The foul cynicism of Christy Clark’s speech from the throne

Why the doomed B.C. Liberals’ Throne Speech—gruesomely stitched together from the platforms of the party’s rivals—was insidious and dangerous

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, left, and NDP leader John Horgan, right, look on as B.C. Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon gives the Speech from Throne in Victoria, Thursday, June 22, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, left, and NDP leader John Horgan, right, look on as B.C. Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon gives the Speech from the Throne in Victoria, Thursday, June 22, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

There’s an old joke, often attributed to Groucho Marx, that I spent the better part of a day thinking about after British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark, presented her doomed government’s speech from the throne. The comedian is said to have quipped: “These are my principles. And if you don’t like them, I have others.” To be honest, I’d be laughing more if the line wasn’t so useful as an explanatory tool for understanding politics in the province right now.

In Clark’s speech, read by B.C.’s Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon, the premier made 30 pledges that were absent from her Liberal Party’s platform of just weeks ago, including more than a dozen lifted from the platforms of the likely-to-govern-soon New Democrats and their Green Party backers. After opposing proposals (presumably as recently as a week ago) such as a referendum on electoral reform, a ban on corporate and union donations to political parties, increases in funding for daycare, social assistance, and disability, scrapping the requirement for a referendum on new transit funding sources, and getting rid of tolls on the Port Mann Bridge, Clark and her Liberals hastily came to embrace them—and others, too.

Friends, I think I’m starting to become rather cynical towards politics.

READ MORE: How the B.C. Liberals squandered their chance to keep power


I seem naive, don’t I? How is this any more cynical than politics-as-usual in late-modern liberal democracies? Perhaps Clark’s speech is no different in type when compared to other political ploys, but it’s certainly more extreme in degree. Honestly: The premier lost an election just weeks ago. Her party has been in power for 16 years. She has been premier for six years. And staring down defeat, what does she do? The premier appears to desperately cling to power in selling out her party and its supporters in offering a de facto “renewed” policy platform that stands in stark contrast to the last several years of the B.C. Liberal government and the still-warm corpse of the party’s election platform. And she “borrows” policies from the parties poised to defeat her days from now, abandons years of party commitments, and spins her reversal as “listening to voters,” as if she’d just now discovered the practice of consulting the electorate whom she is meant to serve. And all this after declaring that NDP leader John Horgan is a flip-flopper who isn’t to be trusted and labeling him “Say Anything John.”

No, Clark’s volte-face has nothing to do with “listening”—instead, it looks to be the most cynical ploy to maintain (or soon regain) power that I’ve seen in modern-day politics in Canada. I mean, who knew that when you mix orange and green you’d get B.C. Liberal blue?

The Liberals have spun their remarkable about-face as “listening to the voters.” I call shenanigans. The party received about 40 per cent of the popular vote in the 2017 election—down about 4 per cent from their 2013 result—and dropped from 49 seats to 43, making Clark’s dramatic conversion to an NDP/Green-light version of her party appear like an overcorrection, given the modest shift in support. These numbers also raise the question: just who is the party listening to? Were they not listening to them in 2013? Or are they listening to different voters now? Which ones? Perhaps voters in swing ridings? Or in presumably safe ridings where they lost by a slim margin? I suppose what the premier means is that she’s listening to some new voters, if those folks happen to live where it counts.

RELATED: How the B.C. Speaker should manage a messy House

Cynicism aside: will the gambit work for Clark? I don’t think so. It’s unlikely that any New Democrat or Green member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) will break ranks and support the premier. Why would they? Once the Liberal government falls, they’ll get their shot at governing, short-lived as it may be; even if an NDP MLA were tempted to trade their shot at governing for a more stable legislature and some of their policies, their supporters wouldn’t soon forget the betrayal. And for the Greens, they’ve just made a deal to support the NDP, so it would be tricky from them to try to wiggle their way out of it so soon. On top of it all, of course, who can trust Clark and her Liberals now? No: the NDP and the Greens will, as expected, soon defeat the Clark government on a confidence motion and John Horgan will become premier of British Columbia.

