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Two outcast Liberal MLAs looking for ways to come in from the cold

British Columbia Liberal leadership candidate Christy Clark makes an announcement at the Capilano Suspension Bridge concerning British Columbia's tourism industry in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, February 18, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's premier-designate Christy Clark presides over her first caucus meeting Wednesday with one small but telling decision to make - whether to invite two outcast MLAs to rejoin the fold.

Blair Lekstrom quit cabinet last fall over the imposition of the harmonized sales tax. Bill Bennett was ejected from the B.C. Liberal caucus and cabinet for intemperate remarks about the outgoing premier. Both would like to come back in from the cold. Ms. Clark said she'll leave it up to the caucus to decide but there's little doubt caucus members will be looking to her for a signal.

Ms. Clark, who had almost no support for her leadership from the 47-member caucus, can set the tone for caucus relations with the way she handles this. Mr. Lekstrom, who carefully avoided backing any of the candidates for leadership, has already met with her this week, and sounded hopeful on Tuesday that he might find his way back into the B.C. Liberal tent.

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"You can always be more effective working from within, I've learned that," he said in an interview.

Ms. Clark has been almost invisible since her victory on Saturday night, but Mr. Lekstrom said she needs to set out an agenda quickly to "reflect the chance people expect. … The first 60 days are very important."

Mr. Bennett may find a warm welcome further out of reach, as some members of caucus still nurture a grudge over his blunt remarks about Gordon Campbell's leadership style.

However, he said is hoping to have the chance to work with Ms. Clark.

"It's essential, and I think she knows this, that she have a big tent and in particular that she has some folks who can tell her what's happening in rural British Columbia," he said.

Kevin Krueger, the outspoken MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson, said the caucus may not be united in a decision on the pair.

"Blair Lekstrom left us, we didn't leave him and as far as I'm concerned he would be welcome back any time," he said. "Bill Bennett was a different circumstance. … I think there is a pretty profound trust issue."

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A party insider predicted she will approach the caucus with a firm hand. "You can't lead on bended knee," he said. Although she won by a narrow margin, she has a mandate from the party's membership. He said it would not hurt, however, if she adopts some of the best ideas of her chief rivals, Kevin Falcon and George Abbott, to smooth over any lingering hurt feelings.

Ms. Clark has other pressing matters on her agenda, including which MLA she will ask to step down so that she can seek a seat in the legislature.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen, who holds one of the party's safest seats, said he has no plans to step down.

It is not clear Ms. Clark will allow incumbents to run again without having to face contested nominations. But Mr. Hansen said he is confident he could hold off any potential challenge in a coming election.

Mr. Hansen noted the "practice" of the party in the past three elections has ensured that the Liberals would not actively recruit candidates to run against their own incumbents. If Ms. Clark, who will want to put her own stamp on the party when she goes to the polls, chooses to shake things up, "that wouldn't bother me," Mr. Hansen said. "I have a strong riding association … as of today, my plan would be to run again."

Gwyn Morgan, a member of Ms. Clark's transition team, shed some light Tuesday on the process underway behind closed doors to launch the Clark government.

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"What's important is to prioritize the things that have to be done in a short period of time, get those done and not try to do everything, but focus on the things that need to be done now and that's what the transition team is doing," said Mr. Morgan, founding president of energy giant Encana Corp.

With a report from Ian Bailey

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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