Bill Vander Zalm is experiencing a blast from the past with Christy Clark’s bid for the leadership of the B.C. Liberal Party.
“It’s an amazing replay!” the former premier exclaimed, drawing parallels between Clark’s campaign and his own rise to the helm of the then-ruling Social Credit party in 1986.
However, Vander Zalm warned in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight that stories like these do not always have a happy ending.
“She might do okay initially, but she’s going to be faced with dissension and such very shortly thereafter [if she wins the leadership],” he said.
Like Clark, who has been out of the B.C. Liberal government since 2005, Vander Zalm was an “outsider” when he entered the contest to replace outgoing Socred leader Bill Bennett. This proved to be Vander Zalm’s undoing later as premier.
“I had to accommodate all the people that ran against me or I against them that thought they could be much better than me,” he said. “I did accommodate them somehow, but life became very difficult after that because they’re always there; they’re not making things easier. They’re still hoping that somehow they can take over.”
According to Vander Zalm, his own caucus undermined him through “information getting out incorrectly, by information getting out at the wrong times, by people speaking out against me”¦mostly subtly so”.
Vander Zalm resigned as premier “after suffering from a number of internal political maneuverings”, according to a short biography on the website of Fight HST, a movement against the harmonized sales tax that he is currently leading. It was the uproar over the HST that brought down Premier Gordon Campbell and paved the way for the leadership race Clark is involved in.
Vander Zalm laughed heartily when he noted that, like Clark, he was also a former education minister. He neglected to mention that the two of them also tried but failed to become the mayor of Vancouver.
Like Clark, he didn’t have many endorsers among elected MLAs. He had three, while Clark had only one as of December 28.
“So it’s a replay,” Vander Zalm said. “And if Christy Clark gets the nod, she may suffer the same replay throughout her time remaining as premier.”
Former education minister George Abbott leads B.C. Liberal leadership hopefuls in terms of caucus support. The Shuswap representative has the backing of 14 MLAs, followed closely by Kevin Falcon with 13, while Mike de Jong and Moira Stilwell have none.
In a phone interview, Abbott indicated that he’s pleased with the support he’s garnered. “They don’t guarantee anything, but they’re important,” Abbott told the Straight of the endorsements. “They’re a good indicator of how colleagues feel about working with you.”
Abbott said he expects more MLAs to come forward to back his nomination.
Clark’s camp didn’t respond to a request for an interview. A poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion on December 20 and 21 showed that 66 percent of B.C. Liberal voters consider Clark a good choice to replace Campbell.
According to political commentator Norman Ruff, both Vander Zalm and Clark are popular figures who can appeal to the grassroots.
“At the moment at least, the polls suggest that Christy Clark would greatly enhance the fortunes of the Liberal party if an election is called,” Ruff told the Straight in a phone interview.
However, the former University of Victoria political-science professor noted that the similarities end there. He explained that although Vander Zalm was seen as someone who embodied a return to the roots of the Socred party, Clark appears to represent a faction within the B.C. Liberal party.
“She’s seen as coming from one narrow, particular wing of the party, the federal Liberal wing,” Ruff said. “So she fails in that respect. She could be a divisive force within the party.”
How important are caucus endorsements in party leadership contests?
“Everybody in the province has a chance to pick the new premier. I think people will decide based on ideas. So if people watch my website and Facebook over the next period of the campaign, they’ll see my platform, and I think they’re going to agree that I have fresh ideas and a fresh perspective and I’m bringing something different. So I have a lot of confidence in the people of British Columbia that once they start to see my ideas, I’m going to gain support. So I’m very happy.”
“Leadership races in B.C. are not like the U.S.–style primary elections, where registered voters get to vote. The races will be decided by the members of the parties, and the endorsement of key elements of the caucus certainly helps. However, the big decision for the people who will take part in the process will be whether to have a candidate who might be closely tied to the party apparatus and could motivate the base, or a person who may have broader appeal to win the centre, which is where the next provincial election will be won or lost.”
“It’s important for anyone hoping to become leader to show that he or she has the ability to lead the caucus, whether the party is in government or in opposition. Otherwise it will be a big problem down the road. How could party members and the public as well evaluate a contestant properly if he or she couldn’t show support from within the caucus? I am quite amazed that a serious leadership contender like Christy Clark, for example, can have only minimal caucus member support. It’s quite incomprehensible for me.”
“In one sense, the endorsements mean little, as the leaders will be chosen by a broad group of party members. For them, an endorsement might act as a proxy for getting into the details about the different candidates. Something like, ”˜Who’s for so and so, and do I like them”¦’ More organizationally, endorsements could be very important if they lead to organizational resources flowing from the endorser to the endorsee’s candidacy, which could allow them to sign more new members.”