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In bid to move political dial, Clark takes to the air waves

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark takes part in a local radio program in downtown Vancouver, Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. Clark went to the radio station to reach out to the public and outline the government`s agenda for the spring session.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Former radio talk show Christy Clark returned to the station she used as a springboard for her successful bid to become B.C. premier, this time to reach out to a familiar audience now critical to her political future.

Just as Ms. Clark's path to this highest political office in the province was unconventional, so was her appearance on her old colleague Bill Good's top-rated morning show. Instead of dropping by to answer a few questions, she effectively delivered a throne speech that laid out her government's spring agenda.

Even by B.C. standards, where politicians have used radio shows for decades to make important announcements or to deal with high-profile scandals and controversies, Ms. Clark's appearance was unprecedented. In fact, the initial press release from her office last week suggested her 90-minute session at station CKNW would take the place of a throne speech.

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When that word generated protests from the media and NDP Opposition, Ms. Clark's office issued a clarification; it would not be a throne speech in any form because the current sitting of the House has not been terminated. Throne speeches mark a new sitting of the legislature.

But the spring session of the legislature – which starts Tuesday – usually opens with a throne speech, and Ms. Clark's statement on Mr. Good's show sounded in many ways like something the Lieutenant-Governor might have read in the legislature.

What it also sounded like was a politician desperate to move the political dial in B.C. For months now, polls have showed Ms. Clark's Liberals falling further back of their main rivals, the New Democrats. But the governing party, a coalition of liberal and conservative-minded voters, has also been hemorrhaging support to the resurgent BC Conservative Party.

It is not a pretty place to be for Ms. Clark, especially given that her fiscal cupboards are bare. This was a point she took great pains to drive home on the radio; there's no money for raises for teachers or most of the other public-sector unions with which the government is currently bargaining.

The B.C. Premier can only cast an envious eye towards her colleague, Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who just introduced a budget awash with the kind of expensive policies and programs that can be attractive to voters come election time.

Not so for Ms. Clark. As bad, she can't shake the harmful political legacy of her own party.

It is almost amusing to listen to the Premier now, a year into the job, throw her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, under the bus. Many of her current cabinet ministers were part of Mr. Campbell's inner circle and were staunch supporters of many of the policies she now routinely trashes. They must be thrilled to have their contribution to government recognized in such a way.

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One caller into the radio station on Monday complained about tolls that will be levied on a new bridge being built in Greater Vancouver. "I wasn't part of that decision. That was made by the previous administration," she said. (A previous administration of which she was once part.) But asked if she would reverse the decision, the Premier said no: that the policy made sense.

With an election just over a year away, Ms. Clark is desperate for a political game changer. But finding it is harder than it might seem.

In order to establish some cred with those right-leaning voters now leaning towards the BC Conservatives, she has to balance the budget by 2013-14. To do that, she has to shut off the government spending taps, which means slowing the flow of dollars into pet projects and exciting ventures that can translate into political support and positive media coverage.

There wasn't much the Premier had to say in her turn on the radio Monday that quickened the pulse. The old Liberal saw about not wanting to return the province to the have-not 1990s when the NDP was in power sounded tired and desperate and like a leader with no new ideas.

Her best hope may be a fight with the province's public-sector unions over wage increases.

It seems clear the government and the province's teachers will not find common ground on a new contract and that legislation will be needed to order them back to work when they inevitably go on strike. If that type of public-sector contract discontentment spreads to other sectors and other unions, Ms. Clark could find herself staring at a major political crisis.

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Just the kind that can sometimes work in a government's favour.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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