The dimmed political legacy of Christy Clark

The seventh longest-serving premier in B.C. history leaves politics—and, after some electoral drama, a divided province—behind
B.C. Premier Christy Clark listens to a question during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 30, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/CP)
B.C. Premier Christy Clark listens to a question during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 30, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/CP)
B.C. Premier Christy Clark listens to a question during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 30, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Just a day shy of a month ago, Christy Clark’s government was defeated on a motion of non-confidence, bringing an end to Clark’s six years and four months as premier of British Columbia. On Friday, the woman who just weeks ago vowed to continue serving in the legislature announced she will resign as leader of the B.C. Liberal Party and will step down as a member of the Legislative Assembly for Kelowna West.

Political obituaries should neither be works of hagiography nor angry, blustering critique. Recapitulating and analyzing Clark’s career in B.C. politics pushes one towards the latter, however, since the tenure of B.C.’s 35th premier was a cynical affair often undistinguished by firm resolution. But it’s her final weeks in power that will leave an outsize mark on her political legacy.

Read in summary, Clark’s political career is reminiscent of the sort of story that Sophocles might have recognized. She served in the B.C. legislature from 1996 to 2004, including time in then-premier Gordon Campbell’s Cabinet. After leaving provincial politics she sought the nomination for mayor for Vancouver’s Non-Partisan Association, a municipal political party, but lost to Sam Sullivan, who later became mayor. Sullivan went on to serve as an MLA in Clark’s government and, briefly, as a cabinet minister.

After working as a radio host and columnist, Clark returned to provincial politics in 2011, seeking the leadership of the B.C. Liberal Party after Campbell’s resignation amid plummeting popularity and rising frustration with his government. At the time, Clark had the support of just a single sitting MLA, but was nonetheless considered by many to be the frontrunner. In February of 2011, she eked out a victory in the leadership contest on the third ballot, beating former minister Kevin Falcon, who would later become her finance minister.

Perhaps up to this point, Clark’s story lacks the instructive value of Antigone, but it picks up a bit here. When she won the leadership, Clark was not a sitting member of the legislature. She ran in a by-election soon after, seeking Campbell’s seat in Vancouver-Point Grey; she defeated the New Democrats’ David Eby—who would later defeat her in that same seat in the 2013 general election, forcing Clark to seek a by-election seat in West Kelowna. Eby is now B.C.’s attorney general.

Throughout these years, Clark earned a reputation for being a fierce political fighter and an underdog, not to mention a talented politician; her 2013 campaign victory—delivering the B.C. Liberals an unexpected majority in the legislature—seemed to confirm just that. Going into the election, Clark was extremely unpopular and her party was expected to lose to Adrian Dix’s NDP. At the outset of the campaign, the NDP enjoyed a 20 per cent lead in the polls; yet, once the dust had settled on election night, Clark had a comfortable majority and Dix was not long for his party’s leadership. Dix is now minister of health.

If political legacies were evaluated on the merits of one’s ability to hang in there, Clark’s would be fine. And to be fair, she has some accomplishments worth noting. In the years that Clark was premier, British Columbia led the country in economic growth and job creation; the books were balanced and the province attracted investment and talent. However, those same years were marked by inequality and inequity (including the sorry state of child poverty and child welfare), a freeze in disability benefits, a “Wild West” approach to political fundraising, a housing crisis, an opioid crisis, a gong-show of a referendum on transit fundinga costly war on teachersquestionable environmental policy decisions, and outright scandal (such as the “ethnic vote plan,” triple-deleting e-mails, and the Health Ministry firings).

There’s plenty more I could add to that list, but you get the mise-en-scéne. The Clark years were an era of two British Columbias: the in-group and the out-group, the have and the have-nots, the governors and the governed.

After six years and four months as premier, and 16 years of B.C. Liberal government in the province, Clark and her party had become entitled, as if the province was their exclusive fiefdom and their decisions were acts of noblesse oblige. By 2017, Clark and her party had worn down the patience of a sufficient number of British Columbians that voters punished them just enough in the general election to open the door for an NDP minority government, supported by the Green Party. The NDP hasn’t been in government since 2001.

Liberal leader Christy Clark at the results event for the B.C. elections 2017
B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark waves to the crowd following the B.C. Election in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

After the May election returned 43 Liberals, 41 New Democrats, and 3 Greens, Clark tried to cling to power, even as it became increasingly obvious that her time was up. She “borrowed” heavily from the NDP and Green platforms and offered the province a “Clone” speech as her Speech from the Throne. The move was a desperate act, and it did neither her nor her party any good. Citizens weren’t buying it and members of her own party were puzzled by the volte-face. Today, no one is quite sure what the B.C. Liberals stand for, and the next leader will face the challenge of rebranding the party and figuring out where, if anywhere, the party’s principles are to be found.

Soon after the throne speech, Clark lost a vote of non-confidence in the legislature. Her government defeated, Clark did what was only natural and necessary: she suggested that she’d advise B.C.’s lieutenant governor, Judith Guichon, that she’d lost the confidence of the legislature. Clark also said she wouldn’t ask for an election, because it wasn’t her job to advise the LG on what to do, even though it was precisely her job to do so. She then met the LG and asked for an election after Guichon reportedly told her that “give no advice” was not an option. What a time to be alive, we all thought.

Clark’s request was appropriately refused, and her resignation as premier was accepted; that evening, the NDP’s John Horgan was asked to become premier. This was just under a month ago. And on Jul. 28, Clark’s career in provincial politics ended with a whimper.

All of this is good news for the governing NDP and the Greens who support them. Clark’s resignation frees up a seat and takes a Liberal chess piece off the board. A by-election for Clark’s seat in West Kelowna must now be held within six months of her departure. Neither the NDP or Greens is likely to win, but the NDP might be able to steal the seat if they coordinate their efforts with the Green Party and if just enough residents of the riding are irked over Clark abandoning them.

More importantly, though, the B.C. Liberal leadership process will likely take several months and could take up to a year to unfold, which gives the NDP government more guaranteed governing time as it strips the B.C. Liberals of the ability to threaten to topple their rickety government. Also, once a new leader is installed, he or she might want to wait a while before pushing for another election, which would extend the NDP’s, let’s say, “grace period.”

We can’t know how Clark’s tenure as premier will be remembered. Balanced budgets and “tax relief” play well in the moment but don’t make fine fodder for the history books unless they’re accompanied by other, more notable and ambitious achievements. Clark is the seventh longest-serving premier in B.C.’s tumultuous history, steering the ship of state adequately at times, and using her political acumen to beat the odds more than once. But she leaves a divided province facing multiple crises and a B.C. Liberal Party whose identity and principles are now difficult to discern after the last election and the fiasco that followed it.