It isn’t often you hear a provincial premier deliver the kind of pleading, remorseful apology that Premier Christy Clark offered on Monday. And while it sounded genuine, it was embedded with the tacit acknowledgment that she had done a poor job of handling the crisis that prompted it.
A day after meeting with her cabinet in an emergency session called to deal with the consequences of a leaked memo that revealed plans behind a crass government strategy to cultivate ethnic votes, the Premier was in the legislature for the first time since the scandal erupted. It was a day likely as painful and uncomfortable as she imagined.
She had to admit to her caucus that she had done a poor job of first responding to the scandal last week. She had to get up in the legislature and announce that her minister of multiculturalism, John Yap, was stepping aside pending an investigation into the genesis and scope of the ethnic-vote scheme. She had to spend the entire 30 minutes of Question Period taking questions about the affair from the NDP Opposition, time she spent apologizing repeatedly for what happened.
And then she had to meet with the media and respond to queries about her leadership, specifically whether she planned to step down amid widespread criticism in Liberal ranks over the memo and her managing of the fallout from it. So far, she said, the answer is no – at least until the results of the review are in. Then, who knows.
What was clear, however, was this was a different Christy Clark than we are used to seeing. Her trademark brass and cockiness were gone. This was a Premier who knows her leadership has suffered a serious blow.
Before Monday, Liberal cabinet ministers and backbenchers were saying privately that for Ms. Clark to remain as Liberal head, she had to own this debacle completely. She had to confess that she had originally underestimated the seriousness of the matter and concede it was a mistake to have a cabinet minister read an apology into the record last week instead of cancelling appointments in Vancouver to return to the legislature to do it herself. She needed to do all these things in order to avoid an ugly mutiny among her ranks just six weeks out from the start of an election campaign.
She did and so saved her job – for now.
But the scene in the legislature said it all about the carnage this issue has caused for the governing party, which was already trailing badly in the polls before it blew up. The entire Liberal caucus sat silently as Ms. Clark answered question after question. A few bowed their heads for extended periods of time. It was as if they knew there is little that can be done now to turn the Liberal ship of misfortune around. This latest scandal has likely cost the party tens of thousands of votes.
The reality is that for all the bold talk over phone lines and in hotel bars among Liberal backbenchers who want to see the Premier resign, it’s not likely to happen. There is not enough time to put someone new into the job. The public would look dimly upon any talk of pushing the May 14 election date back to accommodate a leadership change. While no one is happy about where things stand, Liberals I spoke to on Monday said Ms. Clark did what she needed to do on this issue – show leadership.
No one in the government ranks seems to be overly worried about the investigation into the scandal being carried out by deputy minister John Dyble. While Mr. Dyble is head of what is supposed to be an independent civil service, he reports to Ms. Clark. So he is effectively investigating his boss – a problem.
The ethnic-vote plan involves using government for political purposes. But Mr. Dyble has no authority over the Liberal Party, no powers to subpoena e-mails to see what traffic there might have been between the Premier’s office and party headquarters. It’s also apparent that staff in the Premier’s office was using private e-mail accounts to carry on conversations about this plan. He has no power to access those either.
While Mr. Dyble is a respected civil servant with an impeccable reputation, he should not be leading this probe. It should have been handed to a special prosecutor or someone with powers of subpoena. There is little chance that with the limited tools of investigation he has at his disposal Mr. Dyble will find much. Perhaps that is why Mr. Clark didn’t seem to be sweating the outcome too much.
Still, she did sound like someone who finally understood how politically ruinous this entire affair has been. Damage that no amount of apologizing can completely reverse.