One can’t help but think that Christy Clark, the former radio talk show host, would have a field day with B.C. Premier Christy Clark and the constant game of musical chairs among her staff and cabinet table. For all her personal charm, her leadership has inspired an organizational chart rather like a typical B.C. weather forecast. Don’t like it? Wait five minutes, it’ll change.
Clark’s Liberals are a distant second in opinion polls and, with an election looming in May, the recent weeks have seen a host of dispirited caucus and cabinet colleagues discover a crying need to leave politics “to spend more time with my family,” as the saying goes. Among those not seeking re-election are two of her high-profile rivals for the leadership, former finance minister Kevin Falcon and former education minister George Abbott. Colin Hansen, the finance minister under Gordon Campbell responsible for imposing the toxic and brief-lived HST, is also bailing out of politics, though he’ll work on the Liberal election campaign.
On the staff side, she’s working on her third press secretary in her 19 months as leader and now, in a troubling turn of events this week, she’s had to make an emergency substitution to the all-important role of chief of staff. When Clark controversially called political Victoria “a sick culture” best to be avoided, you have to think she was referring to days like Monday, the day she announced she’d blown up her chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool, due to “an incident of concern” that came to her attention in early September.
The suitably vague announcement (“As per British Columbia’s privacy laws, no more details can be provided”) sent the Internet aflame with the possibilities, as did the simultaneous release of Boessenkool’s letter of resignation from his $200,000-a-year job, drafted Sunday after a meeting with the premier. In it, the married father of four writes: “Earlier this month I was involved in an incident where I acted inappropriately . . . Notwithstanding my genuine apology and sense of regret, and following my meeting with you earlier today I tender my letter of resignation as your chief of staff effective immediately. This will give me a chance to return to Calgary to be with my family—who I have also let down—and from whom I have been separated on a weekly basis for most of the last eight months.”
Clark’s terse news conference Monday did little to put the matter to rest, nor to answer rumours that the incident involved a female political staffer at a Victoria bar. Clark did say that “there’s been no suggestion of any criminal conduct at all.” She made it clear, however, that after the results of the review, she wanted Boessenkool gone.
Boessenkool, who once said he “came out of the womb right wing,” had been recruited in January as the Great Blue Hope, an Alberta Tory who parlayed his time as a policy adviser to Stephen Harper and a backroom campaign operative into lucrative consulting and lobbying contracts. A key part of his role in Clark’s office was to rebuild the conservative side of the Liberal coalition, which bled support to the B.C. Conservative Party.
During Boessenkool’s eight months, poll numbers for Clark’s Liberals didn’t move from a distant second place, despite what critics see as a greater focus on campaigning rather than governing. The fact that Clark chose to avoid a sitting of the legislature in Victoria this fall so she could travel the province is a case in point.
Notably, Clark reached into the ranks of the public service for Boessenkool’s replacement. Her new chief of staff is Dan Doyle, a former deputy minister of highways who was chairing BC Hydro. While Doyle has a reputation as a policy expert and administrator, he’s a non-partisan in a highly political role. Perhaps it signals an end to Clark’s perpetual campaigning and a focus on governance.
Ironically, Boessenkool self-destructed the very weekend his right-wing missionary work had finally borne fruit. That Friday, Clark’s Liberal(ish) party scored a minor coup when former B.C. Conservative Party star candidate John Martin, a criminologist from the University of the Fraser Valley, announced he would seek a Liberal nomination in the next election. Martin’s message was exactly what Clark had hired Boessenkool to deliver: splitting the “free-enterprise” vote between provincial Conservatives and the Liberals would hand the New Democrats an election win, he said.
There was more good news for Clark Saturday. After embattled Conservative Leader John Cummins escaped a threatened leadership review with a tepid 71 per cent endorsement at the party’s annual meeting, John van Dongen, the party’s only sitting MLA, announced he’d quit to sit as an Independent. He declared he couldn’t abide Cummins’s leadership. Of course, six months earlier the gruff and outspoken van Dongen left Clark’s Liberals in a similar huff.
While Liberal operatives were celebrating the rise in party fortunes Saturday, Clark was nowhere to be seen. She knew she faced an ugly meeting Sunday with Boessenkool. Victoria’s “sick culture” was about to claim another victim.