Not even by the notoriously strange and wacky standards of B.C. politics has the province seen anything quite like this – a provincial premier undergoing a radical ideological makeover a year into the job.
Those who knew Christy Clark as a big-L Liberal with deep and lifelong connections to the federal party must barely recognize the conservative standard-bearer she has morphed into in a shockingly short period of time.
From routinely taking potshots at Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his party while a Liberal-friendly radio host, Ms. Clark has turned to the Conservative Leader and his acolytes in a painfully obvious attempt to reverse her dreary political fortunes.
Not since David Emerson crossed the floor in 2006 to sit in Mr. Harper’s cabinet have federal Liberals in B.C. been so mystified, and angry, with a politician’s philosophical change of heart.
Today, instead of deriding the views of Christian fundamentalists and hard-line conservatives such as Preston Manning, Ms. Clark seeks their blessings. Only last week, she was in Ottawa to attend Mr. Manning’s annual conference of conservative politicians and strategists – an event at which the B.C. Premier wouldn’t have been caught dead not that long ago. Instead, she left with an enthusiastic endorsement from Mr. Manning, who even compared Ms. Clark to former British PM Margaret Thatcher.
These days that’s pure gold for the Premier.
It was just over a year ago that Ms. Clark won the leadership of her party, promising to be everything that her corporatist predecessor, Gordon Campbell, wasn’t. One of the first things she did upon coming to office was raise the minimum wage, something Mr. Campbell had stubbornly refused to do during his decade as premier.
Ms. Clark talked about attacking the province’s abysmal child poverty rate. She vowed to add a new Family Day holiday to the provincial calendar – and would. She campaigned to be a kind of Premier Mom, someone who held out the hope for a kinder, gentler approach to government, one devoid of the nasty, inflammatory and highly partisan rhetoric that marked politics in the province for far too long.
But all that changed with the resurgence of the BC Conservative Party, which received new life under Leader John Cummins, who represented right-wingers scared by what Ms. Clark represented. Mr. Cummins’s ascendancy immediately threatened the liberal-conservative coalition that the Premier’s party represents.
Once polls consistently showed the BC Conservatives at a solid 20 per cent – a number that would assure an NDP victory in the next election – the political overhaul of Ms. Clark was on. And it wasn’t long afterwards that she decided to turn to strategists around Mr. Harper for help.
She has placed the fate of her political future in the hands of Ken Boessenkool, a former Harper adviser with a reputation for being tough-minded and not afraid to step on toes in the march to victory. Mr. Boessenkool recently brought in former Harper press secretary Sara MacIntyre to manage the media. Ms. Macintyre’s early attempts to tightly control news conferences, the way she did for the Prime Minister, have not gone well. The B.C. media are not the Ottawa Press Gallery. And any attempts to strong-arm reporters and excessively restrict access to Ms. Clark will backfire in spectacular fashion.
Ms. Clark, perhaps sensing that her political survival is at stake, has gone into attack mode. Although never a shrinking violet, the Premier has put the softer, gentler version of herself away.
Now, in a very Iron Lady-like way, she taunts NDP Leader Adrian Dix for not having any backbone. When she stood in the legislature this week to address the resignation of one of her ministers, she used the opportunity to smear the NDP Leader for a memo he forged more than a decade earlier when he was chief of staff to then-NDP-premier Glen Clark.
It was a moment that demanded Ms. Clark act like a premier and address a serious situation devoid of partisan cheap shots. Yet, to her discredit, she couldn’t help herself.
You can count on Mr. Dix’s lapse of judgment more than 10 years ago to become central to the Liberals’ campaign against the NDP in the months to come. Ms. Clark seems quite comfortable with the type of Harper-style attack initiatives, replete with devastating television commercials, that mortally wounded federal Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.
Meantime, the Premier has been lobbing red meat in the direction of conservatives every chance she gets. From promising to put the trials of Stanley Cup rioters on TV to backing an elected Senate, Ms. Clark has tried her best to convince people that deep down she really is Tory blue.
An idea her government is now floating to fly welfare recipients up north to work in the oil and gas fields might have been taken from the political playbook of that infamous right-wing B.C. premier, Bill Vander Zalm.
Where this all ends up for Ms. Clark remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the politician who stands before us today is almost unrecognizable from the one who grasped the Liberal leadership a year ago.
It will be up to the public to decide what they think of the political transformation and whether it’s a genuine ideological conversion or a cynical, desperate ploy to hold on to power.