There have been leaks and the occasional rebellion (one member bolted to sit as an independent after a brief flirtation with the Conservatives). “She got stuck for two years with a very difficult situation,” says Bill Bennett, a long-time MLA who initially had reservations but is now a booster and cabinet minister.
“At the same time, she is trying to refresh and put her own stamp on government, she doesn’t know from one day to the next what sort of mini-revolts and acting out she can expect from her own group.”
In all, 17 sitting Liberals are not running for re-election, including Kash Heed, a former cabinet minister who declares: “There was just no leadership with her at all. She has neither the wisdom nor power. She defaulted her leadership to certain members of cabinet.
“A leader has to organize chaos. She creates it.”
A watershed moment in the relationship with her caucus came late in 2011, when she threatened to ignore its advice and call a snap election if the leaks did not stop.
“People were furious that she would even try such an intimidation tactic,” says someone who was in the room. “That one incident … led to lots of discussions about dumping her.”
MLAs were also upset about the repeated gaffes and bad-news stories connected to the Premier’s office, with its revolving door of consultants and communications staff. Ken Boessenkool, a one-time adviser to the Prime Minister, arrived purportedly to shore up Ms. Clark’s conservative credentials but seemed mostly to irritate her members.
“Boessenkool was widely despised,” retiring Liberal Randy Hawes says. “He talked down to caucus, for starters. He was all about optics. He went on and on about the Premier’s picture with Stephen Harper in the hockey rink and what a big win that was. Yeah, forget about policy, it’s all about the photo ops. We were all left shaking our heads.”
Mr. Boessenkool, married with four daughters, eventually resigned his post after an unexplained but apparently troubling incident at a Victoria bar involving a female government employee.
Ms. Clark says the problems with her MLAs stemmed from the fact that, “I was elected to change our party.” However, some in the caucus she inherited “were staunch defenders of the status quo who didn’t want change.”
Much as she has had to fight for caucus support, one of Ms. Clark’s great challenges in the campaign will be to connect with female voters.
“I think early on she was dancing at too many weddings,” says staunch ally and leading financial backer Bob Rennie, referring to the ceaseless photo ops.
“I think the Christy we’re seeing now is being stronger and more direct. She’s now representing herself better as a female and being strong – and maybe that wasn’t coming through to female voters earlier.”
In fact, argues Mr. Rennie, real-estate marketer extraordinaire and one of Vancouver’s more powerful business leaders, her gender is a strike against Ms. Clark: “I never thought that would enter the race, but I think Liberal fatigue and being female has really presented her with problems – and nobody really looks at the job she’s doing.”
Indeed, Clark supporters talk about her work ethic and belief in what she is doing. They say she has not received enough credit for her employment plan and the gas exploration, which could be worth billions to the province. They contend that her firm and principled stand on the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta and the five conditions she set out for its approval illustrate what a tough leader she can be.
Not even her biggest backers would say her two years on the job have been perfect, but they insist that the negative publicity has often been unfair and overshadowed real achievements, including the balanced budget the Liberals tabled in February (a balancing act the NDP insists came on the back of some dubious accounting).
Despite the dour polls, Ms. Clark refuses to be downcast. A big believer in her powers of persuasion and prowess on the campaign trail, she thinks back to that day at Government House in 2011 and the promise she made, as a mother, to leave a better province for her son and perhaps one day her grandchildren.
“I’m not finished that job,” she says. “I think we’ve got a good start, and I’d like four more years on the job to continue to build on our successes. I’m only getting started.”