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British Columbia Premier Christy Clark introduces the Liberal MLA's following her address to the membership at the BC Liberals Convention in Penticton, B.C. on Saturday May 14, 2011. (Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail/Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail)
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark introduces the Liberal MLA's following her address to the membership at the BC Liberals Convention in Penticton, B.C. on Saturday May 14, 2011. (Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail/Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

The B.C. Liberals' mini caucus rebellion is perplexing Add to ...

When Christy Clark won the leadership of the B.C. Liberal Party, members of her caucus gathered on the stage behind her to present a picture of unassailable unity. It was a photo-op aimed to paper over the fact that only one of the politicians on the podium with the new leader had supported her campaign.

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As Ms. Clark set out to establish control over the party and set government on a new course, the unity of the Liberal caucus was a legitimate question mark. In the final hours of the leadership campaign, MLAs such as John van Dongen said they would have to reassess their future in the party if Ms. Clark won.

“There’s a reason, and a legitimate reason, why virtually all of the caucus worked for [other candidates]” Mr. van Dongen told The Globe and Mail’s Rod Mickleburgh in late February. “You can’t expect all of them to suddenly flip over and support a leader they didn’t support during the campaign.”

This week, Mr. van Dongen was one of two Liberal MLAs who publicly broke ranks with the government over the way it has been delivering services to developmentally disabled adults. But others who weren’t as outspoken are no less angry over the leadership that the Premier and cabinet have shown on this issue.

Emotions came to a head at a caucus meeting earlier in the week at which Ms. Clark referenced the fact that she had held off calling an election in the fall on the advice of those in the room.

The point seemed to be that, given that she deferred to the wishes of the group on the timing of an election, the least it could do was rally around her and present a united front.

Instead, someone in the room leaked her remark to the NDP. In the legislature, New Democratic Leader Adrian Dix suggested the Premier had warned disgruntled elements in her caucus: “Shut up, or I’ll call an election.” Even though Mr. Dix’s remark was a gross exaggeration of the facts, it demonstrated the level of trouble with which the Premier is dealing.

The fact that Ms. Clark has not been able to repair the cracks in caucus that her victory created is not completely surprising.

Hard feelings can sometimes last a lifetime in politics, and Ms. Clark’s victory created plenty of them. And then she had to pick a cabinet, which made her more enemies. The fact that she has not had a stellar run in the first seven months on the job has not helped her cause either.

Still, the mini caucus rebellion that was all the talk in Victoria earlier in the week is perplexing.

Many in the caucus despised Ms. Clark’s predecessor, Gordon Campbell, and his controlling, autocratic ways. The new Premier possesses none of those qualities and has given her cabinet ministers more latitude and decision-making power than they ever enjoyed under the previous management.

Beyond that is the fact that, not only is Ms. Clark not planning to leave the job any time soon, she would appear to be the party’s best hope in any election – at least if recent polls are to be believed.

One earlier this month put the Liberals seven points behind the NDP. But the poll gave the Liberal Leader a significantly higher approval rating than Mr. Dix of the NDP. That alone is not enough to get her party elected. But the fact the Premier’s personal popularity is running well ahead of her party’s would suggest she’d be the last person her colleagues would want to get rid of.

Undermining her authority, or at least creating the impression that she doesn’t have a firm grip on her caucus, is not what the Liberals need right now. Unless, of course, they want to ensure the party goes down in flames in the next election. In that case, caucus members should continue planting seeds of dissent.

It may well be that the biggest trouble makers in caucus could care less because they’re not planning to run again anyway. So maybe there is some score settling here. That fact that more than a handful of them just can’t warm to the new leader makes supporting her harder.

New political leaders are often tested from within their organizations early on, and Ms. Clark is certainly experiencing that phenomenon. The question is whether she can stamp out the discontent well before the next election, in May 2013.

She may not yet appreciate the depth of that challenge.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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