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Christy Clark faces a daunting task as Premier-designate of BC

28 February 2011 | Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

Urgent problems are many but main mid-term challenge is keeping the Liberals’ anti-NDP coalition together


Special for TheCommentary.ca

It’s apparent from examining the entrails of Premier-designate Christy Clark’s narrow win of the B.C. Liberal Party leadership contest that she won because she became seen as the one most likely to be able to defeat the New Democratic Party opponents in the next provincial election, but there is no guarantee she will be able to do so.

Though the most recent opinion poll shortly before the vote on Saturday (Feb. 26) showed the Liberals with a 41 to 38 per cent lead over the NDP, the first such lead for the Liberals in about two years, Ms. Clark, a 45-year-old single mother, faces a daunting task in the weeks and months or perhaps years ahead before the next scheduled general election in 2013.

In fact the panorama of B.C. politics and policies is now a minefield of explosive controversies for Clark, and a maze of complexities, a morasse of conflicts, a jumble of conundrums and a lot of just plain cons – so much so that it will be some kind of a miracle if she manages to hang on to power, finish the Liberals’ third full term and then win an election against an array of opposing parties who are in the process of choosing stronger new leaders and mounting more populist platforms.

Clark is a lifelong political activist who entered politics as a young Opposition MLA and then a senior cabinet minister in Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell’s first government but she left in 2005 for a combination of reasons including family matters and unhappiness in the challenging Children and Families portfolio, made a failed bid for the mayorship of Vancouver but finally found success for four years as a talk show host on CKNW and then was wooed into the leadership contest after Campbell was forced to resign late last year. He is still nominally the Premier but will be resigning soon.

Clark’s win was all the more surprising because she had the support of no cabinet ministers and only one MLA, little-known Harry Bloy, but she did it with the support of a strong organization that featured campaign manager Mike McDonald, ex TV news anchor Pamela Martin, backroom eminence Patrick Kinsella, a long list of former Liberal MLAs and a team of local activists who combined to raise more than $500,000 for her.

The key factor that put her over the top probably was the finding in at least two opinion polls that she had a much better chance than her three male rivals of beating the NDP in the next provincial election, especially one poll showing she would pull more than a few women voters away from the NDP. But she also had a strong strategic campaign that helped her win the most support in almost every riding, albeit it narrowly, but especially so widely in ridings held by the NDP.

Many urgent issues

The many urgent issues Clark is facing probably were outlined in the briefing books delivered to her at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning and include such items (among probably hundreds of hot potatoes left by Campbell) as what to do about the hated Harmonized Sales Tax, the threatened Hydro and Ferries rate hikes, rising Medical Services premiums, the PavCorp stadium completion, several pressing Transit issues (Evergreen, Pattulo, Fraser Valley), the need to rescue the crumbling St. Paul’s Hospital, the stalled B.C. Treaty Process, the carbon tax and carbon trading questions, troubling child death reviews, understaffing in the courts and overcrowding in prisons, the revised Taseko Prosperity mine proposal, the wavering Therapeutic Initiative (regarding generic drugs), the contract renewal with the RCMP, the federal takeover of securities jurisdiction and more (e.g. what to do with the white-elephant German-made fat ferries now in only limited use due to fuel-guzzling). Not to mention tweaking the budget, recalling the Legislature, calling and winning a byelection in Campbell’s soon-to-be-vacated riding of Point Grey, meetings with about 50 MLAs, structuring a new cabinet, hiring a bunch of new staffers and – oh, yes: fulfilling her many and relatively-detailed campaign promises still viewable on her campaign website [grab copies before they’re gone!!].

Could Christy copy Campbell and do a dramatic first-day symbolic “change” by fulfilling her promises to implement a set of new tax credits or rebates for lower-income families? Maybe she will, perhaps starting with the likely cabinet meeting on Wednesday. And/or maybe she will instantly restore all of the gaming grants cruelly cut by Campbell in the cause of reducing the apparent size of B.C.’s embarrassing overspending and budget deficits in and around the 2010 Olympics (along with many many other small cuts, such as slashing the SPCA’s budget for investigations, which was a contributing factor in the recent mass murder of about 100 sled dogs in the Whistler area, for example, not to mention the about equal number of avoidable deaths to humans from inadequate supports for street people, inadequate staffing in social services, over-crowding in hospitals and more than a few police-involved deaths of citizens).

In other words, like it or not, those misguided budget decisions have left Campbell with blood on his hands. The mainstream media may refrain from saying that but there is ample evidence that figuratively and politically that is the truth. (For example Campbell at first commiserated with the police who killed Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver’s airport, and he was among the voices denying there was a serial killer loose on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside when he was chairman of the Vancouver Police Commission.)

And it wasn’t as if the Province couldn’t get the money needed to maintain basic and essential services – it has maintained one of the best credit ratings and lowest debt-servicing ratios on the continent even during NDP regimes, as well as owning a wealth of resources and other assets, but Campbell’s vanity and hypocrisy led him to decide it was better to lose a few people and animals and other public assets than to run up an embarrassing deficit at a bad moment in the pre-election process. So he grossly fudged the 2009 pre-election budget and right afterwards brought in the HST to try to hide his horror show – but it failed. And now it is Clark’s job to demonstrate that “change” – real change, has come, perhaps starting with the HST.

