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.
During her leadership bid, she was compared to Bill Vander Zalm, the charismatic gardener and former Social Credit cabinet minister who also returned to politics as a self-styled outsider and prevailed over establishment candidates to become premier. His reliance on gut instinct and habit of blurting out the first thing that came into his head fed the storyline that survives to this day: a loose cannon, intellectual lightweight and style-over-substance premier.
Ms. Clark took over her party with the endorsement of just one sitting member of the legislature. The caucus seemed to feel that she had left politics in 2005 because she didn’t like the cabinet post she received and was returning after a high-profile stint in talk radio only to claim the top post. No way, many thought – an attitude that has proved to be a curse.
Ms. Clark got off to a shaky start because of her ever-evolving position on the HST. One minute, she flirted with holding a referendum or a free vote in the legislature on whether to keep the controversial new tax, only to change direction when polls suggested rising in support for it.
Then she went to Ottawa to meet the Prime Minister. Asked about Senate reform, she was widely mocked for offering up two solutions for B.C.’s chronic under-representation in the upper house, neither of which was even remotely realistic.
After that, she made an off-the-cuff comment about transit financing that threw into chaos a plan her government had worked out with regional mayors. Her office had to issue an embarrassing clarification.
When not tripping over her tongue, she was being accused of grandstanding.
The most flagrant example may have been when, to draw attention to her decision to raise the minimum wage, a long-overdue move for which she was deservedly praised, she decided to see what it was like to be a waitress in Vancouver.
The very idea of a politician paid $200,000 a year walking in the shoes (for two hours) of a minimum wage-earner came across as absurd, if not insulting. Even members of her cabinet had to roll their eyes.
Eventually, Ms. Clark learned to be more cautious and stately. But by then, her own narrative had started to take shape.
In her first few months, the ambitious schedule of public appearances was probably the product of her desire for an early election, something she had promised if made leader – she felt she needed a mandate from the public.
The caucus soon talked her out of that, but she still seemed to be trolling for votes, with a succession of elaborately staged events to herald everything from new bridges to shipbuilding contracts. It kept her in the limelight, but created the impression that she was campaigning rather than governing.
Perhaps the most famous photo op took place Jan. 12, 2012, when she was accompanied by Stephen Harper to her son’s hockey game, each clutching a cup of Tim Hortons – the quintessential Canadian moment.
The get-together came just as her party was facing a threat from the B.C. Conservatives, reborn and trying to capitalize on dissent within the free-enterprise coalition the Liberals represent in this province. (That alliance of liberal and conservative people has operated under different banners in the past, including for decades the Social Credit Party).
Because many on her right flank were suspicious of her more progressive leanings and known ties to the much-maligned federal party, she suddenly went from being Premier Mom, all about liberal values, to seeking the blessing of such conservative stalwarts as Preston Manning and Ottawa’s great hockey fan. Posting pictures online of herself with Mr. Harper generated lots of exposure – but also generated criticism that it was just another example of the crass politicking for which she was quickly becoming known.
Ms. Clark fiercely denies the accusation that she has spent too much time looking for votes.
“It’s simply not true. I became Premier on March 14 and I set about gathering together every minister in government and set them a task of making a contribution to a government-wide jobs plan. And then pulled together a plan and released it a few months later. …
“I do get my back up a little bit … because, if anyone takes the time to look at the numbers and results, then you cannot credibly make that charge.”
But it’s harder to deny the lack of support from her own caucus. Some members had not forgotten that, despite saying she was leaving politics to spend more time with Hamish, she had promptly run for mayor in Vancouver and, after losing, landed on her feet as host of a popular afternoon radio talk show that kept her in the public eye. This led to resentment.
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.”