The minimum wage will rise to $10.25 per hour on May 1, a result of changes made by Premier Christy Clark in her first act of office a little more than a year ago. It was a carefully crafted gesture – a repudiation of a policy that froze the rate for a decade.
Among women voters especially, it seemed the announcement hit political paydirt. The BC Liberals under Ms. Clark closed an entrenched gender gap, putting them on competitive footing with the New Democrats.
But a new poll this week revealed that a remarkable turnaround has taken place. Ms. Clark's BC Liberals now have less support among women voters than they did when the party was led by Gordon Campbell.
"What we saw was nothing short of astonishing," said pollster Mario Canseco, after crunching the numbers from the latest Angus Reid survey and finding the BC Liberals with the support of just 15 per cent of women voters. The New Democrats have always done better with women voters, but this poll found that the BC Conservatives currently have more support among women than Ms. Clark's party.
It wasn't difficult to come up with explanations for the gender gap under Mr. Campbell. His policies – such as suppressing the minimum wage – were construed as mean-spirited. And his demeanour – well, here is Ms. Clark in 2009 describing her old boss: "He has a tendency to lecture and patronize, and he has a tendency to get brittle and lose his temper when he's criticized."
Ms. Clark initially got a bounce in the polls because she was nothing like Mr. Campbell. She was Premier Mom, more in touch with the needs of families. She was moving her party to a middle ground on social policy.
But over the past year, the Premier has become increasingly fixated on appealing to federal Conservatives who have been drifting from the BC Liberal tent to John Cummins's BC Conservative Party.
She's talking about job creation, about government getting out of the way of business, about getting tough on crime. She uses the catchphrase "free enterprise" to describe her party – in fact, she seems to avoid mentioning her party by name these days.
Mr. Canseco believes the BC Liberals under Ms. Clark have lost ground – they are now on equal footing with the BC Conservatives – because the party's brand is simply too damaged despite the change in leadership.
But there is more. At the same time, the question of leadership has climbed in voters' minds as a major issue, up there with the economy and health care.
So it's not just the party, it is the leader.
"There was a lot of talk in the early stages of her tenure about families; now that seems to have been lost in all the discussion about jobs," he said. "It's very simple – she is just not connecting well with a lot of women."
The "why" is not so simple, but here are some possible reasons:
The education war. The aggressive handling of the dispute with teachers was supposed to mobilize BC Liberal supporters, but it may have alienated parents who respect the work of educators and resented seeing half the school year disrupted by a still-unresolved labour dispute.
Social policy drift. When a report came out last November stating that B.C. has the worst child poverty rate in Canada, Ms. Clark was dismissive, saying her job creation plan is the answer. Her government was slow to respond to the debacle over services to developmentally disabled adults. Late last year, it allowed Grant's Law, the safety regulations designed to protect employees working alone, to be gutted.
Budget priorities. Ms. Clark's first budget was crafted as a conservative vehicle, a back-to-basics, restraint-minded fiscal plan designed to encourage large industrial development in the North. That will result mostly in jobs for men, notes economist Marjorie Griffin Cohen. "I think women have really felt disadvantaged in this province under the Liberal government over 12 years," she said, and Ms. Clark hasn't done enough to undo that.
Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of BC, sponsored the latest round of attack ads on the NDP. He is at a loss to explain the gender gap, but what he is worried about is the result: The centre-right is split and the advantage goes to the NDP.
"There is a responsibility on both sides to pull together," he said. He directs this admonishment to the party leaders, Mr. Cummins and Ms. Clark. "It behooves both of them to pull together."
Although neither leader is showing the slightest interest in détente, Mr. Hochstein suggested the people who bankroll the centre-right parties won't allow this division to continue. "There are many discussions going on throughout the free-enterprise sector on how to make it happen," he said.
If her party is going to claim the dominant position of the two centre-right parties, Ms. Clark's coalition needs an agenda that once again rings true for women.
British Columbia's political gender gap typically sees women voters more likely to favour the New Democrats over the Liberals. But when the BC NDP dumped their female leader, Carole James, and BC Liberals chose a woman to head their party last spring, the gap closed – for a while.
Gordon Campbell, BC Liberal leader, Carole James, BC NDP leader
Men: Liberals 32%, NDP 40%
Women: Liberals 21%, NDP 53%
Christy Clark, BC Liberal leader, Dawn Black, interim NDP leader
Men: Liberals 49%, NDP 35%
Women: Liberals 37%, NDP 42%
Christy Clark, BC Liberal leader, Adrian Dix, NDP leader
Men: Liberal 31%, NDP 35%
Women: Liberal 15%, NDP 52%
Source: Angus Reid Public Opinion