Challenge is holding the coalition together

But her even bigger challenge is over the mid-term: how to hold together her party’s anti-NDP coalition – which will be affected by whomever the New Democrats choose for leader on April 17 but probably even moreso by what the nascent B.C. First Party does following its founding annual meeting April 9 in Kamloops and then the renascent B.C. Conservative Party general meeting and leadership selection in May.

Shortly before the Liberals’ leadership vote Clark’s opponents released some opinion polls warning that Clark could endanger the anti-NDP coalition by being too much of a federal Liberal and thereby alienating the many federal Tory elements now in the “Campbell coalition” to the point that some might drift over to the Tories, and some of the Old Boys reminded voters that the only time the NDP has been able to win elections in B.C. was when the right-wing vote was fractured (as it was in 1972, 1991, 1996). It doesn’t take a lot, as little as 10 per cent, but it can make a big difference.

That was seen in fact in the 2009 election result too, when only about 3,500 votes delivered to the NDP in about 10 close ridings would have resulted in an NDP regime under Carole James, but as it was the NDP vote was fractured by an active effort by the B.C. Green Party, the NDP’s turnout was weakened by its gender-quotas policy and the Liberals’ coalition wasn’t threatened by a Conservative rump that was more of a rural regional redneck horse’s ass than a real populist movement.

But next time? Maybe the B.C. Conservatives will choose serious qualified leaders this time, perhaps also depending on what transpires in the federal election expected some time in May, but meanwhile Clark was demonstrably cheered-up on Saturday night when she told the media that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had just called her and wished her well, to which she assured the media that the B.C. government under her leadership would be working hard to maintain a close relationship with its “friendly government in Ottawa” – and rightly so, especially given that the Harper Tories have poured billions of dollars into B.C. in recent years in the form of stimulus projects and worthwhile new infrastructure to counter the global recession, and that Harper could kill off her coalition with a mere word to a handful of his B.C. operatives.

In any case the B.C. First Party probably will choose earnest Chris Delaney as leader – who was instrumental in collecting more than 700,000 signatures against the HST and so should not be under-estimated even though the main pollsters and much of the mainstream media continue to pretend he and they don’t exist. However the impact of BC First also could cut both ways because Delaney’s policy pronouncements are often decidedly populist and even progressive and sometimes he’s an even better critic of the Liberals’ record than the NDP have been, e.g. regarding ferry fiascoes.

A key factor in the next election thus will also and again be voter turnout, which has been trending downwards and now is around only 50 per cent. In fact the main reason the NDP lost the last election was not the success of Campbell’s lies about the province’s finances but the NDP’s own failure to craft a platform with broad-enough popular appeal to attract a better turnout and its even more glaring failure to pillory Campbell for his many blatant failures and scandals and so energize more people to turn out to vote against him.

Though many people, especially women, inside the NDP were and still are sold on the notion of “doing politics differently” – which is politically-correct code speak for not being critical of the opponents even when they deserve it – the history of politics in B.C. (as often elsewhere) demonstrates that many many people vote against some things moreso than for them, and if anyone wants clear proof of that just look at what happened to Gordon Campbell! The backlash was so strong that he was ousted in a manner not unlike Hosni Mubarak and other such despots, only thankfully here in B.C. we still do it with ballots, not bullets.

[I have to struggle to find kind things to say about Campbell now, given his atrocious despicable record of selling out the province, misleading the people and ruining lives, earning an approval rating that went below even Nixon’s and Bush’s, but I will give him this: at least he had the decency to realize the gig was up and it was best to leave as quickly and quietly as possible, which makes him a little better than say Libya’s Gadhafi.]

In such a milieu why would Clark take on such a daunting challenge? Well partly it’s because partisan politics really is in her family’s blood, as in Big Red Liberal blood. And partly because it is a sweet job to have even if only for a short while, even better than being a talk-show host on powerful CKNW. But there’s also perhaps a dark side: it’s in her own interests and in the interests of some of her key supporters such as political strategist and lobbyist Patrick Kinsella and some of her own family and friends to keep a lid on a number of scandals, most notably the questionable giveaway/sale of BC Rail and the subsequent long-delayed trial and farcical guilty pleas of David Basi and Bob Virk – an inquiry into all of which has been loudly called for by numerous interests but which under Clark’s leadership is highly unlikely to happen.

As the NDP asked in the Legislature, was Kinsella really billing both sides at once? And if so, why? But under Christy Clark we’ll probably never know. However we do know from her public disclosure that his firm Progressive Strategies donated $20,000 to her campaign, and he attended some of her events and so probably coached her a bit too.

In other words, Patrick Kinsella, who has been a fixture in and behind the anti-NDP coalition since 1975, has found a new horse to ride.

Welcome to the real world, Christy, and for the sake of the Province, best wishes too. You may need them.

John Twigg (www.johntwigg.com) is an independent journalist, former press secretary to premier Dave Barrett and former interim leader of the BC Refederation Party.