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Christy Clark to become B.C. premier, rules out snap election

Premier-designate Christy Clark hugs her nine-year-old son Hamish at the BC Liberal convention in Vancouver after winning the leadership on Feb. 26, 2011.


British Columbia's premier-designate Christy Clark has ruled out a snap election, suggesting she will seek a seat in the legislature and allow the opposition New Democratic Party to choose its new leader.

"Change begins tonight," said Ms. Clark, who will become the second woman to serve as B.C. premier - after Rita Johnston, who served briefly as the leader of the Social Credit party.

"With that change comes a commitment to listen, and a determination to do better by B.C. families. Ladies and gentlemen, let's get started."

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Ms. Clark, who promptly cast herself as Premier Mom, invoking her family first platform in her acceptance speech on Saturday night, said she would not take advantage of the NDP's April 17 leadership vote.

"It wouldn't be fair game," Ms. Clark told reporters shortly after her third-round victory over three other candidates who all serve in the current government caucus.

The new leader of the BC Liberal party will become British Columbia's 35th premier once she is sworn in, an event that will likely take place in mid-March.

She will be looking for a seat in the legislature, and said she will consider an offer from outgoing Premier Gordon Campbell to vacate his seat.

Ms. Clark is expected to accept the transition books from the civil service early on Sunday morning, before heading to her son's hockey game.

Mr. Clark was the only candidate who floated the idea of an early election, but said she will talk to her caucus first.

However, she said she does not expect any challenges from the caucus to her victory. "I have a mandate for change from the party and all of our caucus members recognize that," she said.

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Watch a video of Ms. Clark's first press conference.

Ms. Clark acknowledged that most of the MLAs joining her on the stage at the Vancouver Convention Centre West had not wished for this outcome. Almost all had backed either Kevin Falcon or George Abbott.

"I certainly respect your decision," she said. "Now we come together to deliver the promise of change. British Columbians are counting on each of us tonight to secure a legacy of prosperity for them."

She singled out her chief rival, Mr. Falcon, in offering her thanks. "I have admired your will and determination," she said, inviting him to help her continue to build the BC Liberal party.

The third-round victory was announced in a small but packed convention hall in downtown Vancouver, ending a three-month campaign to replace Premier Gordon Campbell, who led the party for 17 years until a populist backlash over his harmonized sales tax drove elements in his caucus into near-revolt.

Party members were required to rank at least two choices on a preferential ballot, and the votes were counted according to a system that gave each of the province's 85 ridings equal weight.

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Saturday was a day of virtual campaigning, with the four candidates mostly relying on telephone banks to get their supporters to vote - party members didn't need to leave their homes to cast a ballot.

In the end, 62.4 per cent of the party's 90,666 eligible voters cast a ballot. The day was marked by glitches that left some party members struggling to obtain the personal identification number that would allow them to vote.

Despite some rough exchanges during the campaign with her rivals, Ms. Clark said the party will be strengthened by the "dialogue" of the campaign.

"We are going to forge a bigger, better, stronger coalition - together," she said.

The entire BC Liberal caucus then joined her on the stage. "What an incredible team we have up here tonight," she said. Only one MLA wore her bright yellow campaign shirt.

"I'm sure I can speak on behalf of our entire caucus here," she said, when she offered thanks to Mr. Campbell, who was notably absent.

Prominent cabinet ministers, including Mr. Falcon, pledged immediate support for their new leader.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen, who, late in the race, backed Mr. Falcon, said: "The Liberals are a family, and our job now is to unite behind Christy Clark and win the next election."

Mr. Falcon seemed almost buoyant in defeat, declaring himself at peace with the result.

"She's a great candidate, too, and she won," he told reporters. "There may be some sore feeling in our caucus, but I come out of this feeling pretty good. It was a very exciting race, and now our job is to get the family together."

However, Mr. Falcon hedged his bets on whether he would support Ms. Clark's campaign suggestion of an early election, rather than wait for the legislated date in 2013. Earlier in the day, he said no-one in caucus wanted to head to the polls early.

Following the vote, Mr. Falcon would say only that he expects the matter will be discussed in caucus before any decision is made.

Mr. Falcon said he expected a bit more "second choice" support from voters backing George Abbott. "But good for Christy. She ran a great campaign."

