"I don't think she's done anything wrong whatsoever." -- Mike Morton, ex-Gordon Campbell press secretary, on Premier Christy Clark, April 7.
If B.C. Premier Christy Clark hasn't done "anything wrong," why has she taken the BC Liberal government into an incredible hurt locker with no key to get out?
And why does veteran pollster Mario Canseco of Angus Reid Public Opinion say Clark's remarkable 37 per cent gender gap with women voters "is certainly one of the biggest I have seen"?
It's actually difficult to underestimate how bad the BC Liberals situation truly is -- and easy to see the political environment getting much worse very soon.
In just the last two weeks we've seen:
B.C.'s unemployment rate jump while the national rate dropped -- in the middle of Clark's vaunted and expensively advertised jobs plan;
The province and municipalities being "shocked" by the federal government announcing significant surprise retroactive wage increases for RCMP officers in B.C. -- which could raise costs by millions just after B.C. signed a 20-year contract extension for RCMP policing services;
Clark embarrassed by disclosure from Elections BC that she did not donate one dime to the BC Liberal Party in 2011 despite leading it;
Worst of all, the latest Angus Reid Public Opinion poll showing the BC Liberals and Conservatives tied at 23 per cent, 20 points back of the New Democrats.
The growing bad news makes it increasingly unlikely Clark has the political support needed to govern until the May 14, 2013 fixed election date.
Losing both by-elections in formerly safe BC Liberal seats of Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope and trailing the BC Conservatives could encourage more MLA defections like van Dongen's -- and calls for Clark to step down as leader.
Behind in just about everything
Or Clark could attempt an early election this year, to head off a loss of leadership, despite daunting odds of success.
That's because the Angus Reid poll astonishingly shows that the BC Liberals are behind the NDP in every imaginable demographic category and on every significant political issue.
The NDP under leader Adrian Dix leads in every region of B.C. but one -- the Interior.
But the Conservatives lead there at 32 per cent, with the NDP right behind them at 30 per cent and the Liberals just third at 26 per cent.
And election with those kind of numbers would gut the BC Liberals' strongholds and likely see the BC Conservatives and NDP split up the region.
Dix is also regarded by polling respondents as better than either Christy Clark or Conservative leader John Cummins to deal with health care, education, the environment, crime and even the economy -- traditionally the NDP's weak spot.
Clark is ahead of Dix on just one issue -- federal/provincial relations -- no doubt after endless photo ops with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
But it's hard to see how a successful campaign can be based on getting along well with Ottawa and nothing else.
Clark's problem with women
Perhaps worst of all for the premier -- women intensely dislike Christy Clark.
The gender gap between Clark and Dix among women voters is stunning -- 52 per cent of women polled would vote NDP but just 15 per cent would support Clark's Liberals -- a 37 per cent gulf.
As Mario Canseco of Angus Reid Public Opinion put it in an email interview:
"On the gender gap -- this is certainly one of the biggest I have seen. And I think it shows that it is not a matter -- as some people wrongly assumed -- of having 'a' woman as leader, but of having 'the right' woman." Canseco says.
"I remember a lot of talk about how the gender gap would narrow under Christy Clark, because women, supposedly, were not happy with Gordon Campbell and were happy with [then-NDP leader] Carole James. This is simply not the case," Canseco argues.
"The main problem I see for the government is a tendency to go for the quick sound bite. Recent events have been carefully choreographed and seem to be designed to remind people that a woman is in charge," he said.
"This strategy may have been advisable during the first few months, but now it has to be more about how the premier will act in Victoria, rather than about Christy Clark, a woman, serving as premier."
Gender and other factors
Canseco also gives the BC Liberals some free pollster advice on reductionist thinking about gender.
"A lot of people read too much into the fact that Clark defeated three men to get the leadership. It's not as simple as having a woman in charge and suddenly getting that demographic to support you, no questions asked," Canseco warned.
