Christy Clark’s comeback is complete

What Clark’s by-election win means for the B.C. Liberals

Headed in the right direction?

Darryl Dyck/CP

When Christy Clark finally emerged to greet supporters after a razor-thin by-election win in Vancouver last Wednesday, she laughed off suggestions she’d ever been worried. B.C.’s new premier, who has a disarming smile and the upbeat, populist charisma of W.A.C. Bennett, was so confident of the victory she’d ducked every debate during the campaign. Yet for almost the entire night, she trailed the NDP in tony Point Grey, the riding former premier Gordon Campbell had held since 1996. Finally, with just five polls remaining, she pulled ahead—a squeaker of a win, according to everyone but Clark.

The relief among the Liberals packed into the Kitsilano restaurant serving as campaign HQ was palpable. A loss would have been disastrous, not just for the rookie premier, but for the party, which had wagered that, in Clark, it had chosen a fresh face with no HST baggage: someone who could undo the damage Campbell did to the Liberal brand. And maybe they have. A win’s a win, and with a seat in the B.C. legislature, Clark can move on to the real battles: first, next month’s HST referendum, then a general election, expected as early as September.

Clark, a former deputy premier, leapt back into politics in December, announcing her intent to replace Campbell as leader of the B.C. Liberals after a six-year break from the game. She’d left to spend time with her son, then a toddler: “The government is going to find another politician,” she told reporters at the time, “but Hamish isn’t going to find another mother.” A coy caveat, however, bookended those remarks. “In B.C. politics,” she said, “nobody ever really goes away, do they?” No one doubted she’d be back.

The 45-year-old premier is confident, combative and ballsy. Two weeks after leaving Campbell’s finance minister, Colin Hansen, out of cabinet, she announced with her trademark smile that he would chair her campaign in Point Grey. She learned the political game from her father, Jim, a Burnaby schoolteacher and Liberal foot soldier who had her door-knocking from the time she could walk. By university, where she was briefly the lone right-winger on student council at Simon Fraser University, she’d cemented alliances to future B.C. powerbrokers, including deputy premier Kevin Falcon, former finance minister Gary Collins and backroom operatives like Mike McDonald, now her chief of staff. Back then, Clark was “gregarious, fun, opinionated,” says a friend of 25 years—“just as she is now.” (Clark’s friends and Liberal insiders would only speak anonymously to Maclean’s.)

After university, Clark jumped into campaign battles, first for the B.C. Liberal Party, which was then rebounding under Gordon Wilson, then in ’93 for the federal party. In Ottawa, she joined her future husband Mark Marissen, who would later become a key organizer for Paul Martin and Stéphane Dion. On the Hill, they were seen as “young Turks,” friends say, growing their political skills and networks. Marissen was an executive assistant to revenue minister David Anderson, and Clark was transport minister Doug Young’s western desk. But in ’96, during Glen Clark’s NDP reign, Clark, then 30, came home to run.

She was a pit bull on Campbell’s opposition bench, says University of Victoria political scientist Michael Prince—an “acid-tongued Liberal hellcat” is how a local columnist once described her—and an obvious cabinet choice in 2001, when the Liberals took power. She was pregnant at the time, and returned to work one month after giving birth, nursing Hamish during breaks.

Clark’s combativeness and her “need to fill every silence” hindered her on the government bench, according to veteran B.C. political watcher Norman Ruff. As education minister, she went to war with the powerful B.C. Teachers’ Federation, rolling back contracts, blocking teachers from negotiating class size and making it illegal for them to strike. In 2004, Campbell demoted her to the children and families portfolio. Nine months later, she left office to be with Hamish. Soon after, her marriage to Marissen fell apart, though they remain friendly co-parents.

Her timeout from politics turned out to be a blessing. When she returned, as the HST outrage hit full throttle, she was “the only leadership candidate who wasn’t in the room when the HST decision was made,” says Bob Rennie, the influential local condo marketer and a key backer. This allowed her to paint herself as the furthest thing from Campbell, whose popularity had fallen to single digits. Hashing out social issues on her province-wide radio platform had meanwhile kept her in the public eye, and fine-tuned her communications skills.

On air, she frequently attacked the federal Conservatives and her old colleagues. “It’s patently obvious to everyone that the premier cannot stick around as a lame duck,” she said in November, after Campbell announced he was resigning, but would stay until his successor was chosen. “His power has evaporated,” she continued. “He cannot govern. He has to resign.” Later in the program, she took B.C.’s minister of children and family development to task over the ministry’s handling of a case involving a 15-year-old disabled girl left alone with her mother’s dead body for several days. None of this endeared her to Liberal MLAs. Incredibly, she won the party leadership with the support of just a single caucus member: an unremarkable backbencher she thanked with a cabinet post.

Don’t expect her to fight too hard for the new harmonized sales tax in the lead-up to the referendum. Liberals see the anti-HST movement as a sleeping giant: push too hard, and they’ll wake it. Plus, Clark doesn’t want to wear the loss if the tax is rejected. She’d like the option of writing it off as just another of her predecessor’s bad ideas. So instead, Clark is offering a soft sell, vaguely promising to “fix” the 12 per cent tax, perhaps by shaving off a point or two before mail-in ballots go out next month.

Win or lose, Clark will then move to the main event: what’s shaping up to be a bloody fight pitting the Liberals, who seek a rare fourth term, against a resurgent NDP buoyed by the federal wing’s breakthrough in the recent election and the nail-biter last week in Point Grey.

Clark will attempt to brand the NDP as extremists; the party’s new leader, Adrian Dix, is calling for the rollback of corporate tax cuts. In turn, the NDP will try to link Clark to Campbell, and dredge up her past as education minister. But Clark also has to stop B.C. Conservatives from siphoning away support. The upstart party, which is gearing up to anoint veteran Tory MP John Cummins as leader, could act as a spoiler in as many as 12 ridings, says Prince. That may be why Clark sees “real merits” to changing the name of the B.C. Liberal Party, an idea floated at the party’s biennial convention in Penticton last weekend.

A rebranding could further disassociate it from both the Campbell era and the sad federal party, and shore up support on the right. There, many struggle to “say the word,” says former Tory MP and B.C. Liberal Stockwell Day—“let alone put an X beside it.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.