In the lead up to the 2013 provincial election, Premier Christy Clark found herself in one of those binds politicians have nightmares about.
Her government was mired in scandal. It had been discovered that taxpayer funds were being used to hire people to carry out a very partisan and crass exercise to woo ethnic voters. In fact, an investigation of that matter still drags on. People lost their jobs over the issue, including one of the Premier's top aides. At the time, half of her caucus was in open revolt.
Twenty points behind in the polls, and dragging the ethnic-outreach baggage behind her, Ms. Clark plunged headfirst into the campaign, made the economy the central issue and, against all odds, pulled off a stunning victory virtually no one predicted.
That triumph, and what Ms. Clark endured in the weeks that preceded it, provides important context when considering the political quagmire in which the Premier finds herself over high-priced fundraisers and money she is receiving from her party from the proceeds of them.
To this point, the Premier has been defiant, refusing to prohibit corporate and union donations as so many other provinces have; refusing to cancel the cash-for-access dinners that only the rich can afford. Despite how it all may look, the current campaign-financing rules give her party an enormous financial advantage over the NDP come election time and she'll be damned if she's going to give that up. As for the party top-up, her view is: Meh.
For all her ethical blindspots, Ms. Clark is one of the most intuitive politicians British Columbia has ever seen. She trusts her political instincts implicitly. Her confidence can sometimes border on arrogance. It was on display this week in the legislature when under questioning from the NDP over her $50,000-a-year Liberal Party salary. She didn't really address the guts of the controversy, other than to say she did nothing wrong. Instead, she turned the debate into a discussion about the economy.
It infuriated the NDP to no end, which, of course, was the plan.
Ms. Clark is betting on two things when it comes to the well of dissent she is encountering.
First, she is wagering that the complaint that NDP MLA David Eby has filed with the Conflict of Interest Commissioner over her fundraising activities and party salary is going nowhere. While he may shake his head at the optics, Commissioner Paul Fraser could well say that the Premier has not violated any laws, broken any rules. As Ms. Clark has pointed out, taking money from fundraising events to top up the Premier's salary has been going on for years. (Although no one knew how much it was being topped up until The Globe made it public.) It looks horrible. It should be stopped. But there does not appear to be anything illegal about it, which is mind-boggling in its own right. (Although Mr. Eby argues the Premier is receiving a direct benefit from the fundraisers she is attending via the party income she gets that is derived from those very same fundraisers.)
So that's one play the Premier is making.
As important, Ms. Clark is certain the broader public doesn't care about this imbroglio. People worry about whether they are going to have a job tomorrow; whether they are going to have a job a month from now. Stories about party fundraising are something the elites get riled up about in Victoria and in the coffee shops of downtown Vancouver; they are not something that captures the imagination of people outside those areas, she would argue.
It may be a self-serving, cynical view. And many people are surely saying to themselves right now that she's wrong, that people all over the province care about this. I'm not so sure.
This does not for a moment excuse what is going on. And you would like to think that when a government's moral compass is as faulty as the one used by the B.C. Liberals, there might be a price to pay at some point. Only time will tell. But the swagger that Ms. Clark is displaying in the face of vitriolic attacks tells me she isn't concerned one bit about this matter hurting her at the polls 13 months from now. She believes people care about the economy and that's all you'll likely hear her talk about between now and next May.
Amid the confab over the salary Ms. Clark is receiving from her party, NDP leader John Horgan admitted that his party has bought him a couple of suits and some shoes since he's been leader, amounting to a few thousand dollars.
At the end of one of her responses to a question Mr. Horgan asked in Question Period on Thursday, Ms. Clark smiled and added: "And by the way, Member – I really like your suit today."
It was not the sound of a woman worried about losing her job any day soon.