Rich Coleman, who had supported Mr. Falcon, said he'd ensure the caucus will rally behind Ms. Clark.

"The party's spoken. We'll get behind the leader. We'll get behind the coalition and win the next election," he said.

"It's our job to stay together to make sure we beat the NDP in the next election."

Earlier Saturday, former cabinet minister and current MLA John van Dongen said he will have to re-assess his future in the Liberal caucus, should Christy Clark win the party's leadership race.

"I will be interested in seeing how she deals with caucus, and then I will make my decision," said Mr. van Dongen, a strong supporter of candidate George Abbott.

He said Ms. Clark faces a difficult task trying to unite the Liberals' 47-member caucus, noting that she attracted support from only one MLA.

Ms. Clark - the only candidate on the ballot who is not a sitting BC Liberal MLA - was the most visible of the four on Saturday, participating in three media events in Burnaby and Vancouver. She positioned herself as the outsider - although she had also served in Mr. Campbell's cabinet before leaving politics to work as a radio talk show host.

Both Kevin Falcon and George Abbott vied for second place throughout the campaign, hoping to overtake Ms. Clark on a second or third round by informally trading each other's second-preference support. Between them, the pair divided up caucus endorsements although Mr. Abbott was sharper in his attempts to bring Ms. Clark's campaign down a notch or two.

Just days before the vote, Ms. Clark put out her internal poll numbers showing her with 43 per cent support, which would have put her on track for victory. But on the first round of tabulation, she had only 38 per cent, with Mr. Falcon in second place and Mr. Abbott right on his heels. Mr. Abbott was dropped after the second count.

Mike de Jong, the only sitting MLA in the race who did not earn any endorsements from his caucus, campaigned for reform, successfully pressing his colleagues to disclose their campaign contributions before voting day, but was the first to be dropped from the ballot.

Watch a video of Mike de Jong as he listens to the first round of ballot results.

The first round results for Ms. Clark were several percentage points lower than her camp was predicting only minutes ago.

Ms. Clark will likely be sworn in as premier in mid-March, but she will have to decide where she will seek a seat in the legislature. Mr. Campbell has offered to step down and allow a by-election in his Vancouver-Point Grey riding but Ms. Clark has been non-committal about where she would like to run.

Ms. Clark was the only candidate to suggest an early election call, tossing out the province's fixed election date of May 2013.

Her first task, however, will be uniting a caucus that largely did not support her. Only one backbencher, Harry Bloy, endorsed her on the first day of her campaign but no other MLAs followed his lead.

Before she could take to the stage after her victory was announced, Kevin Falcon, who finished a close second, congratulated her and called on the party to unite behind her.

"I encourage all BC Liberals to unite behind Premier Christy Clark and support her as we lead this Province and build momentum and support for the next election," Mr. Falcon said in a statement.

Mr. Falcon, a longtime member of the Campbell cabinet, spent most of the day in a downtown Vancouver hotel room working the phones, starting at 7:30 a.m., calling undecided BC Liberal members. "I like the way it's breaking," he says between calls. Behind him, the Falcon team had roughly 200 people working telephone banks at 18 call centres across the province.

He told reporters midday that he had made Mr. Abbott his second choice as the next-best person to keep the party and the caucus united. While he insisted there was no "Anybody But Christy" movement, his comments suggested otherwise. "We would still all work really hard to keep it all together," he said, when asked about the possibility of a Clark victory. "I think it's a little more challenging with Christy."

Early in the day, the Falcon camp said their own tracking showed their candidate comfortably in second place behind Ms. Clark, with 35 per cent of the vote. Mr. Abbott's campaign said he was also well placed, just four percentage points behind Ms. Clark. None of those numbers were official, however.

Mr. Abbott stayed the background, nursing his worn-out vocal chords and vowing to stay as far away as possible from "technology."

As the only candidate from rural B.C., Mr. Abbott had campaigned as the one choice that would re-claim the party's base outside of Metro Vancouver.

Mr. de Jong was focused on reaching out to 16,000 party members from phone banks in six locations in Abbotsford, Surrey and Vancouver.

In the final hours, they were working hard to not be fourth.

"If we are in third place, it becomes a really interesting evening," Mr. de Jong said at the time.

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