VANCOUVER – Christy Clark spoke passionately about teamwork, unity and listening to party members moments after winning the B.C. Liberal leadership, with 48 per cent of voting members arrayed against her at the end.
“Our government will be stronger because of the dialogue we all started with British Columbians, and we are going to build on that, together,” Clark told a packed convention hall. “We are going to shape the future of B.C., together. We are going to forge a bigger, stronger coalition, together.”
A few minutes later, in the middle of the crowded room, an argument between two men turned into a shoving match that escalated until two others jumped in and separated them.
Outside the convention hall, Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen was clarifying to reporters that he had not said he was quitting the caucus if Clark defeated his choice, George Abbott. Despite his earlier musings about considering his options in a Clark-led caucus, van Dongen was suddenly impressed with the desire of his colleagues to work together and was keen to do the same.
Van Dongen wasn’t the only one shocked at seeing Abbott, the Shuswap MLA and champion of rural B.C., finish third. Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett had figured the weighted voting system would give Abbott a good shot at bringing his team of mainly Campbell outsiders into the inner circle.
Bennett said he felt “pretty good, for a loser,” and showed a brave smile. His choice is not to leave the caucus, but to come back in, if he is invited.
The next morning, former Reform and Conservative MP Randy White spoke about the Clark win on CFAX radio in Victoria. He’s working to professionalize a moribund B.C. Conservative Party, and he said he watched a surge of people joining that party as soon as Clark’s narrow victory was known.
The B.C. Conservatives will announce new supporters shortly, White said, and people will be surprised. They were not counting on Bennett to be one of those, although White said Bennett told him a month ago he would sign up if Clark won the B.C. Liberal leadership.
White is convinced that Clark’s victory is a “defining moment” for B.C. politics. “No longer will B.C. Liberals be able to tell voters, it’s us or the NDP.
“We’re now acknowledging, and the Liberals are acknowledging that they are a Liberal party,” White said.
During the campaign, Clark blundered about on the harmonized sales tax, the timing of the next election and the government’s ability to cap the rapid growth of health-care spending. She’s fond of saying she spent the last four years listening to the people as a radio host. Apparently that’s long enough to start believing the bumper-sticker solutions that are so often the fodder of talk radio.
There were more hints of this in her victory speech. Clark’s top two priorities are “job creation and fighting poverty.” She’s just won the leadership of a party that has been saying for 15 years that government doesn’t create jobs. And the NDP continues its own earnest, but mainly fanciful debate about how poverty can be legislated away by government intervention, while trumpeting distorted statistics about the plight of B.C. children.
If Clark wants to reach out to conservative-minded voters, she might start by acknowledging that the province is currently running an operating deficit of close to $1 billion, with another year in the red still to come.
But so far it looks as if she will tack to the left, and risk making the B.C. Conservatives’ day.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com.