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Opinion

For Clark, It Keeps Getting Lonelier at the Top

BC Liberal exodus is a non-confidence vote in premier's leadership, no matter the spin.

By Bill Tieleman 4 Sep 2012 | TheTyee.ca

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 weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

Now, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good / When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move. -- "When The Levee Breaks," written by Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy, later performed by Led Zeppelin.

The BC Liberal levee broke last week and by the end of political hurricane season many of its MLAs will be adrift, not running for re-election.

The sudden resignations of Finance Minister Kevin Falcon and Education Minister George Abbott in just 24 hours only indicates the extreme severity of the storm Premier Christy Clark faces, not its length.

The departure of Clark's two closest leadership rivals in 2011's contest is more than just a case of planned retirement -- it is a non-confidence vote in Clark, no matter how much they deny it.

Add in last week's announcement that Children and Family Development Minister Mary McNeil and Clark's Parliamentary Secretary John Les also won't run, as well as today's announcements that Joan McIntyre and Rob Howard are quitting, and the running total is 12 sitting B.C. Liberal MLAs bowing out.

Cabinet minister Rich Coleman now says he's hanging in to run again, but expect more announcements soon from other BC Liberals who won't run again in the May 2013 election.

After all, with the B.C. NDP at 45 per cent in recent polls and the B.C. Liberals at just 23 per cent with the B.C. Conservatives under leader John Cummins narrowly behind at 22 per cent, most of Clark's MLAs can expect to lose their seats barring a miracle turnaround

"I do expect there will be some more [resignations]. I have had those conversations with those people," Clark herself admitted to media last week.

And those remaining B.C. Liberals face a difficult challenge, according to Vernon-Monashee MLA Eric Foster.

"The ship isn't sinking," Foster has said. "It's our job to make sure people know this isn't the case."

Not sinking? There's an awful lot of water on the decks.

Previous tidal waves

In the last two election tsunamis that all but wiped out the New Democrat government in 2001 and the Social Credit administration in 1991, each party had 15 sitting MLAs decline to face voters.

Odds are the BC Liberals will match or beat that total, making the unflattering comparison inevitable.

On the plus side, 24 sitting MLAs -- including Clark -- have stated their intention to run again, based on media reports.

That leaves eight caucus members yet to announce their plans, including former finance minister Colin Hansen -- co-author of the Harmonized Sales Tax with ex-premier Gordon Campbell, current cabinet ministers Rich Coleman, Mary Polak, Blair Lekstrom, and Ida Chong and backbenchers Joan McIntyre, Randy Hawes, and Rob Howard.

Since Clark will shuffle her cabinet this week and says only those running again will be appointed, some MLAs made their choice this past long weekend and informed the premier.

'We've got a question of leadership'

But there's more trouble than just MLA departures. Former B.C. Liberal strategist Alise Mills suggested on CBC Radio last Wednesday that Falcon's resignation indicates senior government members don't have confidence in Clark.

"If George Abbott leaves tomorrow as is widely rumoured, that adds a lot of credibility on what Kevin Falcon did today and now we've got a question of leadership. We don't have a question of partisan game playing, we have a question of leadership," said Mills, a former Falcon leadership campaign supporter who is no longer a BC Liberal Party member.

"I'm not going to be popular amongst BC Liberals for saying this but I do think there was a break, a crack in ideology between the premier and the finance minister. I think one had one direction, one had another," Mills told host Stephen Quinn.

Another indication of Clark's conundrum is that Falcon publicly pledged during that contest he would run for the BC Liberals in 2013, even goading Clark when she refused to make the same promise.

"Christy, I've made a commitment to run in this election win or lose, so whether I win or lose [the leadership] I'm going to be a candidate for this party," Falcon said.

Now he's breaking that word and regardless of changed personal circumstances -- he and wife Jessica expect a second child in February -- Falcon clearly has more than family reasons for leaving.

Will right unite?

And what does the future hold for the political right? Will the BC Conservatives jump past the lackluster Liberals and become official opposition to a BC NDP government and the go-to choice for the centre right in 2017?

Will the B.C. Liberals survive to fight another day? Or will the two parties then merge as has happened before in provincial political history?

Much speculation is taking place amongst right-wing political activists and B.C. Liberal business backers, many of whom are already conceding the 2013 ballot to NDP leader Adrian Dix.

Leave the last word to Mills as to the political future after the election: "I don't think the BC Liberal Party will exist."  [Tyee]

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