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Ben Stewart (L) who stepped down for Premier Christie Clark (R) ride off convertible cadillac after visiting a coffee shop in Kelowna July 10, 2013 on election day. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Ben Stewart (L) who stepped down for Premier Christie Clark (R) ride off convertible cadillac after visiting a coffee shop in Kelowna July 10, 2013 on election day. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

POLITICs

Opposition in disarray, Clark in full control Add to ...

For the most of the past two-plus years Christy Clark was in many ways still learning how to govern. With her apprenticeship over, and armed with a powerful mandate from the public and now a seat in the legislature, Ms. Clark’s leadership enters a new phase.

As widely expected, the B.C. Premier won a by-election Wednesday in Westside-Kelowna that became necessary when she lost her own seat of Vancouver-Point Grey in the May 14 general election. Ms. Clark’s new riding is one of the safest Liberal seats in the province and was won by her predecessor Ben Stewart by more than 6,000 votes in the spring campaign.

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With 167 of 171 ballots counted late Wednesday, Ms. Clark had a 31 point lead over her nearest challenger, Carole Gordon of the NDP.

“Well this puts an exclamation mark on the election,” said Ms. Clark in her victory speech, in a reference to her party’s unexpected majority win in May.

“Thank you Westside-Kelowna for opening up your arms and opening up your hearts.”

Having a seat in the legislature is one less matter that Ms. Clark has to worry about. There are others, such as her caucus, a group that was a constant source of concern and consternation for her before the election. After winning the leadership of the Liberals in February 2011, the Premier never had the full support of her MLAs and she knew it. Mostly all of those who didn’t believe in her are now gone. The few who remain have been assigned, likely permanently, to the backbenchers.

Ms. Clark is, for the first time, in full control over her party and government. This will be a huge weight off her shoulders, which will hopefully allow her to focus exclusively on the task of governing – something she was accused of doing too little of during the first two years in government.

The Premier, I believe, understands the unique opening that is before her. She has an Opposition in disarray. The New Democratic Party is now headed by someone many consider to be a lame duck. Worse, the party is facing an uncertain future, one that begs the fundamental question: who is the NDP?

That may take some time to sort out. Does the party stick to its roots and continue to be the party of organized labour? Does it try and re-establish itself as the more viable green option? Or does it try and reimagine itself entirely as a modern, centre-left alternative that has a 21 st Century jobs plan that beats the one being offered by the province’s free-enterprise coalition?

And then there is the question of who heads it? Can the NDP find a leader with a charisma quotient that might be a match for Ms. Clark’s, which, as the provincial election demonstrated, is extremely high. New Democrats haven’t had a great history of finding those types of people.

All of this portends well for the Premier, who, while never wanting to get too far ahead of herself, can in quieter moments likely imagine leading this province for some time to come. That is, barring the kind of sensational scandal that renders a leader and her party paralyzed and ineffective.

Ms. Clark inherits a political landscape she hasn’t had before. She won’t have to be in campaign mode again for some time. Consequently it is the hope of many that she will take the next step as a leader and Premier, one that is more sharply focused on the art of governing. She has a chance to shed some of the labels attached to her that she always believed were unfair – that she was a policy lightweight who lacked the gravitas to be a truly great Premier – and become a stateswoman who has an impact on the national scene.

This is not to say that there is some great hope that Ms. Clark will shed her glass-half-full disposition, her jocular style, the personality trimmings that made her such a hit on the campaign trail. That would be impossible anyway. Rather there is an expectation that she will broaden her leadership skill set as she becomes ever more comfortable and confident on the job.

The opportunity is hers.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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