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Christy Clark: Portrait of Power at Risk

Attacked from inside her caucus, the premier hasn't built vital support from everyday British Columbians. What went wrong?

Sean Holman 21 Oct

Sean Holman is a syndicated columnist, talk show host and the editor of Public Eye, a prominent online journal covering provincial politics. He teaches journalism at the University of Victoria. Find his other Tyee stories here.

It was the Kodak moment Christy Clark and her family of supporters had been working for their entire political lives.

Clark being sworn-in as premier at government house, her much-mentioned smile and fashionable, hound's-tooth jacket contrasting sharply with the serious suits and expressions being worn by her soon-to-be cabinet colleagues.

But, seven months into her administration, the premier -- whose Liberal leadership bid was supported by just one of those ministers -- doesn't have much to smile about.

Her government is now trailing the Opposition, according to the latest polling from Ipsos Corp., with Clark having a disapproval rating that's higher than her New Democratic Party competitor Adrian Dix.

So how did The Province's front page Vancouver Canucks "Jersey Girl" come to be at risk of losing the premiership to a man blacklisted by one of the same tabloid's columnists as a "dour Stalinist"?

How did Clark go from having won the Liberal leadership to leading a caucus that includes two members who, in the words of The Vancouver Sun's Vaughn Palmer, "launched a blunt attack on their own government" this week?

Well, to answer that question, you have to understand who Clark is as a leader and who she isn't -- something The Tyee spent four weeks researching, conducting background interviews with sources who've been part of or a close witness to Clark's ascent to power.

She has the makings of a populist… but isn't

Like the media, many of those sources described Clark as a populist -- a politician who supports or seeks to appeal to the concerns of the commons. But there's more to being a populist than that.

According to political scientists Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, the key feature of populists -- regardless of the position on the left-right spectrum -- is their fight to "reclaim the people's sovereignty from the professional political and administrative classes, as well as other elite 'enemies' who, through the sleight of hand of representative and deliberately arcane and complex politics, have stolen and perverted democracy."

But, since being sworn-in as premier, Clark has yet to substantially pit herself against anyone who can reasonably be considered a true elite.

For example, three days after the premier's swearing-in-ceremony, she announced the minimum wage would be increased from $8 to $10.25 by May 2012.

The province's business lobby blasted that decision, with British Columbia Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer John Winter describing the raise as "too much too fast" in an interview with capital city radio station CFAX 1070.

But the thawing of the province's ten-year minimum wage freeze was more a long-time coming than populist. After all, government and Opposition MLAs sitting on the legislature's finance committee had earlier recommended a minimum wage hike, along with all of Clark's competitors during the Liberal leadership race.

The government's recent decision to "advocate for television and radio access to the courts" is also illustrative of how Clark can appear populist but isn't upon closer inspection.

The reason: she's not advocating for that access to hold an elite -- such as judges, who annually earn $231,138 -- to account.

Instead, that access will at least initially be restricted to the Stanley Cup riot proceedings, with the premier explaining "those guys had no problem doing their crimes quite in public with all kinds of people taking pictures and doing videos all around them. So I think they should have no problem being tried in public either."

In other words, the premier wants to hold hockey hooligans to account -- individuals who, for the most part, have neither means nor influence and might not even vote.

Indeed, the only interests Clark has repeatedly positioned herself in opposition against are those that involve little political risk -- executives at Crown-owned corporations, as well as NDP members and "the same old elites they represented the last time that they were in government."

"We won't let them hide their love of their cronies in the union movement," she promised supporters during her campaign launch speech.

But it's unclear whether the commons believes NDP and union members have much influence over the province, let alone considering them an elite. After all, according to BC Stats, between 1997 and 2008, British Columbia's unionization rate declined from 37 to 31 per cent. And, since 2001, the NDP has been relegated to the impotence of Opposition status.

It's also unclear how much value she can get out of fighting the suits at BC Hydro Corp., British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. and other agencies that are, essentially, in her government's thrall.

