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Geoff Plant and the B.C. Liberals’ Exodus

The motives are personal, ideological – and cold, hard political realism.

Barbara McLintock 14 Mar 2005TheTyee.ca

Barbara McLintock, a regular contributor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of Anorexia’s Fallen Angel.

As just about anyone who’s ever been employed knows, jobs are an endless balancing act – between good times and bad times, between good bosses and bad bosses, between job frustration and job satisfaction. Some unfortunate individuals find themselves with few options in the employment market – they must stay with their job, any job, no matter how undesirable, in order to pay the rent and put food on the table. For those with more options available, though, the decision of how long to stick with a job usually depends on how that balancing act plays out. If the good days outnumber the bad ones, if the job satisfaction exceeds the frustration level, one will probably stay with the job. If the frustration level builds until it amounts to misery, one will probably start exploring other options. The long hours that are barely noticed when one is in the heat of productivity and success seem to drag when one can see few productive accomplishments at the end of the week.

Thus it is that Christy Clark realized a few months ago that she most feverishly wanted more time with her young son while he was in that delightful pre-school stage of growing up. Thus it is that Gary Collins realized that a job as CEO of Harmony Airways would provide a substantial raise in salary, more time with his young family, and a return to his first career love – aviation. And thus it is that Geoff Plant announced this week that his wife’s recent struggle with breast cancer had sparked his desire to spend more time with his family (and besides, he’d never really gone into politics for the long term anyway).

All three of Premier Gordon Campbell’s former key team members stressed they were leaving politics for personal reasons, not political. And they are speaking the truth – all have valid and rational personal reasons for wanting to make a change in the direction of their lives.

Grand ambitions

Still, the whole question of the balancing act should be taken into account. It remains doubtful whether any of the three would have found the lure of a return to private life so inviting if they had still been having the time of their lives as members of the B.C. cabinet. It is tough to think of Christy Clark wanting to opt out of politics in the days when she’d first been appointed minister of education, when she was completely absorbed in trying to redesign curriculum, reduce the drop out rate, introduce a whole new system of graduation requirements for B.C. students.

It’s tough to think of an airline job, no matter how well-paying, luring Gary Collins away from the legislature when he was knee-deep in building his first budgets, in working out with Premier Campbell how the core review process would work, looking at moves that would, he believed, get the provincial economy back on track.

And it’s tough to think of the thought of private law practice tempting Geoff Plant in those first heady days when he was planning research papers and policy analyses, giving speeches about what he saw as genuine problems with the legal system, making plans to reform large parts of the administrative law and civil court systems.

In those days, three years or so ago, you would have had as much trouble prying any of Clark, Collins or Plant away from B.C. political life as you would prying a barnacle off the bottom of a B.C. ferry.

Frustrating realities

Opponents of Gordon Campbell would like to argue that the reason Clark, Collins and Plant have all changed their minds about what is important in their lives all relates back to Campbell’s leadership and to the direction the party is taking under him. They would argue that the three might all be considered genuine small-l liberal Liberals, and that their frustration stem from the government’s slide towards a more small-c conservative policy on many issues.

There is likely some partial truth in that. Clark, for one, has made no secret of the fact that she is worried about some of the very socially-conservative candidates being attracted to the party. And it’s certainly true that none of the leading ministers from that small-c conservative side of cabinet (think Rich Coleman or Kevin Falcon or Rick Thorpe) are being in any way tempted to give up their political careers.

That said, it is still too simplistic an explanation of what has changed the balance for the three – and for many of the other lower-profile MLAs who have chosen not to run again, such as Sandy Santori or Greg Halsey-Brandt.

Much of the job frustration for them has risen because they have discovered, to their sorrow, that it just doesn’t seem possible to accomplish the sort of changes they had dreamed of. While they were in opposition, they thought that if their party could just get into power, it would be easy to make the changes that they had argued for in opposition.

Now they know it’s not.

Plant’s hard lesson

Plant is probably the one who has suffered the most from that frustration. He is a genuine policy guy, someone who is much more interested in the intellectual exercise of developing answers to problems than in the raw power politics of it. Many of the topics that interested him when he took over the attorney general’s ministry had nothing to do with party politics at all. He was interested, for example, is looking at the issue of “joint and several liability” in legal lawsuits – in layman’s terms, should someone who has deep pockets, be it through government or insurance, be required to pay 100 per cent of a court settlement if they were found only five per cent responsible for an injury but the person who was 95 per cent responsible has no money? This is hardly the stuff of which partisan debate is made.

But Plant’s efforts to get serious debate underway on this issue have gone nowhere. Neither have most of his attempts to make major reforms in administrative law. And despite his best efforts to look at the treaty process a whole different way, not a single treaty with a First Nation has yet been signed under the B.C. treaty process.

What Plant and the others have found out is that, even once your party gains power, there remain myriad interest groups and stakeholders who can bring political pressures to bear to effectively veto meaningful change.

The fact that they’re all leaving after one term of trying to make a difference while in cabinet perhaps says more about our whole political system than just about the Gordon Campbell government.

Barbara McLintock is the Victoria-based contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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