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B.C. Conservative Leader John Cummins dismisses Liberal Premier Christy Clark's apparent move to the right as 'smoke and mirrors.' (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
B.C. Conservative Leader John Cummins dismisses Liberal Premier Christy Clark's apparent move to the right as 'smoke and mirrors.' (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

Criticizing the conservative Christy Clark Add to ...

For a premier trying to establish her conservative credentials, Christy Clark has had a nice run of late.

In no particular order, the B.C. Liberal Premier appointed a top federal Tory strategist as her new chief of staff, received national press attention for her perceived efforts to import Stephen Harper’s brand of conservatism to the West Coast and the topper – her Tim Hortons moment with the Prime Minister in a local ice rink while watching her son play hockey.

A slice of Canadiana captured for posterity – and the next provincial election – by a shutterbug on the Premier’s staff.

In that regard, the Premier’s efforts to cast her Liberal administration in a bluer hue has had all the subtlety of football’s end-zone dance. The biggest immediate threat to her party’s re-election chances is not the New Democratic Party, which leads the polls, but the upstart B.C. Conservative Party, which appears to be badly draining support from the right flank of the party’s Liberal-Conservative coalition.

A recent poll had the Liberals and Conservatives tied at 23 per cent each. (The NDP were at 40.)

The man who has singlehandedly changed the Liberal Party’s game plan quietly snickers when asked to discuss Ms. Clark’s efforts to reframe herself through a conservative lens. But as he speaks, former Conservative MP and now B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Cummins seems less amused by the degree to which the Premier – whose history with the federal Liberal Party runs deep – appears to be trying to change stripes.

“It won’t work,” says Mr. Cummins. “People aren’t stupid. They see what she’s trying to do. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

He insists the Premier won’t be able to bamboozle conservative-minded voters with superficial photo-ops and impulsive decisions to import Tory strategists into her office who have backgrounds that could potentially compromise government decisions.

On that front, Mr. Cummins speaks of Ken Boessenkool, a former adviser and strategist to Mr. Harper who earlier this month was named the Premier’s new chief of staff. In recent years, Mr. Boessenkool made a name for himself in Ottawa as a lobbyist for clients such as Taser International and Enbridge.

Yes, that Enbridge.

Mr. Boessenkool joins old friend Dimitri Pantazopoulos, a Tory who also worked for Mr. Harper at one time, who was brought in earlier by Ms. Clark for his campaign skills and is now working in interprovincial relations in the Premier’s office.

Not surprisingly, none of this impresses a long-time conservative like Mr. Cummins, whose right-wing bona fides are fairly impeccable.

“Mr. Boessenkool is not a B.C. guy,” says Mr. Cummins. “He doesn’t know anything about this province. He’s an Alberta guy who worked for Stockwell Day … when the Conservatives became government he moved to Calgary, which became his base of operations as a lobbyist. He doesn’t have much of a connection to B.C. and his strength is communications, not policy, not government organization.”

Mr. Cummins also feels that Mr. Boessenkool’s past connection with Enbridge poses a potential dilemma for a government that has tried to stay neutral on the future of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline.

“Now you have to ask are the decisions the government makes on the pipeline going to be made in the best interests of British Columbians or the best interests of Enbridge?” says the Tory leader.

Of course, that is politicking at its best. Or worst, depending on your view of such things. Mr. Cummins supports the pipeline, so how could he then question the government if it eventually decides to support it as well? Besides, it’s unlikely Mr. Boessenkool would try and force a decision that would hurt Ms. Clark and her government’s re-election chances.

One thing Ms. Clark has been fairly transparent about is her party’s strategy moving forward. The plan is to scare the living daylights out of those voters now flirting with the B.C. Conservatives.

And the Liberals intend on doing this using their go-to move: reminding voters how awful it was under the NDP in the 1990s, when current NDP Leader Adrian Dix was a key adviser to then NDP premier Glen Clark.

Mr. Cummins scoffs.

“If that’s the best they have after more than a decade in power that’s pretty pathetic and shows you just how desperate they are,” he says. “They should have a positive record to run on instead of resorting to scare tactics. But that seems to be their only strategy.”

And Mr. Cummins is betting British Columbians are no longer interested in that stale old argument.

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