Christy Clark was excellent when th e Liberals were in opposition. Likable, quick, with a finely honed sense of how to score points when the NDP government stumbled. She had all the skills needed.
In government, not so much. And that raises doubts about her chances to be an effective Liberal leader and premier.
Clark’s leadership victory certainly confirms an impressive organization. But the fact that it took three ballots to win the support of 50 per cent of party members who voted shows she is hardly the first choice of most Liberals.
That’s emphasized by her lack of support among those politicians who know here best – her caucus colleagues from the old days.
The lack of support has been attributed to Clark’s absence for the last six years, since she decided not to run in 2005.
But it also reflects a lacklustre performance during her tenure in cabinet after the 2001 election. Clark struggled in education. Conflict with the B.C. Teachers Federation was inevitable, given the Liberal agenda. But Clark clashed with school trustees and did not build stong relationships with parent groups. It is difficult to point to any substantial achievements.
Her time as children and families minister was also unproductive.
Clark went from star status in opposition to underperformer in cabinet.
Now she has the top job at a time when the Liberals need to rebuild. The HST was certainly the flashpoint for public disaffection, but it was a symptom for a broader sense that the Liberal government had lost touch with the concerns of British Columbians and – worse - was not particulary worried about it.
Any leader, in any organization, has a matter of months to bring real change.
Clark starts with some advantages. The Liberals have been drifting since the last election – it is hard to think of any clear policy direction or initiatives on health, education or economic development.
That gives her a blank slate to set a new course, to offer programs that address the concerns of British Columbia’s families.
And this month’s placeholder budget gives her fiscal room to put her stamp on government with a mini-budget sometime in the next few months. She has about $1 billion available, for tax cuts or anti-poverty measures or economic development or deficit reduction. She can move beyond talk about families first or other themes to actions.
But Clark also has some problems. Her policy pronouncements during the leadership campaign were neither detailed nor coherent. Shaping them into budgetable progams will not be easy.
And she has to walk a fine line in naming a new cabinet and setting up her own senior staff. Clark doesn’t have a cadre of supportive cabinet ministers and MLAs to draw on. She has to risk putting former rivals in key roles, or perhaps more dangerousoly excluding them. And she has to balance the need to send a message of a new start for the party with the ambitions of the old guard.
Then there is the HST. The Liberals still want the tax approved in the referendum. But pushing that message places Clark back in the Campbell fold, a politically damaging place to be; renouncing it makes her colleagues who have defended the tax look foolish.
The timing of the next election is also an issue. Clark can get into the legislature quickly, assuming Gordon Campbell gives up his safe seat.
But she has also talked about the need for a new mandate from the voters. Clark ruled out a snap vote before the NDP selects a new leader in April, but could consider a vote this fall or next spring.
Underlying all this, there is the B.C. Rail scandal, which will not – and should not - go away.
It was an impressive win for Christy Clark. But the work ahead is difficult and risky and it is not at all clear that she has the required skills and support to get the job done.
Footonote: There has been talk of the challenge facing Clark, a federal Liberal, in holding together the provincial party’s coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives. But the risks to the coalition are much broader. Anytime a long-time powerful leader like Campbell leaves, pent-up stresses within the organization can lead to fractures.