Nonetheless, the Throne Speech does put the two opposition parties in the rather awkward position of having to vote against their own ideas. Yes, NDP leader John Horgan and Green Party leader Andrew Weaver must instruct their caucuses to defeat their own agenda—for the moment—so that it can be reborn and pursued under the aegis of the NDP-Green supply and confidence agreement. It’s a moment worthy of Sophocles. If Sophocles were a total hack.

As shrewd as this move may seem to Clark, who will surely use the “Nay” votes of NDP and Green MLAs as fodder for her election argument—“See, I tried to work with these guys! I even copied their platforms!”—the Premier may end up hoisted with her own petard. What happens when the NDP and Greens re-introduce these policies in the months to come (after all, the policies are their ideas) and Clark as Leader of the Opposition is faced with a choice to either support the government or vote against pledges she’s just recently made in her own Throne Speech? Perhaps she’ll be able to find some minor concerns to use as a pretext to oppose the NDP-Green iteration of the policy, but by then we’ll be way, way down the rabbit hole.

READ MORE: What the B.C. NDP-Green deal means for rest of Canada

Whatever happens in the days, weeks, and months to come, though, one of the most insidious threats embedded in Clark’s cynical Throne Speech is a deeply disturbing conception of politics. Premier Clark has, in effect, tried to reduce politics to mere management and power; by raiding the NDP and Green platforms with abandon, by taking policy ideas that happen to be popular now, and by arguing that she is just borrowing the best bits from each party, she has indicated that deep and persistent ideological differences, which are reflective of real differences that one should expect and even celebrate in a pluralist democracy, are trivial concerns when power is at stake. Clark has stitched together a Frankenstein’s monster she claims she’s best suited to command. What could possibly go wrong? After all, everything turns out okay in Frankenstein, right?

The Premier’s vision of politics presented in the Throne Speech is post-political; she’s imagining a world where parties are mere brokers of the public will of the moment, interchangeable except for their respective management expertise, and the only questions relevant to politics is how to gain and keep power, alongside some technical questions about how to implement whichever policies happen to be fashionable. Clark’s approach to politics is dangerous, not only because it’s hopelessly cynical, but also because it’s disrespectful to voters who rely on parties as aggregators of ideas that lead to policies they like. Reducing politics to mere whims of the moment, technocratic management concerns, and Machiavellian power struggles undermines productive partisanship as helpful touchstones for voters while also pretending that there aren’t real and persistent disagreements in our society that cannot be reduced to technical questions of “how” and “by whom,” rather than “what” or “why.”

British Columbians will survive this frustrating and embarrassing chapter in the history of our politics. Citizens are not fools, and our system of government remains, as ever, plenty sound—if not quite as inclusive as it might be. Indeed, I believe Clark’s cynical gambit will fail, and we’ll all move on.

And yet, we shouldn’t forget what happened with this speech from the throne. In the future, leaders ought to hold it up as an example of what we should all strive to avoid in civic life. If we can do that, perhaps some good will come from this sad mess.

June 26, 2017: This post was updated for clarity.


The foul cynicism of Christy Clark’s speech from the throne

  1. Like many Liberal leaders in deep pooh pooh Christy will rise above her principles. LOL

    • “Like many Liberal leaders”

      BC Liberals are unlike any other Liberals in Canada, in that they are conservatives (hence the orange + green = blue comment in the article).

      Like the lure of Social Credit, I guess you have to live here to get it.

  2. C’mon guys….it’s easy to criticize…..if you can do a better job, run for office yourself.

    • So, Emilyone, by your logic, only a few hundred people have the right to comment on Ms. Clark’s politics and strategy. My guess is most people in this province wouldn’t agree with your version of democracy. Democracy is about much more than an election every few years; it should be about the citizens of the province using their voices to advocate for the kind of policy and governance they want and political parties and their leaders responding (with principled, well articulated visions) to those demands. Articles like this (and the comments that accompany them) are an important part of that process.

