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British Columbia: Stuck on the Brink

Wednesday April 4, 2012

Its been over a year now since Christy Clark became the leader of the BC Liberals and Premier of British Columbia and it has not been a good year for her, for the Liberals or for the Province.  There have been few successes on any front for the BC Liberals, the economy has remained largely stagnant and the government disorganized and unmotivated.  Her vapid leadership has been replete with errors and stumbles, with cursory attempts to hide them behind a veil of shallow boosterism.  It’s been unusually bad, even by the already tepid standards of the BC Liberals.

Third Term Blues 

More than one commentator has noted that Ms Clark seems to have no idea what to do with her premiership.  Having won the job, she seems to have not put any thought into what she actually wants to do with it.  More than that, the BC Liberals do not have any idea as to what they want to do with government for the remainder of their term.  They seem to have no agenda, no plans, and no will to make any.  They appear to only be interested in waiting out the clock and drawing their salaries until the next election.

This is a pretty typical malaise for a government in its third term of office.  Many elected members are considering stepping down after serving in government for multiple terms.  Throw in some scandals and policy failures and you have a caucus that is low on energy and enthusiasm.  Add in the departure of an unpopular leader who overstayed his welcome and you have a recipe for a government that doesn’t have a clue as to what to do and doesn’t feel like doing all that much anyway.

It takes dynamic leadership to break out of this and go onto a new term and as we’re learning, Christy Clark is anything but dynamic as Premier.  Her successful leadership bid offered the opportunity for renewal, however, she seems instead to have engaged in a public relations operation trying to re-brand her tired party, rather then re-build it.

There have been a number of recent polls showing that the BC Liberals are losing ground, with a substantial amount of their support defecting to the recently revived BC Conservatives.  The Conservatives are being lead by John Cummins, a former Reform/Alliance/Conservative MP.  As an MP he was of little note or importance and since becoming Leader of the BC Conservatives, he has primarily gained media attention for his controversial and outdated social conservative views.

The Conservatives are primarily benefiting from being the default right wing alternative to the Liberals.  The conservative side of the Liberal coalition is defecting to them, as dramatically represented by John van Dongen recent crossing of the floor.  Right now, they are serving as a convenient placeholder for voters angry and frustrated with the Liberals and who are too right wing to ever support the NDP.

A Re-Marriage of Inconvenience Ends in a Messy Divorce 

The question facing most conservatives in BC right now is pretty straightforward: do they stick it out with this “free enterprise” coalition with right wing liberals under the banner of the BC Liberal Party or do we make a break for it and have a go under their own banner.  The calculation then is simple: what are the odds of the BC Liberals getting re-elected under these conditions?  And the answer is pretty low.  Third term governments almost always face steep re-election odds.  Throw in listless leadership and it’s a good bet the NDP are going to form the next government no matter what.  So, why not take a chance on a BC Conservative party?  And if it turns out that the NDP mismanages the economy over the course of its term in office, then they can ride to the rescue in five years and possibly win government.

BC politics seems to go through this story over and over again.  A coalition of conservatives and centre right Federal Liberals forms a government under a common banner out of fear of the dreaded socialists.  They govern for a few terms before the inevitable scandals and weariness of the coalition divides it and the dreaded socialists take power.  The old banner is swept aside, the coalition re-coalesces under a new banner and new leadership and then they re-take power from the socialists who stole it.  Rinse and repeat.

If British Columbia follow this pattern again perhaps this time around this coalition will re-form under the banner of the BC Conservatives, by convincing enough liberals that they would manage the economy well and avoid touchy social issues.  However, Mr Cummins’ controversies seem to have been targeted to ensure that the social conservative audiences would get the message that he was one of them.  The possibility exists that this was done intentionally to break off the social conservatives as phase one of a plan to break up the Liberal coalition.  Phase two would then involve convincing enough additional BC voters to support them on economic matters, allowing the conservatives to dominate a new right wing coalition.

Certainly  the recent success of the Federal Conservatives augurs well for this strategy.  A similar approach of micro targeting and moderating just enough may pull enough right wing Liberals into their fold in 2017.  Alternatively a minority win in 2017 may work out even better should the  Liberals hold the balance of power.  Such a scenario would likely allow  them to pursue their fiscal and economic agenda and avoiding the messy  compromises needed on the social front.  They could also advance the  social agenda via the levers available to the executive.  This would be the Harper strategy redux.

In either case, this strategy could lead to a new conservative governing party that is less burdened by the uncomfortable compromises of this most recent iteration of right wing government in BC.

My Kingdom for an Agenda   

These scenarios though are contingent upon the Liberals continued collapse, providing effective opposition over the next term of the Legislature and a failure in economic policy by a hypothetical NDP government. Right now, the Conservatives benefit from remaining largely inoffensive and simply drawing in the support already bleeding out of the Liberals.   It is an easy path to follow while they plot their moves for the next  Legislature.  Being the generic right wing alternative party can be winning political strategy for the Conservatives in the next election, especially if their goals are modest and targeted.  The Harper lessons of incrementalism seem to inform much of the BC Conservatives plans.

Ms Clark has recently declared that her number one priority is to save BC’s “free enterprise” coalition under its existing banner.  Prior to this declaration she has been actively courting the conservative component of the coalition and drawing staff and inspiration from the Federal Conservatives.  However, her efforts only seem to be hastening the decline of the BC Liberal Party.

