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B.C.'s Christy Clark, the political chameleon

In the wake of Alberta Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford's significant electoral achievement this week comes word that her provincial counterpart in British Columbia is planning to make an ideological course correction.

The fact Ms. Redford won an election that seemed unwinnable, while all along refusing to abandon her core philosophical belief and centrist message, seems to have resonated with B.C. Premier Christy Clark and those in her inner circle.

Ms. Clark is a liberal to her core. That is why she's never looked comfortable trying to be a conservative and pandering to right-wing stalwarts such as Preston Manning. But this is what she felt she needed to do to staunch the flow of supporters leaving her party for the upstart B.C. Conservatives.

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According to most polls, it hasn't worked. So perhaps it's not a huge surprise that Ms. Clark is giving up on that approach to focus on rebuilding a big-tent coalition – perhaps under a different, more generic name – that is ultimately truer to her socially liberal, fiscally conservative nature.

While it may be the correct strategy, it does raise questions about the Premier's leadership – or at least, her governing style. Political chameleons don't often command respect. Just ask Mitt Romney, who has been accused throughout the U.S. Republican Party presidential primaries of trying to be someone he's not. Or saying he's someone he isn't.

"And this is my theory of Romney," Michael Tomasky wrote recently for The Daily Beast website. "He's not conservative, but he's not moderate either. Why people assume he must be one or the other is another puzzle, because there is a third choice, which is the correct one: none of the above. He's everything, he's nothing; he's whatever he needs to be."

Remind you of anyone?

The longest-serving premier in B.C. history was W.A.C. Bennett, who had a favourite saying: "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." That would include faulty strategies dreamt up by well-meaning advisers to make you appear something that you're not.

Based on her rookie year in office, it appears Ms. Clark arrived on the job with superb communication skills but no grand plan for what she wanted to achieve. Instead, she politicked behind facile slogans – Families First – that ultimately meant little. From the moment she arrived in Victoria, Ms. Clark has been in constant campaign mode instead of constant governing mode.

Her single biggest idea for making B.C. great, it seems, is doing her bit to ensure the New Democratic Party doesn't get elected. Liberals will protect the economy. The NDP will destroy it. That is her mantra. But in an increasingly post-partisan world, one that is far less ideological than it once was, those kind of broad scare tactics don't have the same impact they once did. You have to give people a reason to vote for you.

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While misguided remarks by a couple of Wildrose candidates certainly helped Alison Redford win last week, the Tories' policy platform was also far more sophisticated and forward-looking than the opposition's. Ms. Redford had a vision for where she wanted to take the province and a pan-Canadian ambition that contrasted sharply with Wildrose's "small-Alberta" ideal.

And you also never doubted that Ms. Redford was comfortable with every word of her program.

That is what Ms. Clark is in search of now – a plan. The B.C. Conservatives are a bunch of voters looking for a political party; the B.C. Liberals are a political party in search of voters. And their only hope of finding them is by developing a new political manifesto that is substantive, innovative and broadly appealing.

It needs to be one that demonstrates B.C.'s long-time governing party isn't old, tired and bereft of good ideas; one that offers a distinctive and compelling alternative to the NDP.

Political parties that don't regenerate, die. Ms. Clark was supposed to revitalize the B.C. Liberals and help quell the public's dissent over the HST. It hasn't happened. Her approval ratings have only sunk since taking over.

It's not because the public has a long list of reasons to dislike the Premier, it's because they don't have a long list of reasons to like her. She has failed to give British Columbians anything to get excited about. Maybe that's because she's been too distracted, too preoccupied trying to figure out exactly what kind of leader she wants to be.

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There's a big difference between being a politician and being a premier. Being a premier means having to be proficient at politics but also at the serious work of government. In her short time in office, Ms. Clark has not shown she's great at either. The good news for her is she still has time to prove she can be.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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