The wild ride facing B.C.'s newest premier

Simon Jackson on the triumphs and tribulations of Canada's newest premier: B.C.'s Christy Clark.

It took three months of campaigning and three rounds of voting for Christy Clark to emerge Saturday as B.C.'s next premier, replacing Gordon Campbell.

She was the front-runner from the onset. But, still, her (52 to 48 per cent) victory on the third ballot was something of a surprise in that many felt her support would ebb away as the balloting wore on.

For the same reasons that federal Liberal Michael Ignatieff lost to Stéphane Dion in 2006 (when Dion's campaign was managed by Clark's ex-husband), most felt the new premier-to-be would fall to an Anyone-But-Christy campaign as the lesser lights dropped off.

You see, Clark — though once a senior minister in the early Campbell administration — had left politics and was campaigning as an outsider, someone who was not tainted by the government's unpopular decisions of recent years (hello, HST).

It was a position that allowed her to poll very well with the general public, but that didn't endear her to the party establishment. With the exception of one backbench MLA, the entire caucus backed either Kevin Falcon or George Abbott for leader.

New leaders always face periods of healing. But in her case, the challenges ahead seem particularly daunting.

That Liberal pedigree

For Clark, just winning, however, was daunting enough.

Christy Clark is photographed by a supporter after she was voted the new party leader during the B.C. Liberal leadership in Vancouver on Feb. 26, 2011. (Andy Clark/Reuters) (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Two weeks ago, party members voted near-unanimously to drop the one-member one-vote system and adopt another that would give equal weight to each riding.

It was a move designed to help rebuild trust with rural supporters. But it was also clear that, in the process, Clark's power base — which involved the mass sign-ups of ethnic minorities in the Lower Mainland — would be diluted in favour of those candidates with strong rural support.

That approach also meant that Clark's long-standing federal connections gave her a double disadvantage.

Most areas of B.C. outside of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island are Tory blue and downright hostile to the Grits. For Clark, this meant no helpful political machinery in those areas and, more often, a galvanized base of supporters determined to see her lose.

Moreover, the B.C. Liberal party is Liberal in name only. The free enterprise coalition is widely thought of as two-thirds federal Conservative.

So while Clark — and all leadership camps — announced they had signed up tens of thousands of new members, many questioned whether her votes would be too highly concentrated to matter.

So how did she pull it off?


First and foremost, it came down to Getting Out The Vote.

B.C. leadership hopefuls Kevin Falcon, a federal Tory, and Christy Clark, a federal Liberal, shake hands during a public forum Jan. 12, 2011 in Vancouver. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

When Clark ran for Vancouver mayor several years ago, she succeeded in signing up more than enough supporters to win, but she failed to get them to the polls and learned from that experience.

In this race, her people were highly motivated and, it was reported, two-thirds of her identified supporters cast ballots early on, placing her far ahead of her rivals at the outset.

Luckily for her, the same GOTV was happening for her main rival Kevin Falcon.

Going into Saturday's election, most felt that George Abbott with his rural base would end up being the compromise candidate between the federal Liberal Clark and the federal Tory Falcon.

But Falcon's extraordinarily strong GOTV efforts enabled him to place slightly ahead of Abbott in the early going and so deny Abbott the ability to march up the middle in subsequent ballots.

In many ways, Christy Clark owes her victory to Kevin Falcon's second place standing in the first round of voting.

Selected ridings

A highly popular radio talk host in recent years, Clark's star power and communication skills certainly helped her in this instance. But you might say that two other factors sealed her win.

While Clark failed to gain the endorsements of any sitting Liberal MLA save for Harry Bloy, she did have the support of nearly every candidate or former MLA in what is now an NDP riding.

This allowed her to have a base in ridings where membership was small and she could gain control of the riding's votes easily.

When you break down the vote, Falcon beat Clark in those ridings that the Liberals hold (26-21), but she won handily (32-2) in those held by the opposition NDP.

Then there was the conservation vote.

As an issue, the environment hardly registered in the campaign, but a consortium of environmental organizations signed up reportedly thousands of their supporters to vote in the election.

Their first choice was Mike De Jong, followed by George Abbott and then Christy Clark — if it went three rounds. It did and this conservation bloc might have played a key role in shifting  votes from Abbott to Clark.

Now the real work

No matter how or why Christy Clark won the leadership, everyone agrees her hard work has only just begun.

On the horizon is a referendum on the unpopular HST and a possibly reinvigorated NDP.

The NDP was all set to wipe out the governing Liberals before internal strife forced its leader to step down and made B.C. politics competitive once more.

But the NDP is set to select its new leader in April and the date is important because Clark is on the record favouring an election earlier than the fixed date of May 2013, to give herself a mandate.

Neither of these challenges, however, comes close to the issue of party unity.

The governing B.C. Liberals have a new leader but a bitter divide is evident, not only in Saturday's final vote but in the caucus.

Everyone smiled for the cameras Saturday night. But one former member of cabinet has openly discussed quitting the party if Clark won and both Falcon and Abbott frequently stated the coalition would collapse under her leadership.

Will the upstart B.C. Conservative party or even B.C. First, the party of former premier Bill Vander Zalm, now an ardent anti-HST crusader, suddenly find themselves in contention?  These things are well within the realm of possibility.

The only times the NDP has ever formed the government in B.C. is when the free enterprise coalition of federal Tories and Grits, the old Social Credit party, split.

After these last crazy few months, Christy Clark's victory ensures that B.C.'s wild ride is only just beginning.