"It's about policies, and on the issues that women care about the most -- such as health care and education -- Adrian Dix has a sizeable lead over Clark. Unless the policies change and the BC Liberals act to reconnect with this demographic, the gap will grow even more," he concluded
The Angus Reid poll is equally brutal on Clark's "momentum score" -- the difference between the number of people who say their opinion of the premier has improved versus those who say it has worsened.
In the last three months Dix, Cummins and Green Party leader Jane Sterk all have a modest minus two per cent momentum score -- but Clark's score is minus 49 per cent.
Clark also leads the disapproval ratings of the leaders at 59 per cent, with just 32 per cent approving and 10 per cent "not sure," while Dix's performance is approved by 45 per cent and disapproved by 40 per cent, with 15 per cent undecided.
Cummins' disapproval rate of 38 per cent lags behind his 28 per cent approval rate but he also has a 34 per cent "not sure." The nearly invisible Sterk is the least known, with her "not sure" rate at 43 per cent, 31 per cent disapproving and 26 per cent approving of her work.
'Damage to the BC Liberal brand'
Yet another harbinger of political doom can be seen in the ranking of British Columbia's most important issues.
While the economy ranks first at 24 per cent and health care second at 19 per cent, with both declining slightly since January, leadership as an issue has jumped up to 12 per cent from seven per cent, making it the fastest growing issue of concern. That doesn't auger well for Clark given all the other polling numbers.
In our interview, Canseco points to the federal Progressive Conservative party in 1992-93 as having suffered a similar drop in political support which ultimately proved disastrous after Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wore out his welcome with voters and handed the mess over to his successor Kim Campbell.
Canseco notes that Gordon Campbell's imposition of the Harmonized Sales Tax began the BC Liberal Party's spiral downward, leading to his forced resignation.
"I don't think anyone was surprised when our surveys had the BC Liberals at 23 per cent the week the HST came into place," in July 2010, Canseco says.
"What is certainly troubling for the party is that they are back at the same level after Campbell quit, they had their convention, and the new premier came in with a majority in the Legislative Assembly and reasonable popularity," he wrote.
"You usually get a bounce from a change in leadership when the departing leader is unpopular (we saw it in Alberta right after Alison Redford came in to replace Premier Ed Stelmach), but it has worn off substantially both there and here," Canseco says, pointing out the unfolding political disaster in Alberta, where the upstart Wildrose Alliance under Danielle Smith is strongly leading Redford's Conservatives.
"Part of it is damage to the BC Liberal brand. Clark's rating is currently three times higher than what Campbell had in his worst month, but support for the party is as weak as it was in July 2010."
"So the similarities with the PCs continue. People did not dislike Kim Campbell -- she had the highest approval rating for an incumbent prime minister when the 1993 campaign began.
"But she was unable to keep the PC brand alive due to losing support to a well-organized social democratic alternative [federal Liberals under Jean Chrétien], a more right-wing alternative [the Reform Party under Preston Manning] and an exodus from former [Quebec Progressive Conservative] members to form a new party [the Bloc Quebecois under Lucien Bouchard]."
"Clark now has to deal with her own social democratic alternative [Dix, who attracts 14 per cent of 2009 BC Liberal voters] and has a single enemy that is both more right-wing and an attractive venue for former Liberals [the BC Conservatives, who attract 33 per cent of 2009 BC Liberal voters]. This means that 47 per cent of your voters in 2009 are looking elsewhere," Canseco says.
"The [federal] PCs went from 43 per cent in 1988, to 16 per cent in 1993 under Campbell -- that's a 27-point drop. The BC Liberals, right now, are down 23 points [from 46 per cent to 23 per cent]," Canseco concludes.
These are grim numbers indeed by any political party's standard.
But here's another, more graphic way of explaining how bad it is: the BC Liberals aren't even backed by the province's richest voters!
When those making over $100,000 a year are supporting the NDP at 41 per cent versus 28 per cent for Clark's Liberals, after all the party has done for the wealthy over 11 years in power, the penny has definitely dropped in British Columbia.