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February 27, 2011

No Honeymoon for Premier Designate Clark

Premier designate Christy Clark cannot expect a honeymoon period. She will assume the office at a time when the government she leads has lost the trust of British Columbians. George Abbott said he would need the two years and three months that remain in the current term to try to restore trust, but Clark said she will not respect the set election date legislation. She can't call a snap election for practical reasons; the HST vote has to be resolved and, just like the NDP, the Liberals need to sort out who is retiring and who is running again. By this fall, still over 18 months before the set May 2013 election, both parties will have to be in a state of constant election readiness. There is a significant public cost to that as Elections BC has to have thousands of election workers ready to go on a moment's notice.

I think the next election will be fought on mistakes Clark makes as premier, more than on her past record or that of the Campbell government. She is a good campaigner and very photogenic but prone to making mistakes when pushed on policy issues.

She is solidly on record as supporting the HST but promising to move the date for the vote to June 24 and to provide equal funding to both sides as was done with the STV referendum. That will virtually guarantee its defeat, as negative feelings about the HST are reinforced through effective advertising, pleasing me but antagonizing Clark's supporters. The mechanics of implementing her HST vote promise are not simple. All it takes is a cabinet order to use the Referendum Act to have the vote on June 24th, but elimination of the September vote that is required under the Recall and Initiative Act will require legislation. With the STV, both sides received $500,000 in funding. Time could be saved by recognizing that Bill VanderZalm, Chris Delaney and Bill Tieleman are the logical people to receive the no side funding, since it was VanderZalm that sponsored the anti-HST initiative. Giving the funds to any other group, or changing the wording that Elections BC proposed, could be seen as trickery with respect to Clark's promise, but giving the money to the initiative proponents won't go over well in many Liberal circles. Clark can't afford too many moves like that.

The four day sitting of the legislature that occurred in February saw the introduction of a budget and Interim Supply Bill. The budget hasn't been debated in the detailed form called estimates. Authority for the government to spend money runs out in July. The legislature has to be called to either debate and pass the estimates or to grant another Interim Supply Bill. It won't help Clark's image if she has to use closure to get authority to spend money. While the February budget was said to include a lot of room to keep options open for the next premier, that is not entirely true. Most ministries had their budgets frozen or reduced. Reasonable adjustments to the wealth generating dirt ministries, not to mention to Children and Family Development, will absorb much of what some termed padding.

Clark's political calendar could be disrupted by a federal election which would see her key supporters on opposite sides. Efforts to patch over differences from the leadership race would be particularly challenging if Clark was seen to be in any way helping her friend Michael Ignatieff, which could happen simply by the participation of some of her key backers in the federal campaign. Why can't you control them the Conservatives will cry!

The policy book that Clark published during her leadership campaign will serve as a guide for holding her accountable to her promises. There are very few as specific as funding both sides in the HST vote. She promised to eliminate the training wage, increase the minimum wage and provide a working tax credit, but she said she would complete the consultation progress begun under the former government. Unlike the June 24th HST vote, it is not possible to pin a precise date on the minimum wage promises. Likewise she promised to consult business before introducing another statutory holiday for February 2012, but if March 2012 arrives without that holiday, many will say her promises aren't worth much.

Clark needs to rebuild trust for a damaged party. Every deviation or delay from her book of promises will be used as evidence that she is no different from the Liberal MLAs she criticized when she called for change. The longer she governs the more baggage she will accumulate as a result of having to deal with unforeseen and uncontrollable events that interrupt every government's calendar. By September the glow from a third ballot skin-of-her-teeth leadership victory will likely have faded.