What is clear, though, is many British Columbians might perceive Clark's supporters as being elites. Take Pamela Martin, the premier's outreach director, for example.

Before being appointed to that $130,000 per year position, she was Clark's membership drive chair and election day co-chair during the Liberal leadership race. But before all that, Martin was a celebrity anchor with Global BC and later CTV British Columbia.

That past on-camera profile undoubtedly made her a popular part of Clark's bid to succeed Campbell. But there's a difference between being popular and a populist.

Indeed, Martin is also known for being a high-profile member of provincial society, having, according to The Vancouver Sun, married real estate developer John Haibeck in May 2000 at one of Vancouver's exclusive private clubs. Which perhaps explains why The Province's editorial cartoonist Dan Murphy satirized Martin as Clark's "celebrity toady."

That isn't necessarily someone you'd expect to be working in the office of a populist premier. Nor would you expect a populist premier to be backed by a powerful corporate lobbyist like Patrick Kinsella, whose government relations firm has consulted for companies such as gambling giant Great Canadian Gaming Corp.

Kinsella has likely been handsomely compensated by his clients, as is suggested by him being a player of the sport of kings (thoroughbred horseracing) and having a Shaughnessy mansion which, as first reported by freelancer Bob Mackin, is being sold for $6.49 million.

As such, he's far from being the everyman a populist would stand up for -- or take a donation from, as Clark's campaign did when it accepted $20,000 worth in donations from Kinsella's company. Instead, he's the kind of man a populist would stand up against.

Nevertheless, it's possible Clark may yet become a populist. Many of those interviewed for this story spoke of her upbringing in Burnaby as being more blue than white collar and how the premier believes government should do what the public wants.

To find out what the public wants, Clark, unlike her predecessor Gordon Campbell, isn't averse to polling. Indeed, the premier's chief of staff Mike McDonald and her principal secretary Dimitri Pantazopoulos both have backgrounds in public opinion research, as does Mike Wilson, who presently has a consulting contract with the Liberals.

But, perhaps more importantly, she's someone who learns by talking to people. That interaction is her favourite part of being a politician and was her favourite part of being a talk show host at CKNW. It also, more than any personal ideology, drives which policies she champions -- an example being her radio caller-inspired crusade against bullying.

So perhaps one of Clark's problems as premier is she has the skills to be a populist but might not be surrounded by those who have populist instincts, represent the commons or, at the very least, are in tune with the concerns of the commons.

That might explain why the premier said earlier this month British Columbia has a "thriving middle class," even though a recent Conference Board of Canada report suggests otherwise.

Or could it be that Clark simply hasn't had an opportunity to really take on an elite?

There is no I in Clark's team

Nevertheless, there's no denying Clark is reliant on her inner circle in a way Campbell never was. Her predecessor wanted to control almost everything his administration did, from policy to communications. Clark has always been content to focus on being the brand for a team of supporters who are responsible for everything else -- in some cases, since the beginnings of her political career.

For example, her brother Bruce has a reputation for being one of Clark's big rainmakers, raising money for her campaigns -- although he says that role has been long "eclipsed" by a "very strong team of people who do that." Deputy chief of staff Kim Haakstad has long been the premier's body man, accompanying Clark wherever she goes. And then there's Athana Mentzelopoulos, the premier's deputy minister of corporate priorities, who has long been the one who enforces Clark's decisions.

Clark allows her inner circle a considerable amount of independence, which is one of the reasons why some of them are just ambitious for her as she is for herself. For example, Clark decided to run for the Non-Partisan Association's mayoral nomination and the Liberal leadership after her supporters had essentially created those opportunities for her.

But, since the premier came to power, that circle has been lacking in two important ways. First, it doesn't appear to include anyone with a strong reputation for policy development.

When Clark was the public face of the ministry of education, Emery Dosdall shouldered that responsibility. Hired in 2001 to be the civil service head of that ministry, the former Edmonton school superintendant came with an international reputation for having remade that city's public education system -- as well as an expectation he'd do the same in British Columbia.

