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Premier Christy Clark at a joint press conference in Port Moody March 22, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Premier Christy Clark at a joint press conference in Port Moody March 22, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

A bad week for Clark's fading B.C. Liberals Add to ...

It should have been so simple and straightforward – a premier announcing two by-elections.

And yet by the time B.C. Premier Christy Clark finished a news conference called on Thursday to reveal the date for by-elections to fill vacancies in the ridings of Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope, she had angered Metro Vancouver mayors, mistakenly thrown into doubt the near-term future of a planned rapid transit extension and made her party’s already uphill odds of winning either vote even more remote.

Some news conference.

Today, many B.C. Liberals are wondering if they should just wave the white flag now – not just in the two by-elections but the general election that will be called in a year’s time. It does not look good for the governing Liberals. Hopes that the sunny populist stylings of Ms. Clark might temporarily dazzle an electorate that seems ready to throw her party out of office have long begun to fade.

The by-election call was another example of why.

In the news conference, the Premier was asked about $30-million in funding that Metro Vancouver mayors want to complete a raft of transit-related initiatives. The mayors had said that unless the province passed legislation allowing them to raise that money through means such as a vehicle levy, they would have to raise property taxes.

But out of nowhere – certainly mayors didn’t know this was coming – Ms. Clark said the $30-million would have to be found through an audit of TransLink. She further muddied the waters when she said the $30-million was to address a shortfall in funding for the Evergreen line. This created enormous confusion and the impression that the previously agreed upon financing plan for the Evergreen line was in doubt.

But it wasn’t. A $40-million funding gap that once existed for the transit extension was earlier addressed with a two-cent-a-litre gas tax.

You may remember the unnecessary distress Ms. Clark caused over that last summer.

When she was asked about the idea of raising the tax on gas to pay for a shortfall in Evergreen funding, the Premier instantly shot down the idea. But Ms. Clark would backtrack days later when it was discovered that this precise option had been negotiated and approved by her Transport Minister, Blair Leckstrom, in a deal with Metro mayors.

The Premier looked like she didn’t know what she was talking about. Her staff tried to explain it away by saying she was overtired and confused when she had been asked the question.

There were overtones of that gaffe this week.

Hours after her by-election news conference, her press secretary was contacting media outlets to inform them that the Premier had misspoken; in fact, funding for the Evergreen line had been taken care of. (Yes, we know). It was the $30-million Metro mayors needed for other transit-related projects that she was talking about.

Meantime, mayors were blindsided. “I’m never surprised at the things the Premier says,” said Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender. “I think she makes decisions in isolation.” A stinging indictment of the Premier’s governing style if there ever was one.

For the mayors, waiting to see how much money can be found through an audit of TransLink might take up to a year. They need to access that money now – if not through a vehicle levy (which the Premier is adamant isn’t going to happen) – then through a property-tax increase. No one seems to know where things stand.

If the Liberals think they have troubles now, just wait until after April 19.

The odds are very good that after the by-elections there could not only be another New Democrat in the B.C. Legislature, but an MLA representing the B.C. Conservative party as well.

The Liberals are well aware of this. Many suspect that is why Ms. Clark held off calling the vote as long as she did. With the legislature expected to rise in May, the Premier didn’t want to give a new Conservative MLA any more exposure than necessary.

Nor did she want to give disaffected members in her caucus additional time to ponder switching allegiances and crossing the floor in dramatic fashion. That would be devastating for the Liberals and all but assure an NDP victory in the next election.

Of course, with more than a year to go before that big vote, a lot could happen. But Ms. Clark doesn’t make the overwhelming challenge in front of her any easier with weeks like the one she just had.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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