Daniel Veniez: Christy Clark is a caricature of a political leader
By Daniel Veniez
Last week, Canadians were introduced to the Christy Clark that British Columbians have come to know well. They weren’t impressed, either.
The B.C. Liberals were well ahead in the polls when Clark became leader almost 18 months ago; today, they are at least 20 points behind the provincial NDP. That's hard to imagine given the abysmal choices on offer.
NDP leader Adrian Dix is less exciting than watching paint dry. Another career politico, his claim to fame is backdating a memo and being chief of staff to arguably the most destructive and incompetent premier in B.C.'s history.
A fringe party no more, the B.C. Conservative party is tied deep in the basement with Clark's Liberals. John Cummins, leader of the fledgling Conservatives, is a crotchety social conservative, former Reform Party MP, and permanent Stephen Harper backbencher.
Cummins and his party are against absolutely everything a progressive and modern province like B.C. is for: the separation of church and state, religious tolerance, gay rights, and the reproductive rights of women. If they had their way, capital punishment would be the law of the land and First Nations would have no treaty rights or “special status” of any kind.
Until the Clark government released its list of five conditions last week for supporting the Northern Gateway Project, the B.C. Conservatives were for pipeline construction, without any preconditions.
The joke is that Clark claims that the B.C. Liberals are the only viable free-enterprise party, and that the Conservatives are somehow less in favour of a free-market economy than she is.
Despite the Clark Liberals' best efforts to cast former premier Gordon Campbell as a villain, pollsters will tell you that the steady and consistent decline in B.C. Liberal fortunes is directly correlated to the exposure voters have had to "Christy", as she has insisted on being called.
Campbell had the guts and grace to step down when he concluded that he had become a significant liability for his party. But history will show that he did much to pave the way for cleaning up the mess that he inherited and creating a positive environment for economic growth that will endure.
What killed him wasn’t the HST—a sound and necessary change to tax policy—but the arrogance and rush that went into its implementation.
From her perch as a radio talk-show host, Clark heard much of the public outrage over the tax and how it was being imposed, but contributed nothing to helping people understand its long-term value. Instead, she used public sentiment as a launch pad for the leadership of a party looking for a saviour.
There must be a secret training manual for cynical politicians and their operatives, because the playbook is a familiar one: if pretending to be nice doesn't work, pretend to be tough. Or you can try scaring people under the guise of impending disaster, such as claiming that the world as we know it will cease to exist if the NDP forms the next government. Another angle is to brush aside a career as a professional political operator, having done virtually nothing else in your life but that, and pose as a wide-eyed Tim Hortons populist.
Of course, acting as if your predecessor never existed is a must, despite the fact that he cleaned up B.C.'s finances and ushered in, for the most part, good government. Showering taxpayers with feel good gifts out of their own pockets is always a reliable tactic. They take credit for it, but we pay.
Such is the goodie called the "Family Day" statutory holiday. And no cynic's tool kit would be complete without the requisite recycled announcements, accompanying photo ops, and happy, but meaningless slogans like "Families First".
But let's not forget the heavy artillery—demonizing your opponents and spending taxpayer-subsidized dollars to produce radio, television, and print advertisements to pummel them silly and encouraging well-funded third parties to do the same. Hell, why not even call for a change of name for your party?
Clark has done all of this and more, it seems, except what matters most to citizens: govern competently and honestly. She has not once taken her premiership for a substantive test drive on some important policy fronts.
When Clark became leader, she told the party faithful: "I want you to be my partners in change in Victoria. I want you to be my partners in bringing open government."
Since then, the Clark government has been taken to court by B.C.'s auditor general for refusing to release documents in the public interest related to a number of important files. Just last week, the people of B.C. learned that the legislature has been a wildly out of control spender of our money without even the most rudimentary paper work.
The auditor general has been unsuccessful in repeated attempts to get the government's attention on this. Only the public release of his report elicited the expected feigned outrage and promises to action.
While Clark was hijacking the premier's conference last week with her politically motivated self-serving theatrics, her finance minister announced that the deficit for the fiscal year is $1.6 billion. But Auditor \General John Doyle said the deficit is actually $520 million higher at $2.36 billion.
The Clark government said that the auditor general has it wrong, and this is nothing but an accounting dispute—another Clark government doozy. Only here can this not be a major scandal.
Clark has also been AWOL in her responsibility for the clogged and under-resourced court system. In an unprecedented cri de coeur to the Canadian Bar Association, Mr. Justice Robert Bauman, Chief Justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court, sounded the alarm on the declining state of our judicial system. He said: “It is threatened, if not in peril.” There “comes a tipping point when that gradual, insidious process of incremental damage yields its dramatic finish—the structure is diminished and collapses. The stability and integrity of our courts and judicial system are being slowly eroded by a lack of funding.”
What has Clark done? Punted this to a political appointee and well-known Conservative for “review”.
Oh, and the "Families First" thing? The Representative for Children and Youth has also been fighting for documents and protecting her tiny office from draconian cuts and political interference. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is a Harvard-trained former jurist who left the senior bench in Saskatchewan to assume this role because she deeply believes in the mission of protecting kids and building families, particularly vulnerable ones. She has fought this government for years to gain access to documents, for resources to do her job, and has battled those within the B.C. Liberal party who don't like the fact that she's doing the job she is paid to do.
The other weapon in the political cynic's arsenal is blaming the media for your problems. The solution? Hire more media experts, of course. The new hires are veterans of the scorched-earth school of political management. They learned everything they know from Stephen Harper and the Reform Party.
