Premier Christy Clark reformatted her office this week, again. The arrival of Dan Doyle as her new chief of staff – her third in 18 months – was presented as a move to bring stability to government. The circumstances around the change demonstrate anything but.
The personal misconduct of the ex-chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool, cannot be hung around the Premier's neck. The details are sketchy but he was ill-behaved, in a bar, toward a junior member of the political staff. What rightly goes under the microscope is the Premier's handling of the matter. And that hasn't helped build an image of a Premier in charge.
Ms. Clark learned of the incident shortly after it occurred. Mr. Boessenkool remained on the job as her top political strategist for more than two weeks while an arm's-length investigation was carried out. Ms. Clark says that was done in accordance with the letter of the law, but in politics, perceptions count too.
The optics are she stuck with her key adviser until media inquiries were made. Just as the B.C. Liberals were celebrating some momentum – at the expense of their B.C. Conservative rivals – Ms. Clark had to cancel two days of planned announcements to try to explain her decisions.
If there is one thing needed by her frustrated supporters in the business community – the people who want the Liberals to win the election next spring but doubt it will come to pass – it is steadiness. Investment decisions don't ride on the changing of nameplates in the Premier's Office. But investors want to know what the regulatory environment will look like next year and into the future.
Since the botched introduction of the harmonized sales tax, the government has not demonstrated a clear direction. In fact, for those MLAs elected for the first time in 2009, they have not even known what the normal rhythm of government is.
On the energy file alone – a key policy area for the economy – the public and particularly investors would be hard-pressed to grasp Ms. Clark's intent. The Premier wants to promote a resource-based economy. But on the pre-eminent test case, the Northern Gateway pipeline, she has delivered mixed messages. Her dealings with Alberta Premier Alison Redford on the issue appear to be crafted for headlines rather than a genuine effort to find a way forward.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix senses a weakness, based upon hundreds of private meetings with business leaders. He uses the word "stability" a lot when he talks about what a New Democratic Party government would offer.
"We have a relatively unstable period of government," he told reporters Thursday. "I want [business] to understand in advance, on key issues to them, what our approach is.…We are going to run a no-surprises government."
Greg D'Avignon, president of the Business Council of British Columbia, said the perceptions of the Clark government don't match the reality of what is happening on the ground. "It's an interesting paradox. There is a lot of criticism of the Premier, and the style and substance of government." At the same time, B.C. has had record investment of capital in a myriad of sectors this year.
But it's a fragile thing and even the perception of instability is a problem. "The world is a really unsettled place and investors are skittish," Mr. D'Avignon said. "We run the risk of losing out on opportunity to even afford the things we have today, never mind the things we want tomorrow, if we don't think about how we move forward and make decisions."
A Liberal insider, clearly frustrated with the lack of faith that business is now showing to this government, said Ms. Clark just needs more time to prove herself. "The business guys just don't know Christy well enough.… All these voices in the business community want the messiah, they want us to be 10 points ahead."
Mr. Doyle is expected to demonstrate a steady hand. But there is little time left before the May election for a fresh start.