celebrating the release of a book on ethical and effective public relations, Do the Right Thing (which, full disclosure, I helped write with Suzuki Foundation chair James Hoggan). But Suzuki is neither a PR guy nor a politician, and in the immediate instance, he clearly feels unconstrained by the rules of political gamesmanship. It’s July 2009, and Tieleman has spent the recent B.C. election campaign vilifying Suzuki as a Liberal dupe for supporting the carbon tax. Now it’s Suzuki’s turn to reply, but the attack is so personal and so ferocious that the blood is draining from Tieleman’s face as fast as party guests are edging away from the confrontation. 

In this dispute, you might find a sense of Tieleman’s strength and his weakness. Sean Holman, proprietor of the B.C. politics blog Public Eye, says that while other columnists are driven primarily by ideology, what he respects most about Tieleman is that “overwhelmingly, Bill approaches his work first on a political basis and only then on an ideological basis.” Explaining further, Holman says that any journalist or strategist can get into trouble “if you let ideology colour the way you approach or analyze something.” Tieleman doesn’t, Holman says: “For Bill, the practicalities of the politics come first.” 

That would explain Tieleman’s position on the carbon tax. As he said in an interview before the 2009 election (back in the days when he was still supporting the ousted NDP leader), “Carole James, to her credit, saw that this was a wedge issue.” But Tieleman saw it first. The Liberals had brought in a new tax on fossil fuels at a time when the price of those fuels was already skyrocketing. And they made no attempt to sell or even explain their new policy. Tieleman launched an Axe the BC Gas Tax Facebook page and had 9,000-plus supporters in no time. 

Tieleman campaigns outside Premier
Gordon Campbell’s constituency office on
West Fourth Avenue in Vancouver in
October 2010 as part of his work with the
Fight HST group.

Tieleman’s was a relentlessly political, populist attack. He said the tax would unfairly target low-income individuals while letting corporations off the hook, even though corporations pay 75 per cent of the tax while individuals receive 75 per cent of the benefits guaranteed through the government’s audited commitment to revenue neutrality. Tieleman dismissed the impact of the tax by saying that Norway, with the highest carbon tax in the world, had reduced its CO2 emissions by only two per cent since 1991. He never got around to mentioning that Canada’s emissions increased by almost 30 per cent during the same period. 

Tieleman on taxes

There is lively debate today about whether Axe the Tax was, ultimately, good politics; many people think the Liberals squeaked to victory thanks to the green split that resulted from the NDP position. But there is little argument about the success of Tieleman’s No BC HST campaign. The Facebook group he launched on that issue attracted 130,000 members in two months, which Tieleman notes gleefully is “more supporters than the Vancouver Canucks’ fan page.” Working with Bill Vander Zalm, Tieleman built a virtual organization including 6,500 accredited canvassers spread through every riding in the province. Those troops gathered 705,643 signatures on a petition in opposition to the tax. You could, again, question some of Tieleman’s sweeping rhetoric. He says, for example, that “the HST will transfer $2 billion from individuals and give that money to big business: that’s the biggest tax shift in the history of British Columbia.” But for evidence of that, he offers only that the total provincial take of the HST will be $1.9 billion, most of which individuals had already been paying in the form of provincial sales tax. From a political perspective, however, the No HST campaign was a clean kill. Tieleman has Gordon Campbell’s pelt to prove it. 

You could go on in this vein. Tieleman’s support of the No STV campaign was instrumental in killing the proposal for a single tranferable vote and both UVic political scientist Dennis Pilon and former Yes-side campaign chair Bruce Hallsor are blistering in their criticism of the position Tieleman took. “I think he misrepresented the STV,” Hallsor says. “And he insulted the intelligence of the people of B.C. by saying that they couldn’t understand the STV.” But rather than try to understand, a stunning majority simply gave change the thumbs down. 

Even so, Hallsor adds, “Tieleman is not a bad man.” During the heat of battle, Hallsor wrote up a strategy email intended for his co-campaigners. Somehow Tieleman’s name wound up on the top. Tieleman phoned, returned the email and took no advantage, enjoying a laugh about the mistake and noting that it can happen to anybody. 

This carefully balanced criticism is typical among Tieleman’s detractors. In the list of potential critics I solicited from the man himself, most people ducked the opportunity to slag him on the record. One longtime associate spoke well of his intelligence, his work ethic and, “most of the time,” his collaborative spirit. But noting the public pulpit that Tieleman occupies as a columnist, this particular ambivalent fan added, “He’s a vindictive bastard, and I don’t want to give Bill Tieleman a score to settle with me.” 

It’s much easier to find people who are eager to offer praise. Bill Vander Zalm says Tieleman is “a joy to work with.” Glen Clark calls him “quick, smart and funny,” and says he has always been impressed that Tieleman would stand by his convictions even when it might cost him money in his consulting business or upset people who would otherwise greet him warmly on the street. “I respect that,” Clark says, a comment that rings with authenticity when you recall that Tieleman was the first commentator on the left to call for Clark’s resignation as premier. Ken Georgetti, now the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, says Tieleman is a great writer, an astute tactician, “a dear friend” and, still, a good and trusted adviser. Far from sending Tieleman to work as an insider in the Clark government, Georgetti says, “I was pissed off when he left. I certainly wasn’t passing him along with any grace. He left a big hole.”

The apparent take-away is that Bill Tieleman is a good guy to have on your team. 

Of course, Carole James might not agree. But then, what was she thinking? During the seven years she served as NDP leader, James had exactly one private conversation with Tieleman: it occurred last summer when she called to congratulate him on the victory of the No HST campaign, and it lasted “all of three minutes,” Tieleman says. 

Here is Tieleman, the sole voice of the left in mainstream media – a guy who has worked the political backrooms with the best lefties of his generation and stumped the campaign trail with charmers from across the political spectrum – and James can’t be bothered to lobby, to flatter or to solicit advice. There is little agreement on who first said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Some people credit the Chinese war theorist Sun Tzu. Some say it was Machiavelli. And everyone seems to agree that Michael Corleone said it in The Godfather. Regardless, if James had been paying attention, she might not be sitting on the political sidelines today, wondering what hit her. 

As for the reference to Svengali, it might not be quite right; Bill Tieleman’s favourite literary doppelgänger is not the great George du Maurier character but rather Prospero, the manipulative magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s not at all clear that Tieleman’s powers have that kind of fantastical reach. It’s not clear that he can be relied upon as a completely co-operative ally. But face it: he’d be a trenchant and talented enemy. Players, on the left and the right, are well advised to take care.