To try to convince the Conservatives in her party that she's really one of them, she hired several of Harper's former staffers and even made the pilgrimage to Preston Manning's annual summit of the Canadian "conservative movement".
Seeing that none of that worked, Clark threw down the gauntlet with her deliberate and meticulously planned "No money, no pipeline" public relations offensive. Without batting an eye, she threw her counterpart, Alberta premier Alison Redford, under the proverbial bus.
Redford had been trying for months to build a cooperative framework to leverage Canada's vast energy resources for the national good. With one single sound bite, Clark gave the Bronx Salute to Redford, Alberta and Canadian unity. It played into her political calculus, so she had no qualms whatsoever in doing so.
To suggest that all of this wasn't staged is to be utterly delusional, or blindly partisan. The truth is that blind partisanship and delusion are synonymous.
Within a day, an op-ed was published in the Globe and Mail, and Clark was on every radio and TV show that moved. Her party even had a fundraising website up within hours that was predictably called "B.C. First", and framed Clark as a staunch defender of B.C. interests. More style at the expense of substance and more crass politics at the expense of thoughtful policy.
Clark is the perfect stereotype of a career politico. She has shown that just because you can get it elected it doesn't mean you can govern.
In this case, becoming leader—and by extension premier—required no more than an organization that was capable of selling more membership cards than her opponents. For those that care about democracy, we should consider this for a moment: Clark has absolutely no mandate from the people. She has earned the right to become premier of British Columbia for two years because her political machine sold more membership cards than her opponents.
The small percentage that "bought" the cards and took the few seconds record a vote for her did so, not because they knew or even cared to know what Clark actually stood for. She won—barely—because they thought she could win.
The perennial "insider" Clark was positioned as a radio talk-show celebrity "outsider". For B.C. Liberals, coming on the heels of the HST debacle, she wasn't Gordon Campbell and that was more than enough. That says a lot about the moral and policy bankruptcy of the B.C. Liberals today.
Clark's latest smoke-and-mirror act hit the national stage with a thud. For over a year, Clark has steadfastly refused to take any position on the Northern Gateway pipeline. Her position—and not an unreasonable one at that—was to wait for the results of the Joint Review Panel consultation before declaring B.C.'s official position.
She could have outlined her "conditions" over a year ago. Four of the five are perfectly sensible and entirely in keeping with Ottawa's, Alberta's, and Enbridge's point of view. The attention grabber was the fifth condition—in which B.C. secures our "fair share", whatever that means.
When you don't have a policy compass, when you don't stand for anything, and when your first instincts are political survival and power for its own sake, it is easy to be too cute by half. It is easy to think that tactics can replace leadership when you don't know any better.
So Clark has said that she's in favor of "development, but not at any cost". So the logical question people have asked is: "Then what's your price?"
Some people can't be bought for any price. They are grounded in deep conviction and principle and timeless values. The Yinka Dene and over 100 other First Nations have signed the Save the Fraser Declaration calling upon their own indigenous laws to place a ban on pipelines and tankers throughout the Fraser River watershed and the migration routes of the Fraser River aalmon. "You can't put a price tag on our future," they said in a statement released last Friday.
"The Premier's sales job shows how little she has listened to us. It should be very clear to her by now that this Pipeline will not be built," said Chief Martin Louie of the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation, a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance. "It is against our own laws for this project to proceed and our rights and title can't be sold."
Underscoring the purely political gimmickry of her interventions last week, Clark assiduously avoided constructively tackling the one real roadblock in the way of the pipeline now or in the future: B.C.'s First Nations.
A vast majority of them have said from the very beginning there should be no pipeline through their territories. They have an effective veto over this pipeline and they always have.
If Clark were truly serious about a jobs, family, and so-called "B.C. First" strategy, she would direct her energies not on p.r. gimmicks, but on forging treaties that would usher in investment, economic development, and free people from the shackles of the Indian Act. But no, that would require some real work, some real thinking, and some real leadership.
Sustainable economic prosperity is only possible if governments take the time to address real policy fundamentals in the way of economic freedom and opportunity, such as getting serious about treaties.
Instead, the Clark B.C. Liberals play cynical and divisive politics at our collective expense, and make matters much worse than they need to or should be.
Clark is a caricature. She personifies everything many citizens have come to abhor about modern Canadian politics: the cynicism, the superficiality, the shallowness, the career operative puppet master, the style over substance, the strategic wedge, and the process of selection of leaders itself.
I was far from convinced that my party, the Liberal Party of Canada, should open up the leadership selection process to citizens who are not members. Boy, was I wrong about that!
The LPC executive was absolutely on the money. Clark is what happens when a party's professional political operatives take the reins over the leadership selection process. You don't get a leader of substance and principle; you get a "candidate" who looks good in the moment for all the wrong reasons.
Perhaps they have a winning smile and the polls—never known to be anything but a snapshot of a moment in time—may not be the best metric. Good government, effective party leadership, and understanding what it takes to unite, not divide, requires much more that a cute slogan.
In its open, democratic, and unrushed process, every Canadian can have a voice in choosing the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. No doubt, they'll be looking for someone who can immediately connect with them on an authentic and visceral level. But they'll also be looking for a person with genuine—not politically convenient—values that are anchored in commitment, belief, and experience.
Thankfully, the Liberal Party of Canada has all but guaranteed that the next leader of our party will not be another Christy Clark.
Daniel Veniez is a former Liberal candidate in the federal riding of West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country. Reach him on Twitter at @danveniez.