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Opinion

Should Clark Go to Save BC Liberals?

The obvious place to look for an answer is... Manitoba.

By Bill Tieleman 5 Mar 2013 | 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.

"People are not sure of who's in charge of the store or, more frighteningly, is anyone in charge of the store." -- Manitoba dissident NDP MLA James Walding, 1988

Sound familiar?

The question of whether Premier Christy Clark should resign to save the BC Liberal Party from impending disaster has been answered once before -- in Manitoba in 1988.

But while Clark could only be forced out by a revolt of her own MLAs, then-Manitoba NDP premier Howard Pawley did what he thought best for his party and quit to give them a better chance to survive.

If the BC Liberals were led either George Abbott or Kevin Falcon -- Clark's former leadership opponents -- would the party do better and if not be competitive with New Democrat leader Adrian Dix, at least save enough seats for a viable opposition?

Or would dumping Clark make a bad situation even worse?

The results in the only significant similar example in recent Canadian political history -- Manitoba in 1988 -- show it's a grim choice.

Manitoba's Pawley held a razor thin majority and when Walding, one of his own MLAs, voted against the Throne Speech, the government was defeated in the legislature.

Pawley then resigned as NDP leader and asked Manitoba's lieutenant-governor to call an election.

Pawley was quickly replaced as leader, but not premier, by MLA Gary Doer.

The Manitoba NDP salvaged 40 per cent of their existing seats by changing leaders -- even though Doer had mere weeks on the job to make a favourable impression with voters.

The Conservative opposition actually lost one seat, dropping to 25 but forming a minority government under Premier Gary Filmon while the Liberals soared from only one seat to 20. Filmon capitalized on the inexperience of Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs and the NDP's bad reputation, winning two consecutive majority governments in 1990 and 1995.

While Doer lost the next two elections he increased his seat count each time before returning the NDP to power in 1999 -- winning the first of three consecutive majority governments. Doer's NDP successor Greg Selinger won a fourth majority in 2011.

Does this example mean the BC Liberals would be better off finding a new leader or sticking with Clark?

Averting blowout

It's challenging to draw too many conclusions in comparing B.C.'s current situation with events that happened in a different province a long 25 years ago.

But some lessons can definitely be learned.

One, while the Manitoba NDP only retained 12 of the 30 seats they had won in the 1986 election, that provided a core caucus base.

It wasn't a result any party could be excited about, but then consider that the BC Liberals are at 31 per cent versus the NDP at 47 per cent in the latest Angus Reid Public Opinion poll in February -- taken well before the "Ethnicgate" scandal hit.

When the NDP were purged by the BC Liberals in 2001, they took only two seats with 22 per cent of the provincial vote. That's only nine per cent less than where Clark's party is before any deterioration due to the current crisis.

Two, Manitoba's nearly invisible Liberal Party went from holding a single seat to 20 in 1988, becoming the beneficiary of voters who were angry with the governing NDP but unable to support the opposition Conservatives.

Had Pawley stayed on as NDP leader to fight the doomed election, it's entirely possible that Carstairs could have gained a few more NDP seats and become Canada's first female premier and first elected female premier instead of Prince Edward Island's Catherine Callbeck in 1993.

BC Conservative leader John Cummins has suffered several public problems with party dissidents and would need an amazing dream campaign to jump to official Opposition status.

But a complete BC Liberal implosion would create a sizeable pool of unhappy centre-right voters unable to support their former party or the NDP or Greens.

If only by a process of elimination of other choices, the BC Conservatives should be able to take far more votes if -- as planned -- they run a near full slate of candidates in all 85 ridings and if the BC Liberals continue to collapse under Clark.

Three, amazingly, the Manitoba NDP's Doer not only managed to salvage a dozen seats in dire circumstances, but pushed Carstairs out of opposition in the following election and rebuilt the party with increased seats until they won the first of three successive NDP majority governments in 1999.

Doer left office in 2009 to become Canada's ambassador to the United States but the NDP won a surprising fourth majority government under new Premier Greg Selinger in 2011.

If premier stays put

But there are arguments against removing Clark too.

The most obvious replacements as leader -- Falcon and Abbott -- have both said they are retiring from politics. Only another BC Liberal MLA with cabinet experience could possibly take over from Clark and the remaining choices are questionable at best.

And polling at the time of the BC Liberal leadership contest showed that neither would do as well as Clark with voters, particularly with the baggage they carried as veteran cabinet ministers under the much-despised premier Gordon Campbell.

Plus, a leadership change always creates tension and animosity in any party -- particularly if the existing leader is forced out against their will, as Clark likely would have to be.

With so few of the current BC Liberal caucus members running for re-election, their willingness to challenge an entrenched Clark when they won't pay the electoral price themselves is going to be limited at best.

Manitoba in 1988 was a different place and a different time.

But the key question for the BC Liberals is identical: can they win more seats with or without Christy Clark as leader?

Whatever they do, the correct choice will only be clear when the elections results are in.  [Tyee]

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