It was just Christy Clark’s luck that the day before her party’s big fundraiser, a poll came out showing her in a two-way tie for least popular premier in the country.
And then 24 hours later, Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, passed away. In her speech at the Liberal Party’s annual premier’s dinner, Ms. Clark noted the passing of the iconic politician, saying she was someone who stuck to her principles and pressed onward in the face of withering criticism and dissent.
While unsaid, it was evident Ms. Clark was certainly trying to establish a comparison between the trials and tribulations of Lady Thatcher and the negative reviews and stinging rebukes she has had to endure. Except, much of the downbeat commentary that has been levelled at the Premier has sprung from a widely held view that she arrived in office with no real plan or vision or firmly held convictions upon which a policy agenda would be based – almost the anti-Thatcher. And the former British prime minister’s death only served to bring that unfortunate distinction into starker relief.
Of course, the other critique to dog Ms. Clark is that she has preferred the public aspects of the position – ribbon cuttings, town hall meetings, representing government at high-profile events – to the more mundane, less visible but vitally important job of identifying priorities and crafting an agenda.
Certainly, those who have served in the executive council of the B.C. government over the last decade noticed a sharp difference in the leadership styles of Ms. Clark and her predecessor, Gordon Campbell. Mr. Campbell was a self-avowed policy wonk who often read books on arcane subjects until the early hours of the morning. He was always exceptionally well briefed, knowing some files as well or better than the cabinet ministers responsible for them.
Cabinet meetings under Ms. Clark have been much shorter, the agendas much thinner.
One of those who had an up-close look at both Ms. Clark and Mr. Campbell is George Abbott, the retiring Liberal MLA who held high-profile cabinet posts under both leaders.
Mr. Abbott, who came third in the leadership race to replace Mr. Campbell, announced late last year that after 17 years in the political arena he was leaving to resume a career as a political scientist.
Mr. Abbott said the first two years of the Campbell government and the Clark administration couldn’t have been more different. Mr. Campbell had a thoroughly articulated 90-day plan for governing and a detailed set of platform commitments. The agenda was further filled up with a thorough scrutiny of all government functions, known as the core review process.
“You could barely pick your head up those first two years under Gordon because they were so all consuming,” said Mr. Abbott, who has already begun teaching at the University of Victoria.
He said life in the Clark cabinet was much different. While there were some high-level thoughts about government, he and his colleagues were not working from the type of well-conceived plan that Mr. Campbell had mapped out. Cabinet meetings under Ms. Clark were condensed, often only a couple hours in duration versus five, six and sometimes seven hours under her predecessor. The other disparity, Mr. Abbott noticed, was that while Mr. Campbell was consumed by policy, politics was something he put up with.
“To me,” he said, “Clark is much, much fonder of politics and I think her focus has been much more on politics than public policy. Some of that may be natural to her as I think she’s always been a very political person, but I also think it reflects in part the nature of what she inherited.”
And that, he said, was a party firmly in the ditch of public opinion as a consequence of the extraordinarily clumsy way that Mr. Campbell’s government undertook introducing the harmonized sales tax.
Even some of Ms. Clark’s biggest boosters, members of her cabinet who have stood firmly by her side, concede that she likes the game more than most.
“I think Christy enjoys the politics more than the policy,” said Transportation Minister Mary Polak. “But I don’t think she’s weak on policy.”
“She has a different style of practising politics,” said Bill Bennett, Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development. “Her style is similar to mine. I’m always campaigning too. But I don’t think it’s interfered with Christy’s capacity to govern. Not one bit.”
With the writ dropping in just a few days, Ms. Clark has been in full campaign mode for some time now. Liberal Party faithful believe this is where the Premier is at her best, amongst the people, pressing the flesh, captivating people with her irrepressible charm and optimism and sunny disposition. It seems to matter not that she’s been doing this for much of the past two years to little effect.
My suspicion is she will be judged less on how her smile makes people feel and more on what her government has accomplished. And whether she spent the last two years in power campaigning too much and governing too little.