Maintaining this coalition is not a governing agenda.  It is a political agenda for the party and party members and as Leader of the Liberal Party, she is perfectly entitled to do that.  However, as head of the government, she also needs a governing agenda and thus far she has been sorely lacking on this.  She now faces the double challenges of running the Province and effectively re-building her political party.

Opportunity in Opposition

To save the right wing coalition that makes up the BC Liberals her best bet was to take her chances on an election last year.  Given the damage that had been done, even with a shiny new leader, the BC Liberals were facing tough odds of remaining in government.  Ms Clark’s stronger and better known public profile, would likely still have not been enough to overcome the Liberals major disadvantages going into an election.  However, it would almost certainly have mitigated the damage and while risking some losses to the Conservatives, likely would have held the bulk of the Liberals coalition together.  The Liberals would have been in a place to begin a re-building and renewal process while in Opposition.

This is often a difficult thing for a governing party to accept: that a spell in opposition may be the best thing for them.  For Liberals, of all varieties in Canada, it is almost impossible to contemplate.  Even now, the Federal Liberals have only embraced a re-building process after falling to third place and despite obvious warning signs that the party was in serious trouble.  In this Ms Clark, despite her right wing turn remains at heart an archetypal Federal Liberal.

While I have no doubt that rank and file Federal Liberals genuinely support their party’s centrist and brokerage approach, all too often the appearance that the leadership provides is one that places power over principle.  With no agenda, no plans, and her sharp sudden rightward turn, she is living up to that stereotype.  Instead of bringing conservatives back into the fold, she is giving them more reason to flee and leaving the liberal side in disarray.  Whereas a snap election loss might have allowed her to keep her position as party Leader, she now faces the prospect of losing everything in 2013.

It’s Still the Economy  

Throughout all of this drama the NDP has been largely content to sit back and watch the Liberals come apart.  Despite their own leadership troubles, the NDP have managed to successfully position themselves to take power in the next election.  Moreover, Adrian Dix has taken a steady and methodical approach to positioning the party and working to avoid controversy.  The more the public is focused on the failings of the Liberals and the more the right wing coalition frays, the more opportunities are presented for the NDP.

While the next election will not simply hand the reigns of power over to the NDP without effort, the NDP’s true challenges are post election.  Should the party succeed in taking power, as seems very likely, the challenge will be to begin to address the economic issues that the NDP is often vulnerable on.  An NDP government will need to address the dual challenges of resuming economic growth and addressing economic inequality, no mean feat.  In addition, the new government will also have its social and environmental commitments to meet.

These are big challenges but they also represent big opportunities for the NDP.  The lack of real gains for BC’s working and middle classes and the persistent inequality of economic growth during the Liberals reign has given the NDP a winning economic issue.  Succeeding on this front opens the doors for BC’s New Democrats to neutralize the so-called “free enterprise” coalition, by offering moderate left wing government that delivers economic prosperity.  Centrist liberals may move their support to the NDP if they are re-assured that an NDP government can deliver on addressing inequality without unduly compromising growth or engaging in excessive anti-business activities.  It may be a difficult balance to achieve, but the rewards of a long term in government will be well worth it.

A Year of Stagnation 

It is often said that Opposition parties don’t so much win elections as Governments lose them.  In the case of the BC Liberals, their own worst enemies are themselves.  Adrian Dix is a smart, capable politician, applying a strong, methodical approach to building up the NDP for the next election.  However, as always, timing counts in politics and he has had the good fortune to catch the BC Liberals at a point when their own missteps and dysfunctions have finally caught up with them.

In thirteen months when the next election is held, Christy Clark will have been Premier for more than 2 years.  No one can be Premier that long and not be forced to run on their record.  Her record thus far has been unimpressive, with few achievements and substantial missteps.  This next year in office she is facing ongoing unresolved labour unrest, an economic recovery that is anemic, the task of relaunching the PST and a caucus that is listless and alienated.  Even with a clear agenda, her ability to implement it would be severely curtailed.

Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that enough MLAs would defect from the Liberals to topple their government before the fixed date of the next election.  Nor is it likely that Ms Clark will call an early election even if she experiences a stunning reversal in the polls.  Bill 22, the legislation ending job action by the BC Teachers’ Federation, seems likely to be the last major piece of legislation pursued by this government before the next election.  As such, BC now faces a long year of running out the electoral clock.

Next Monday: So What Now? part two, where do supporters of electoral cooperation go in the NDP.

Next Wednesday: By-elections in BC, a dry run for next year’s election?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Agustin permalink
    Thursday April 5, 2012 5:36 pm

    Great write-up, once again.

    I agree with your assessment of Clark and her lack of leadership. (Although I am glad BC is getting a Family Day next year!)

    However I have to add that I think the BC NDP party is also quite weak. I’ve only lived here for 4 years but all I’ve heard out of them is how much the Liberals suck. Last election they ran against the carbon tax, only to come out shortly after losing the vote to say that that was a bad policy and they only ran with it to be against the Liberals.

    I hope the BC NDP party can be more than an anti-Liberal party. Otherwise we really just have a one-party-and-a-bunch-of-hecklers province.

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