Christy Clark won the Liberal leadership on Saturday and is poised to become our next premier. Her margin of victory was slim (four percentage points) by any measure, and the indifference to her win by many in the Liberal Party is palpable. Clark now leads a party that is, if not divided, disillusioned.
The BC Liberals have chosen the status quo, and it is clear not all BC Liberals are pleased.
The public’s appetite for more fiscally conservative and small government legislatures is growing. Across North America voters are tired of funding increasing wages and benefits for public-sector unions. Taxpayers are weary of increasing taxes and fees, and are demanding changes in government policy. U.S. voters repudiated the liberal, big government policies of President Barrack Obama last November. The majority of U.S. states are moving to small government, low-tax regimes under Republican leadership.
Historically liberal Toronto has elected a decidedly conservative mayor, much to the chagrin of the Toronto-centred media, which campaigned fiercely for anyone but Rob Ford. Despite the concerted efforts of virtually every media outlet in Canada, the Harper Conservatives continue to hold a significant lead in public opinion polls and would almost certainly form a majority, or strong minority, government if an election were to be held today.
Cities and towns across B.C. are facing up to reality that the effects of past “mission creep” — where municipalities forgot their role of providing roads, sewer and garbage collection, and instead squandered precious property tax dollars on social welfare programs — are no longer sustainable. Voters are demanding a return to the provision of basic municipal services.
Across Europe notoriously socialist countries have embraced conservative policies. These countries are backtracking on virtually all their lynchpin social polices. Faced with the dismal results of decades of spending on failed social engineering programs and multicultural policies that have destroyed the fabric of traditional western European society, voters there are demanding a return to increased personal freedom and accountability, and less intrusion by government in day-to-day life.
In B.C., Clark’s Liberals will continue to represent the urban progressive voters of the Lower Mainland and cling to power by providing voters a slightly more credible alternative to the NDP. Clark’s internal challenge will be how to court the right wing of her party going forward. At the same time, Clark’s election presents a real opportunity for the BC Conservatives to present a responsible alternative to the Liberal policies.
There is scant evidence Christy Clark has the leadership qualities to unite the BC Liberals in the long term. To keep her party together, she will need to allow the right wing of her party to influence the provincial agenda. If not, she will face a redux of a Reform Party-like break-up that put the NDP in power in 1991, or face the ascension of the BC Conservatives as a real election threat in the coming years. Or both.
The BC Conservative Party at a provincial level has long been viewed as fringe group. It has lacked credible leadership, and has been portrayed as espousing extreme religious and social views. Spokespeople for the party in the past have done little to dispel this view. Nevertheless, paid membership in the BC Conservative Party is at an all-time high.
Clark’s election presents an opportunity to the BC Conservatives. They need to engineer a few key defections of Liberal MLAs who have been disaffected by the Clark election. They will also have to revamp their executive and leadership and begin to articulate a less extreme stance on social issues. This will allow them to continue to build membership and fundraising efforts. Their strategy must be to capture the conservative voter in the interior of the province and create a minority Liberal government, with Conservatives driving important fiscal legislation.
The door is now wide open for the BC Conservatives to get their act together and capitalize on the Liberals’ apparent lack of courage to address the issues facing the province. Clark faces the prospect of adopting conservative values much more substantial than her vacuous “families first” policies if she is to keep her party together and remain in power.
Either way, the election of Christy Clark on Saturday evening may well herald the rise of the right in B.C., and that may be the best thing we can take away from last weekend’s leadership election.
Mark Walker is the publisher of the Penticton Western News.