Three more B.C. Liberal politicians added their names Thursday to the growing list of caucus members fleeing government.
And against a backdrop of dreadful polling numbers, what might normally be considered to be standard turnover in advance of a general election is being viewed as something quite different.
Among the most recent Liberal MLAs to announce their resignations were two members of cabinet, including George Abbott, who has arguably been the Liberals’ most effective minister during the party’s 11 years in power.
Most recently he has held the education portfolio. The other cabinet member to join him is Mary McNeil, minister of children and family development.
Also announcing his departure from politics on Thursday was former cabinet minister John Les, now parliamentary secretary to the Premier.
The three resignations come a day after now former finance minister Kevin Falcon announced he also would not be seeking re-election and was resigning from cabinet immediately.
The four departures now bring to 10 the number of Liberal MLAs who have announced they have no intention of running in next May’s election.
Premier Christy Clark has tried to put the best face possible on the exodus, saying there is always change in politics and in this case the moves offer her the chance to bring fresh faces into cabinet. But, while virtually all of the departing Liberal MLAs have said their decisions have nothing to do with Ms. Clark’s leadership or the party’s dim electoral prospects, it’s hard not to believe the Liberals’ cratering poll numbers don’t have something to do with at least a few of those decisions.
Mr. Falcon and Mr. Abbott finished two and three respectively behind Ms. Clark for the Liberal leadership in February, 2011. In other words, just over a year ago they were prepared to stay in government for much longer. Mr. Abbott acknowledged this apparent contradiction but said he just came to the realization that he hadn’t had a year off from elected politics since he was 26. He’s now 59.
“In my mind and in my heart I’m just not wanting to continue on in politics,” Mr. Abbott said in an interview.
The positive news, if there is any for Ms. Clark, is that this appears to be the last of the major departures she can expect. There was speculation that Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman, known as Mr. Fix-It for taking over troubled files, was also going to announce his resignation. Apparently he is staying, which is certainly a welcome development for the Premier who can use all the sage advice she can get.
Still, the challenge in front of her remains deeply discouraging.
She will shuffle her cabinet next week, which will mean she will have to elevate less experienced politicians to fill the void left by the absences of senior ministers such as Mr. Abbott and Mr. Falcon. Finding those persons among an uninspiring backbench is not an enviable task. Even more difficult for her, however, is the job she faces trying to entice some big-name candidates to run for the Liberals next May.
This is never easy at the best of times. Stars usually will only run in ridings where their electoral success is virtually guaranteed. And they almost never agree to enter politics unless a cabinet post awaits them. This is how, in the past, former premier Gordon Campbell enticed high wattage performers such as SFU chancellor Carole Taylor, judge Wally Oppal and West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed to run for the Liberals.
Now, however, Premier Clark cannot offer the same high level of assurance that victory will come to her party and with it, cabinet positions. In fact, with the New Democratic Party consistently running 30 points ahead of the Liberals in poll after poll, most Liberal candidates face extremely long re-election odds.
After next week’s cabinet shuffle, focus will shift to the convention the Liberals plan to hold in October. It is here policies that might form central planks in the party’s election platform will be discussed. As well, there is also expected to be a debate over possibly changing the party name, which has become largely toxic thanks to its association with the much loathed HST.
Meanwhile, Mr. Abbott doesn’t deny that the challenge facing the party in the next election is daunting. “Extracting ourselves from the ditch of public opinion is going to be tough,” he admitted.
But after a lifetime in politics, he said you need to be careful about ever writing off a party too early.
“I’ve seen political fortunes reversed in a day, never mind a month or a year. It could happen here.”