But there doesn't appear to be anyone with a similar reputation in the premier's office. In part, that might be because Clark was expecting her cabinet to take more of a lead in the development of her administration's policy. However, that means renovating a culture that, for the past ten years, has seen the premier give cabinet and caucus its marching orders.

Such a project would be difficult for anyone to undertake, let alone a premier whose leadership bid was endorsed by a single MLA. Moreover, it's unclear whether its completion would actually result in a coherent or compelling policy agenda given that compliance was treasured just as much talent under the Campbell administration.

That difficulty in developing policy is compounded by another deficiency in Clark's inner circle: the lack of a political networker.

The premier is a people person, with a talent for making those she speaks with feel special. Strange as it may seem, however, Clark isn't as talented at following-up on those conversations and building them into relationships. Instead, like the talk show host she once was, as soon as a caller disappears from the phone board, they're gone. Only what Clark learned from that conversation remains.

According to those interviewed for this story, that tendency (which has resulted in hurt feelings among even loyal supporters) is principally the result of Clark expending so much of energy being "on" that she doesn't have any remaining for the niceties of networking -- or even closing out some of the countless events she attends.

After all, Clark, despite her reputation for being the life of the party, was also among the first to turn in at the parties she and her now former husband Mark Marissen once hosted, retiring at around 9:00 p.m.

That means she needs someone in her inner circle with a talent for developing, maintaining, reinforcing and extending her presence even when she both literally and metaphorically goes to bed. Clark needs someone who can make and, perhaps most importantly, return calls as her personal representative -- being in constant contact with everyone that matters or might matter.

In the past, that person has been Marissen, who also brought with him a spirit of, for lack of a better word, fun to Clark's team. But while the relationship between the premier and her ex-husband is said to be amicable, the extent of Marissen's involvement with Clark's administration is a matter of considerable debate, even among those familiar with the couple. Moreover, it's unclear what his relationship is with the premier's chief of staff McDonald -- who, in many ways, is the opposite of Marissen.

Unlike Marissen and, interestingly, Clark, McDonald isn't a risk taker, favoring prudence over spontaneity.

As a result, looking at the Clark administration's record to date, it would be reasonable to assume the premier's former partner in risk taking isn't involved in its day-to-day operations.

While some of Clark's decisions have been gimmicky, none have been marked by the same risk Marissen, for example, took when he ran an insurgent campaign against prime minister Jean Chretien's British Columbia supporters, who were characterized as elite, undemocratic, garden party Liberals.

In part, that could be because the Clark administration doesn't have the fiscal wherewithal for boldness. But it might also be indicative of who isn't in the premier's inner circle right now, explaining why her office appears, at times, so bunkered and disconnected -- even though the Clark administration is relatively fresh-faced.

What Clark can change and what she may not

That means Clark could change her political fortunes by changing some of those who surround her -- something many other political leaders have had to do after assuming power.

With an election set for 2013, she doesn't have much time to come to make such a decision.

But doing so wouldn't be out of character for the premier. In the past, she's proven willing to withdraw the independence her favourites enjoy if they don't deliver.

Just ask her sole caucus supporter Harry Bloy, who lasted less than a year as a minister of social development before Clark demoted him to minister of state for multiculturalism.

The unanswered question is whether can take advantage of her populist skills. To do so, it's not enough for Clark to just do what British Columbians want or what she thinks they want. That course will make her administration look directionless, being buffeted left and right by the winds of public opinion.

Instead, she needs to start standing up for British Columbians against an elite. That's what being a populist is about. However, it remains to be seen if she wants to embrace populism and whether her supporters -- as well, the so-called free enterprise party she heads -- will let her.

Because, if she doesn't, the Kodak moment Clark and her family of supporters so relished on March 14 -- the date of her swearing-in-ceremony -- might remain just that... a moment.

[See more Tyee stories in: Politics.]

On Monday: Sean Holman maps the power circle influencing Premier Christy Clark.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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