Christy Clark looked out at the sea of faces, smiling and waving to ones that were familiar. She had just followed a lone bagpiper into the ornate ballroom at Government House in Victoria to be sworn in as British Columbia’s 35th Premier and, as she stood onstage, soaking up the love, she caught the eye of a blond boy in the front row, clapping along with everyone else.
The new Premier couldn’t resist a wink – he was her son, after all.
In that instant, Ms. Clark experienced a rush of conflicting emotions. March 14, 2011, would forever be one of the happiest days of her life. But she also wondered what that life would be like for her and for Hamish, then 9, now that she was realizing her dream. How much would her new job intrude?
Nor could she help thinking of her late parents, Mavis and Jim, the aspiring political candidate who instilled in her a passion for public life. How she wished both could have been there to share this moment.
But even then, the magnitude of the challenge she faced had begun to sink in.
“I knew I had a huge job ahead of me in terms of trying to reverse the political fortunes of the party and I certainly spent part of that day thinking about it,” she recalls.
“It was never going to be easy. I understood I would ultimately be judged on how successful I was in convincing the public that I represented a new style of politics, a new way of doing things.
“I wanted to bring a fresh approach to the job, and I think I have. And I think voters recognize that, too. But I guess we’ll see.”
On Tuesday, she returned to Government House – under much different circumstances, and perhaps for the last time as Premier – to ask Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon to dissolve her government and give consent to a general election on May 14.
She now finds herself in the most crucial battle of her political life.
In a province notorious for its often divisive and highly toxic political atmosphere, Ms. Clark is vowing to take the gloves off and do battle with archrival Adrian Dix, leader of the New Democratic Party, in a bid to beat back the doomsayers insisting that her party’s time is up.
To do so, she has to persuade a skeptical public that her Liberals, battered, bruised and laden with political baggage after more than a decade in power, really deserve four more years.
And while she would rather look ahead, the electorate will decide her fate on the basis of how she has performed during her two years in office. If the polls are to be believed, that assessment will not be kind – many have the Liberals 20 points behind the NDP.
In fact, history may be no more generous when it looks back on Ms. Clark’s reign.
She has been accused of being everything from a brazen political opportunist to a dilettante who arrived in office with no grand plan or vision for leading the province.
Her critics say she has demonstrated more interest in campaign-like photo ops than dealing with hard issues, in quick-win political strategies rather than developing good public policy.
Media reviews of her job performance have, at times, been merciless – and gender appears to present double trouble. On one hand, some say she is handicapped by the fact she is a woman; on the other, polls suggest women voters don’t like her. Why? Pick a reason: She is negative, disingenuous, uses her son as a prop. There is no shortage of theories.
This is not to say Christy Clark doesn’t have supporters.
Many people are attracted to her warm and often sunny disposition. Cabinet colleagues say that, despite the perception that she isn’t as serious-minded as predecessor Gordon Campbell, she has a sharp and probing intellect. The business community has applauded her efforts to pave the way for a massive expansion of opportunities to export liquid natural gas from the province.
Almost everyone agrees that she was dealt a difficult hand when she took over – starting with the lingering impact of the badly bungled harmonized sales tax brought in by Mr. Campbell. But there is also widespread sentiment that she has often made things worse.