Clark’s stumble raises political questions

So how’s Christy Clark doing, after four months as premier?

So how’s Christy Clark doing, after four months as premier?

That’s a big question for the Liberals. If Clark is doing well, they can afford to delay an election. If not, a fall election is in the cards.

Only a few people know how effective Clark has been in getting the right things done in government – MLAs, deputy ministers, and those affected by government decisions.

Most of us form opinions on what we read about her performance, or see on the news, or our vague sense of what she’s done.

And the media narrative seems to be turning a bit negative.

Clark started well, but that was easy. She just had to not be Gordon Campbell.

So Clark raised the minimum wage – a good and overdue step. She fired both the minister and the top manager in the children and families ministry. She ordered a review of B.C. Hydro’s politically ordered, expensive plans. And she floated a proposal to save the HST, acknowledging the Liberals had been planning to gouge families and benefit corporations.

And she was likable, donning a Canucks’ jersey and just being darn enthusiastic. Clark is a an excellent politician. She sounds good, if you don’t listen too hard.

But the tide seemed to shift last month.

First, Clark sent an unclear message after the Stanley Cup riots. She was hardline initially.

“If you are responsible, we will hold you responsible. Your family, friends and employers will know,” she said. “We will ensure we have the resources to do this. You will not be able to hide behind your hoodie or your bandana.”

Get ready for a jail cell, Clark said.

Then she backtracked. The target was a “core” group of instigators, not young people who just got caught “when they were most likely to make a colossal, irreparable mistake.”

Then Clark floated weird ideas for Senate reform in her first official Ottawa visit.

B.C. is shortchanged in the Senate. The province, with 4.5 million people, is represented by six senators. New Brunswick, with 750,000 people, has 10. But fixing the imbalance requires a change to the constitution, virtually impossible given the amending formula and the opposition of provinces that would lose seats.

In Ottawa, Clark said her first choice is abolition. But she had lawyers looking at whether senators could be added for B.C. without changing the constitution, she said.

That’s a nonstarter, experts agree. Adding senators is clearly a constitutional change.

Later, Clark said she had floated a different idea with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He should leave Senate seats vacant in Atlantic Canada and Quebec so B.C. and other under-represented provinces would have more clout.

The ideas was widely derided as goofy and legally dubious.

What prime minister would rile voters in five provinces by deliberately failing to appoint the senators they were entitled to under the constitution?

This week, Clark stumbled on a plan to use a gas tax increase to help pay for a new transit line in the Lower Mainland. Mayors had negotiated the plan and Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom said the province backed it.

But in a press conference Monday, Clark suggested she might veto the gas tax.

“When British Columbians say that they’re not really excited about paying more gas taxes, I get that,” Clark said. “Because my focus as premier is about how do we make life more affordable for people rather than less affordable.”

By Wednesday, Lekstrom was smoothing the waters and assuring the mayors it was all a misunderstanding.

On one hand, it’s welcome to have a politician willing to stray from carefully crafted and often meaningless talking points. Voters might find some candour, even thinking out loud, welcome.

But the risk is that Clark will be seen as a policy lightweight given to speaking and acting without sufficient thought, and at risk of making big mistakes.

In politics, unfortunately, it’s tough to shake that kind of image once it tales hold.

Footnote: The HST referendum remains the big election factor. If the HST is dumped, the next question will be how many of the former PST exemptions will be cancelled as the government looks to increase revenue. Those decisions could rekindle all the original anti-HST anger and more.