With the start of a general election campaign just over 10 weeks away, the Liberal government of Premier Christy Clark is in a state of upheaval.
A wide swath of her caucus is furious with the Premier over her handling of a leaked memo outlining what was widely viewed as a cynical and desperate ploy by her government to woo ethnic voters. The fact that the Premier did not seem to understand how badly the strategy made the Liberals look was one thing. But that she had a minister deliver an apology for the mess on her behalf has angered cabinet members and backbenchers even more.
Amid this uproar, there is growing concern inside the Liberal camp over another controversy involving cabinet ministers Shirley Bond and, to a much greater extent, Pat Bell. New documents obtained by The Globe and Mail contradict denials by the two ministers that they were inappropriately involved in the procurement process for a multimillion-dollar contract in their riding of Prince George.
Some members of the Liberal caucus want to see Mr. Bell step aside from cabinet until this matter can be properly looked into by an independent investigator. The Premier, meantime, has not expressed any concern over the matter and, rather, has backed her two cabinet colleagues unreservedly.
But the matter that has Liberals MLAs most upset at the moment is the Premier’s entirely tone-deaf response to the leaked ethnic strategy memo. Under the proposed plan, taxpayer-funded resources were going to be used for party purposes. The names of members of the ethnic community who showed up for public events were to be compiled and supplied to the Liberals for possible election purposes. And perhaps most disdainful of all, the document outlined a scheme to acknowledge historical wrongs as a way to score a “quick win” with specific ethnic communities.
The plan was sent out under the name of the Premier’s deputy chief of staff, Kim Haakstad, probably the most trusted member of the Ms. Clark’s staff and undoubtedly her closest confidant. Many inside the Liberal ranks believed this couldn’t end without Ms. Haakstad’s resignation – and late Friday, they got it. And there could be more to come.
While Ms. Clark spent much of Thursday playing down the intent of the memo, members of her own cabinet were hatching a plan to publicly apologize for it. It would appear that apology was forced on the Premier, which may be why she felt it not important to cancel a meeting with the editorial board of a Vancouver newspaper so she could deliver the expression of regret herself. Instead, she had Rich Coleman stand in the legislature and read it and then answer questions from the media afterwards.
It was an appallingly bad decision by Ms. Clark, one in which she completely abdicated her responsibilities as Premier.
One has to wonder who is giving the Liberal Leader advice these days. She was not in Victoria on Wednesday when the leaked document was first revealed by the NDP, nor was she there on Thursday when the issue blew up and set off a firestorm inside her own caucus. Surely, someone looking out for her interests might have said to her: “Premier, you may want to get back here ASAP because you have a brewing rebellion on your hands.”
Now we have a situation where Liberal backbenchers are talking privately about deposing her as leader. There is genuine concern that Ms. Clark, given the trajectory the party seems to be on, could run the Liberals completely into the ground, leading to a virtual wipeout of the party in the May 14 election. The name of onetime Liberal leadership candidate George Abbott has been bandied around as someone who the caucus might agree to rally around as a replacement for Ms. Clark. He is also someone with the kind of stature needed if there is any hope of changing the current dynamics enveloping the governing party.
Some Liberals MLAs are being openly contemptuous of the Premier. When one saw a reporter reading a copy of a Vancouver morning tabloid whose front page was devoted to the ethnic strategy debacle and carried a picture of an ethnically garbed Premier with her hands clasped in prayer, he remarked: “She should be praying.”
Ms. Clark’s caucus would seem to be divided into three camps: supporters, dissidents and a third group comprised of those who aren’t running again and have mostly checked out. They are just glad they aren’t seeking the support of the electorate at a time when their party hasn’t had a good-news day in a couple of years.
The pace of leaks coming out of the government ranks is also a sign of general unrest and unhappiness. It is a phenomenon that often dogs governments on their way out of power. The same thing happened to Social Credit in 1990-91 and to the NDP in 2000. It must be infuriating to Ms. Clark because she seems to be powerless to stop it, no matter how much she may rant about it privately.
Ms. Clark is expected to be back in the provincial capital on Monday. She will have some explaining to do with her caucus, some fires to put out. But it’s also likely that she will signal her intent to fight on.
Those who are hoping Ms. Clark will step aside for the good of the party clearly don’t know her. She is a scrapper. She believes that she can turn things around, even in the face of ever-mounting evidence that suggests the task is all but impossible.
It appears she is prepared to go down with the ship. And increasingly it looks like that’s exactly what will happen.