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Rocky political start shows B.C.'s Clark willing to take some risks

BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark was elated as she won the BC provincial election in 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

About ten weeks before the British Columbia election in 2013, an embattled Premier Christy Clark confronted her fractious caucus: She offered to quit, and they could choose a new leader to take them into the campaign.

Ms. Clark had been chosen to lead the governing BC Liberals 24 months earlier. She was the outsider candidate who was going to save the party from a powerful voter backlash over the government's imposition of the harmonized sales tax. With the provincial election on the horizon, however, some party stalwarts were so certain she would lose, there was an "801" club preparing to rebuild – without her – the minute after the polls closed at 8 p.m.

Standing up in the caucus room on that February morning, Ms. Clark decided to gamble with her job in a bid to end the dissent.

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"We were at a moment of total dysfunction," she recalled in an interview on the eve of the 2017 election campaign.

This was not an anecdote that she offered up, but when asked about it, she explained: "I'm not risk-averse. I am prepared to take some risks in order to succeed," she said. "I just said, 'Look, I'm going to call everyone's bluff on this. All the people that are so unhappy, you want another leader? Go organize a leadership race. Who wants that?' And in the room, nobody put their hand up."

That was a turning point, according to members of her caucus, that defused the hostility Ms. Clark was facing.

"She recognized there had to be a change, so she put that on the table. It was a bombshell," said one MLA who was in the room that day. "That changed the tone of caucus overnight."

From that rocky start, Ms. Clark pulled off an unexpected electoral upset. This time around, she faces a far different set of circumstances as she heads into her second campaign as BC Liberal Leader: a unified caucus, an overflowing war chest and a team of volunteers that is five times larger than the crew that showed up for the 2013 campaign. The economy has grown and job creation in B.C. leads the country – two circumstances that will play into her campaign even though her 2013 promise of a new, trillion-dollar industry in liquefied natural gas has failed to materialize.

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The Liberal government has also accumulated 16 years' worth of baggage, with cash-for-access fundraisers now in the public eye, alarm about unaffordable housing and concerns about those the economy had left behind after a decade of frozen welfare rates.

The Liberals head into the 28-day campaign seeking a fifth term in office. Until the legislature is dissolved on Tuesday, the Liberals have 47 seats, while their main rivals, the NDP, have 35, the Greens one and there are two Independents.

Ms. Clark plans to use the same approach that she adopted in 2013. She intends to talk about jobs and the economy, every day. The concept of Ms. Clark in a hard hat was an accidental strategy in the 2013 campaign, but it didn't take long for the Liberals to recognize the impact that images of Ms. Clark on job sites was having on voters.

Her confidant on the bus, Brad Bennett, recalls with glee watching the six-o'-clock news on May 1, 2013, in the first half of the campaign that she was supposed to be losing. Ms. Clark was shown wearing a hard hat at an industrial site, followed by images of her rival Adrian Dix, the NDP Leader, in historic Barkerville trying on a bowler hat. The contrast of who was concerned about jobs was clear.

"It's symbolic of putting jobs front and centre, and that's front and centre again," Mr. Bennett said in an interview. "I think you will see some hard hats this time."

Mr. Bennett grew up around politics – his father and grandfather each served as premier of B.C. – but this was his first time serving as a key campaign adviser. He was impressed with her toughness in the face of difficult odds.

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"She has the ability to take a punch. It's a part of who she is," said Mr. Bennett, who will be back on the bus with Ms. Clark when the campaign begins on Tuesday.

"She seemed to pick herself up off the ground, look at her opponents and say, 'Is that all you got?' It invigorated her."

But this will be a different campaign. "I am concerned about apathy. I don't like it when things are too quiet," Mr. Bennett said.

Ms. Clark says she'll treat this campaign with the same urgency.

"Because everything won't be fine if we end up with a government that doesn't understand how jobs are created, and how economic growth happens. I mean, look at Alberta. Alberta is not fine. Yes, resource prices have been low, but they also have a government that does not understand how jobs are created."

Some members of the Liberal team are worried that the dynamics in the campaign, although they appear to be more favourable, could be problematic.

Ms. Clark is no longer the fresh face who was conveniently out of government during the HST debacle. She wears the BC Liberal government's sins this time out. Some canvassers are hearing on the doorstep a distaste for the party's cash-for-access fundraising and other frustrations with a "heartless government" that is seen to have offered succour to the rich, leaving unprotected the most vulnerable members of society.

Ms. Clark's task in this campaign is to keep the narrative on jobs and the economy, and away from those less-flattering topics.

However, she says she does not believe such issues will hurt her at the ballot box. "I think that most British Columbians will look at the parties and decide based on who is going to keep the economy strong and who is going to create jobs," she said.

"I think people understand we live in very risky times – we see what is going on with Donald Trump in the United States, and our success is far from assured."

Ms. Clark, however, tacitly acknowledged the potential weakness when she announced in January she was giving up her $50,000 annual party stipend, which had topped up her premier's salary of $195,000 a year. Then, in March she announced she was prepared to open the door to limits on political donations for the first time, promising to establish an independent panel – after the election – to shape change in what has been described as the "wild west" of campaign finance in Canada.

A member of her caucus said both her strength and her weakness is her singular focus on the political equation. Its unthinkable that she would have been so tone-deaf as to impose the HST on an unsuspecting public as her predecessor Gordon Campbell did. But other matters can fall through the cracks: Last week, Ombudsman Jay Chalke criticized Ms. Clark's government for failing to acknowledge its wrongful dismissal of eight health researchers until the family of one of the workers, who killed himself, held a news conference.

Her leadership style means that governance is less dictatorial and more collaborative than it was under Mr. Campell, but accountability is not front and centre.

"She is very controlled all the time, and very complimentary – even when not deserved … I don't think I have ever heard her say someone was doing a bad job," an MLA said.

Ms. Clark, who served for four years in Mr. Campbell's cabinet, said she takes a different approach to leadership.

"Rather than try to fix everything by kicking people on the backside after the fact, my approach is to support people in guiding things in the right direction beforehand."

But there was a moment – a brief moment – during the 2013 election campaign when Ms. Clark's unflappable calm slipped away.

She was pacing on the tarmac by the party's campaign airplane during a northern campaign stop, talking on her Blackberry phone. She had just been told the flight to Vancouver was delayed and she would miss her son Hamish's baseball playoff game, which she had promised to attend.

"I don't have a bad temper, I just don't get mad very much. It really clouds your thinking. And being a good leader, you have to have the temperament for it," Ms. Clark explained when reminded of the incident. "I don't yell at people."

Problems in politics are one thing, but the broken commitment to her son was quite another. "Hamish and I made a deal when I decided to run, that I wasn't going to miss his life," she said.

"What I have learned is, there is always another thing for me to do at work. So the way I manage it, everything else in my life is negotiable: My friends are negotiable, social events are negotiable. But my time with my son, I will not negotiate."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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