For most of her political life, B.C. Premier Christy Clark has honed a reputation as a scrapper, someone who could give as good as she could take.
But for the first two-plus years of her time as the head of the provincial government, Ms. Clark spent more time fending off blows than delivering them. If it wasn’t the pundits suggesting she was ill-prepared for the job, it was members of her own caucus whispering behind her back that she was the wrong choice as leader of the Liberal Party.
Every mistake that she made seemed magnified because of a prevailing narrative that she was a political lightweight ill-suited to the job. If she wasn’t answering questions about why women supposedly hated her, she was deflecting suggestions that the business community wasn’t too fond of her either. Many believed the May 14 election would be her political swan song, her legacy destined to be the free-enterprise leader who ushered in a new era of the NDP.
As it turned out, Ms. Clark wasn’t prepared to go quietly to her political grave. Instead, she became the architect of one of the greatest political comebacks in Canadian history. Today, her story serves as one of the better examples of someone who took lemons and made lemonade.
“The last two-plus years have been so tough,” she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail after her by-election win Wednesday in Westside-Kelowna. “I learned more about leadership in the last two years than I probably will for the rest of my career. I think I’m better at the job now because of it.”
It’s funny how things turn out. After winning her party’s leadership in February, 2011, Ms. Clark said that she preferred to go to the polls immediately and not wait until the provincially mandated election date of May 14, 2013. She felt she needed a mandate from the people to have the legitimacy to forge ahead with her political agenda.
But wounds from the botched introduction of the HST, which had cost Gordon Campbell his job as premier, were still too fresh for most in Ms. Clark’s caucus. Her MLAs felt they’d get killed at the polls and a better strategy would be to spend the intervening two years trying to make amends with the electorate. Beyond that, the Premier had discovered that the Liberal Party was broke, more than $5-million in debt. Many riding associations were in shambles.
So Ms. Clark had no other choice but to forge ahead. She created the B.C. Jobs Plan, which would become the document upon which she would stake her political future. With one eye on the next election and the other on those within and outside her party determined to get her, Ms. Clark carried on best she could.
“Everything you do in life changes you,” she said. “I think I’ve really grown as a leader because of fighting all those battles of the last two years, with the pundits on the one hand and my own caucus on the other. Many leaders don’t get that kind of lesson in such a short period of time and survive it.
“I learned how to lead, how to get the best out of people you’re working with and how to make sure you’re bringing people along with you.”
I’m not sure there are many political leaders who would relish having to endure the political storm Ms. Clark faced for two years in exchange for new and improved leadership skills. But she did, and now has four years ahead of her and significant political capital, which gives her breathing room she’s not known before as premier.
“It certainly emboldens me to want to do more because I feel like I have more runway,” the Premier said. “The B.C. Jobs Plan is a long-term plan, but we can really be ambitious about it now. And not just be ambitious, but accomplish that because we have four years.”
Although it seemed politically damaging to lose in her own riding, and require a fellow MLA to give up his seat, the experience of running in the B.C. Interior has given her a new edge: A deeper understanding of the province she couldn’t get from Metro Vancouver. Ms. Clark says she’s now more attuned to the Interior view of the B.C. Mainland, and even more aware of the interconnected relationship between people living outside the province’s bustling metropolis and the resource sector, which is the economic engine of B.C. Her constituents in the Interior know better than anyone the financial consequences that surround any and all decisions tied to such industries as forestry, mining or liquefied natural gas.
“They understand that when people say ‘no’ to economic development, they are saying ‘no’ to jobs,” the Premier said.
“When you’re in a big city and disconnected from where the wealth comes from, as we are in Vancouver, people don’t make that immediate connection. So it’s like saying ‘no’ to economic development is consequence-free for many people in the Lower Mainland. So that’s one really big difference that changes your perspective I think.”
Ms. Clark says her political priority now is seeing her government’s budget passed and turning her attention to one of the most pressing issues facing the province: skills training. She will attend the first ministers conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., later this month.
And then she plans to escape to her cabin on Galiano Island with her son, Hamish, who, she admits, has lost time with his mother to the demands of political life.
“A little vacation would be wonderful.”