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Cummins’s sinking fortunes give Clark much-needed time to refocus

Premier Christy Clark really ought to send B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Cummins a nice Christmas card this year. Thanks to his party's internal battles, her year ended better than it started.

Ms. Clark began 2012 consumed with the fractures in her B.C. Liberal Party. "I'm focused on one thing, and that is holding our free enterprise coalition together, to win the next election," she told reporters last spring.

Along the way, there were a few matters of state demanding her attention:

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Pipeline politics

This was the year of the pipeline. There is the one the Premier likes – designed to feed ambitions for a liquefied natural gas industry on the coast. And there are those that she doesn't much care for: the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan proposals that would take Alberta crude oil to Asian markets. For the first half of the year, Ms. Clark waffled on Enbridge's contentious Northern Gateway proposal. In July, she delivered a headline-grabbing performance where she tabled a string of demands to be met before the pipeline could be built. By the fall, Ms. Clark said the idea of more oil tanker traffic off B.C.'s coast "would be lunacy" given the state of marine spill preparedness. As the year wrapped up, her "Canada starts here" campaign to position B.C. as the nation's economic lynchpin had morphed into, roughly, "forget it Alberta, we have natural gas and we don't need you."

Economic headwinds

For more than a decade, the B.C. Liberals have billed themselves as the best party to manage the public purse. That reputation has taken a beating – the Liberals haven't balanced the budget in four years and they introduced the harmonized sales tax in a bid to deliver on an improbable deficit target. Ms. Clark tried to save the HST, and the deficit for her first budget has climbed to $1.5-billion. Now her government is gamely trying to suggest that last week's credit warning is a good thing – proof that B.C. cannot risk a change in government in the election next spring. But polls suggest voters are just as likely to believe the NDP is more credible on the economy.

Timber scraps

The dwindling supply of timber might have been ignored for another year if not for a pair of explosions that destroyed two saw mills and killed four workers. The problems have been developing for a decade or more, but the plight of the community of Burns Lake shone a spotlight on the challenge. The town lost its main source of employment when the Babine Forest Products mill exploded in January. Ms. Clark visited the town in the aftermath and promised to help see a new mill rise from the ashes. But that meant addressing the reality of the pine beetle infestation – the annual allowable cut has to drop dramatically. The province persuaded the owners to rebuild after promising a long-term supply of fibre, but other mills in the region are wondering what will be left for them.

Office politics

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The revolving door in the Premier's Office has mostly provided entertainment for political junkies. Ms. Clark's gum-chomping communications guru recruited from Stephen Harper's office, Sara MacIntyre, had a short-lived but memorable turn in the spotlight. But it was the Premier's handling of her chief of staff's personal improprieties that attracted broader attention. When confronted with news that Ken Boessenkool had conducted himself dishonourably in a bar with a junior staffer, Ms. Clark kept him on the job while an investigation was carried out. At least we have to believe it was carried out, because there is no paper trail. It was only after media questions that Ms. Clark sent Mr. Boessenkool packing. She gets to keep the baggage – that she appeared reluctant to discourage frat boy behaviour.

Throughout the year, Ms. Clark had little time to demonstrate she was governing with voters in mind. Thanks to the sinking popularity of the B.C. Conservatives, she now has some time to adjust her focus as she considers a rough campaign road ahead.

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