Christy Clark on motherhood, optimism and the plan for the next four years

The B.C. Premier in conversation with Nancy Macdonald

Jonathan Hayward/CP

B.C. Premier Christy Clark in conversation with Maclean’s B.C. correspondent Nancy Macdonald:

Q: That was a grueling, 28-day battle. Now that the election’s over, are you going to take some time for yourself?

A: Hamish, my son, has never been to New York, so we’re going to take three days this weekend, and go to New York together.

Q: A celebratory trip?

A: It’s a thank-you trip. Win or lose, we were going to go. For 28 days I’ve hardly seen him. He was able to stay a few nights with me, during the campaign. He lives half-time with his dad, then half-time with me. And on my weeks, he went and lived with another family because I was gone. So we’ve really missed each other.

Q: I wanted to ask about the impact of all this on Hamish. British Columbia is unique—you just don’t see the degree of vitriol, the polarization, the incredibly harsh media commentary elsewhere in the country. How does an 11-year-old handle hearing these things about his mom?

A: We don’t get the newspapers at home because of that; it started to get really difficult for him. We used to read the paper—at our kitchen at home, over breakfast in the morning. He’d read it back to front because he’d start with the sports pages. We had to stop getting it because the commentary was so harsh.

Q: At what point was this?

A: Six months in—fall, 2011. There was a revealing moment for me on election night; he never talks to me about things people say to him, because he wants to protect me, right? He doesn’t want me to know that people have said bad things about me. He was sitting on my lap on election night, we’d won, and he said: “Wow, mom, you did it.” I said, “Well, sweetheart, do you want to sleep in tomorrow? You’ve earned a sleep in, you don’t have to go to school first thing in the morning.” He said, “Are you kidding me? I’m going to go to school, and all of those people who’ve been who made fun of me, and made fun of you—I’m going to go have a talk with them.” It was the first time he’d told me that there were issues for him at school that he was taking on.

Q: I remember watching your platform launch in Vancouver a month ago. You’d just seen the Liberal party through an ugly ethnic outreach scandal; you’d had to issue a public apology to the people of B.C.; your party was sitting 20 points behind the NDP—an unsurmountable gap, or so we thought at the time. You’d been completely written off—by media, pundits, even some in your own party. I was completely taken aback that day by your optimism, your confidence in the face of pretty overwhelming odds. Where did it come from? Were you putting it on?

A: I never doubted that we could win the election because I knew how important it was. I knew that if we did succeed, we’d have the chance to shape the future for a generation. So I was so committed to it, and when you’re really committed to something it helps you believe. I had a great team—they gave me their hearts. Think of the candidates we recruited—people who came on board when everybody was telling them they were going to lose: [former Vancouver mayor] Sam Sullivan, [three-term Langley mayor] Peter Fassbender, [high-profile, former Vancouver city councilor] Suzanne Anton—these are fantastic candidates. Peter Fassbender was running in an NDP-held riding! We all were seeing something that the media wasn’t seeing; that certainly, pollsters weren’t seeing. We saw it. We knew that the economy was going to be the central question. And we knew that we had a good plan for the economy. And I knew in my heart that once we had a chance to talk to people about the economy, about our vision, that we’d start to see a few heads nodding. I knew I’d get the chance in the election, and the TV debate.

Q: A strange thing happened after the TV debate. Going into it, pundits said that all NDP leader Adrian Dix had to do was show up, and not embarrass himself. He did both those things and was roundly declared the winner. But, as polls later that week showed, the TV debate changed a lot of minds in your favour; it was clearly a turning point. Why do you think you were declared the loser?

A: People didn’t say that; the media did. There are two schools of thought: you’ve got to get the knock-out punch. The other is my school of thought: you’re not talking to the media.

Q: How did media and pollsters get this election so wrong?

A: There was a well-established narrative—that I wasn’t going to succeed, that I couldn’t succeed, that I was a certain kind of person. I don’t really understand that. Maybe their bosses will have to ask them in their performance reviews this year.

Q: Three days ahead of the vote, your internal pollster had you at 48 seats—a comfortable majority [Clark would go on to win 50 seats, while the NDP won 33].

At that point, did you finally allow yourself to relax?

A: I never knew what the polls were saying; and I never asked.

Q: Not even internal polling?

A: No, I never knew.

Q: Really? Was that a deliberate tactic?

A: Not really. I’m not superstitious about that kind of thing. I just didn’t think it was relevant. Twenty-eight days is hard… Every day you have to be at the top of your game. Because you’re trying to communicate important things to people through the media; and you don’t get many chances to do this, so every one of those opportunities matters. And so what did it matter what the polls said? No, I mean really: what does it matter? If we were up or down I was still going to work hard, I was still going to keep doing exactly what I was doing—talking about the issues, talking directly to British Columbians about what I wanted to do to protect our economy. And also let them see who I was as a person; I think people vote on character as much as they vote on issues. I just didn’t see the polls as very relevant.

Q: Many believe this election was a referendum on the economy, and that you’ve been given a mandate to substantially increase natural resource development. Do you believe you’ve been given that mandate?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Is that was the next four years will be about?

A: That’s exactly right. That is the core of our plan: grow the economy. British Columbia has always grown its economy based on the natural resource sector: mining, forestry, natural gas. They’re big, export-oriented sectors, and we have huge opportunities in China and India that we are going to pursue. One of the important threads in the campaign I really wanted people to connect with is how our resource economy drives our urban economies, how interconnected we are in Vancouver with Fort Nelson. Now, we need to drive the technology sector, the creative sector. But the tech sector is intimately connected with the resource sector. Technology is a huge part of natural gas extraction, and it’s big in mining. There are some natural synergies we’re going to build on as well.

Q: When it comes to natural resource development, you’ve got a good partner next door in Alberta. But you and Alberta premier Alison Redford have had a famously ugly relationship in the last 12 months. There are early signs that’s changing; is there a warming of relations?

A: Well I talked to her yesterday, and we had a really nice chat. We’re hopefully going to meet in the next couple of weeks. We have a lot more in common than we do differences: we believe in a strong private sector economy; we are resource-based economies; we believe in low taxes and paying off debt. I talked to her yesterday about all the things we have in common and how we can build on the partnership we have. I think we will have a very constructive relationship. And yes, we have had a very public disagreement about the Enbridge pipeline and heavy oil movement. But you know, everything is resolvable. I know it’s been public—but that’s a really small part of our relationship, overall. It’s like a marriage: you might fight about who takes out the garbage, but you still sit down and have dinner together, and plan a future for your kids.

Q: What do you make of the latest senate scandal?

A: I don’t think the Senate is a particularly relevant body. We’ve brought forth legislation in B.C. to elect a senator. The highjinks there—to me, it’s a bit of a distraction. What happens in the Senate really doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t. When I look to the rest of the country, what I’m thinking about is: How do we build our economy in B.C. so that we are big contributor to Confederation? We have a chance with natural gas. When you think of the contribution Alberta makes to our economy—we are going to make exactly the same contribution to our national economy. B.C. has never pulled its weight in Canada and we are finally in a position to start doing that. The country really needs us right now. Things aren’t good in Ontario and Quebec, and in other parts of the country. We’re going to step up.

Q: The NDP had crafted a campaign plan they were sure would bring them a majority; it flopped pretty spectacularly. What went wrong?

A: You’re going to have to ask them. I just focused on trying to do the best job that I possibly could. We didn’t make a lot of extravagant promises, money-wise, but we are going to build that prosperity fund; we are going to start paying off our debt. We’re going to keep that budget balanced, and we’re going to start freezing and lowering taxes as soon as we can.

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