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Signs of BC Lib Implosion

Why are backbenchers rebelling against Clark? They're watching their backs.

By Bill Tieleman 25 Oct 2011 |

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at or visit his blog.

"If something such as an organization implodes, it is completely destroyed by things that are happening within it." -- Macmillan Dictionary

The BC Liberals are starting to implode over dissatisfaction with the job Premier Christy Clark is doing -- and their own fears of impending doom.

The evidence became clear last week when backbench MLAs John van Dongen and Randy Hawes -- both ex-cabinet ministers -- took tough public shots at their own government.

Their rebellion was for good reason: the terrible treatment of adults with development disabilities by Community Living B.C., the government agency that's supposed to help them.

Instead, as first Hawes and then Van Dongen outlined, CLBC has been closing group homes and forcing the most vulnerable in society into new situations that they and their families don't accept.

The New Democrats had led the charge with story after story of dislocation and misery. Hawes and Van Dongen surprised all by backing up their political opponents rather than the beleaguered rookie minister, Stephanie Cadieux.

But behind the well-founded complaints is another story of frustrations with Clark finally boiling over in public.

Dropping in polls

Even BC NDP leader Adrian Dix heard about a tense meeting of B.C. Liberal MLAs last Tuesday, saying to Clark in the Legislature: "This isn't like the Liberal caucus where she can say: 'Shut up, or I'll call the election.'" Clark immediately denied Dix had it right but the damage done was obvious.

The reasons are many. A new Ipsos-Reid poll sees the BC Liberals falling seven points to 38 per cent, behind the NDP's 45 per cent despite leading them by two points in May. And despite Clark's charm offensive, 46 per cent already disapprove of her performance while 45 per cent approve.

That may reflect voters' views that Clark's performance as premier has been more of an extended photo opportunity than a demonstration of vision and leadership.

Perhaps nothing showed that more than her clamouring to get in front of cameras to hog credit for B.C.'s Seaspan winning an $8 billion navy shipbuilding contract last week.

Clark was deputy premier when the BC Liberal government encouraged B.C. Ferries to give a $540 million deal for three new vessels to Germany, badly damaging the provincial industry. But Clark showed no sense of irony in embracing the same company that was blocked from even bidding seven years ago.

It's hardly a surprise for a premier who has repeatedly flip-flopped on major policy issues from the Harmonized Sales Tax to an election call.

Leaky hull

Admittedly Clark had a tough challenge, facing a caucus where only one obscure MLA -- Harry Bloy -- supported her leadership bid.

But as van Dongen put it in February: "There's a reason, and a legitimate reason, why virtually all of the caucus worked for [other candidates]."

And that reason is becoming clearer to increasingly nervous BC Liberal MLAs.

But there's another reason for caucus members like Van Dongen to be rebellious -- because they are being challenged for their party nominations.

Abbotsford city councilor Moe Gill has announced his intention to take the Abbotsford South nomination away from Van Dongen. And with support from Health Minister Mike de Jong and his recent leadership campaign member signups in the Fraser Valley he could succeed.

Gill was ready to go for Van Dongen's political throat until Clark bowed to caucus and polling pressure by cancelling plans for a fall election. Now Gill will seek re-election to council but refuses to give up on replacing the former solicitor general.

Sultan’s swat

BC Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan is also a target, and he knows it. In April Sultan sent a letter to West Vancouver-Capilano party member telling them apparently out of the blue that he would be running again.

But 10-year veteran Sultan had already heard the rumours that either Pamela Martin, the former BC CTV anchor and current Clark staffer, or outgoing West Vancouver Mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones would be vying for the nomination.

So Sultan's surprising letter said he was "pledged" to help Clark succeed but then he slipped a stiletto into her side.

"You, as one of the 1,900 members of the BC Liberal Party in West Vancouver-Capilano, were more inclined to favour Kevin Falcon and George Abbott but now is time to rally around our new leader and our new premier," Sultan wrote. Nice of him to remind members just how unpopular Clark was in the riding.

West Vancouver-Sea to Sky MLA Joan McIntyre is also rumoured to be feeling unloved by the Clark loyalists, with North Shore News columnist Trevor Lautens predicting last month that Goldsmith-Jones didn't seek re-election as mayor because she hopes to replace McIntyre.

Cummins on strong

Other BC Liberal MLAs are less worried about losing their nominations to internal competition so much as they fear the surging strength of BC Conservative leader John Cummins in traditionally safe seats, including in the Interior, Okanagan and North.

Cummins is now at 12 per cent, up two points since May and 10 points since the 2009 election when they ran less than two dozen candidates. Cummins is also creating a viable network of constituency associations and attracting former Reform Party Members of Parliament to his cause, with Jim Hart and Paul Forseth seeking nominations while Randy White chairs a key election committee.

Cummins also has a formidable campaign manager in Hamish Marshall, a federal Conservative who did polling for the business group that backed B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon's BC Liberal leadership campaign. Marshall has deep roots with the federal Tories and honed his public opinion skills working with Angus Reid Public Opinion.

And scared BC Liberal MLAs can't be happy Clark approved amazingly inept party radio ads and a website called "Can't Trust Cummins" that ostensibly attacked Cummins but actually gave him both credibility and name recognition.

Deficit thinking

Surprisingly, it took until Sunday for the BC Liberal Party to launch an attack on Clark's principal opponent, Dix and the NDP. A sensationalistic website titled "Can't Afford Dix" talks about "Dix's Deficit" at a time when the current Clark government is -- wait for it -- running a big deficit.

Another section talks about Dix "Doubling Political Staffers" under the 1996 government of NDP Premier Glen Clark -- but Clark herself has gotten in trouble with boosting the size of the premier's office, including hiring Pamela Martin as an "outreach coordinator" for $130,000 a year with a very vague job description.

Clark wisely delayed an election call that would likely have led to a stunning defeat. But so far she has not used that borrowed time to solidify her leadership or satisfy her caucus critics. Just the opposite, as Hawes and van Dongen proved last week.

With Cummins' increasing popularity and with some BC Liberal MLAs staring at the possible loss of their nominations, it's not hard to see unhappy veterans like Van Dongen considering a jump to the BC Conservatives.

Those MLAs who have always aligned themselves with the federal Conservative Party were troubled by Clark's sterling federal Liberal Party background, making that leap a shorter one.

Political implosions are incredibly destructive -- and they always start from within.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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