      • This isn’t ‘the people’ criticizing…this is a journo telling us how to think,

    • Said as if you never criticize.

      • Yes….as one lone private citizen….Not a columnist speaking for a professional group……disguised as something ‘everybody’ thinks.

        • Columnists never try to hide their biases. And they certainly do not presume to speak for everyone.

          And like all free speech, we ourselves can choose to post our thoughts about their thoughts for all to see.

          • Which misses the point entirely.

  3. And the hopeless Christy supporters, like Trumps, will giggle away to themselves about how clever their leader is. It matters not whether anything is good or bad policy; it all about gamesmanship. “Hee, hee, look they have to vote against their own platform, ain’t we bigly smart.”

  4. The Liberals could have accepted defeat with dignity. Instead they chose to debase themselves in a futile attempt at staying in power. Clark took the same path as Frank Miller in 1985 in Ontario when the then PC premier of Ontario, having formed a minority government, did an about-face on policies in an attempt to keep power. It didn’t work. The PCs fell on a no-confidence vote, and the Liberals, backed by a Liberal-NDP accord took power. The same will happen to the BC Liberals. FWIW, the Ontario Liberals went on to win a majority in the following election. I guess we’ll see sometime in the next few years if that part of history also repeats.

  5. “Honestly: The premier lost an election just weeks ago.” Funny I thought 43 seats wins over 41 seats. If the Greens and NDP gang up and vote against the throne speech, well then they have voted against the very electoral reform they seek (PR)! Can parties over though the party with the most seats in PR? This would be a bad system if they did. I think the point is to work together and for the party with the most seats to work with and pass the other party’s platform that they can work a deal on. It all seems like they are after power sir. Not just the liberals but the Greens and NDP as well.

    • Ours is a Parliamentary democracy. We do not elect political parties, which have no mention in our constitution and our eleftoral system. We elect MLAs and MPs, who are free to vote as they see fit and to support any government they see fit.

      But of course you already know that, and you are not ignorant of the 450 years of democratic tradition that our ancestors fought and died to maintain, but rather you are just spouting the usual right wing talking points.

      “Can parties overthrow the party with the most seats in PR?” LOL What a ridiculous comment.

    • “Funny, I thought 43 seats wins over 41 seats.”

      43 MLAs supporting your government in an 87 MLA legislature is not sufficient support for the current government to continue.

      But again, you already know that.

  6. What a terrific opportunity for the Conservatives to run some good candidates in the inevitable coming election. Especially now that Ms Clark has moved left.

    • There is no provincial conservative party in BC. They have made several attempts to try and organize but they cannot even find a leader to agree on. But that is good since Christy and her party are already too far right. This new transformation by the BC Liberal/Corporate Party is phoney anyway. Just a stab at keeping power and no intention of following through.

  7. The writer is correct about the fact that Christy is desperate to hang on to power and I think to keep the actual state of our finances secret. The biggest reason we have a divided result is Christy herself. Many people here were not so upset with our economy but were upset with Christy’s arrogance and her catering to big business and offshore interests. Two of the biggest issues were corporate/union donations and proper education funding to public schools. Now she claims to want to get rid of the donations despite refusing to even discuss them in the past six years other than to defend them. On education the supreme court had to order her to provide enough money to run our school systems. To many people here her about face just proves she doesn’t care about anything except keeping her job at all costs. Listening was never on her agenda unless it was to her corporate donors behind closed doors.

    • Don’t forget foreign currency real estate money laundering, and the LNG Rainbow with no pot of gold at the end.

  8. I think Christy Clark showed some shrewdness. By putting NDP and Green party platform points in her throne speech she has forced the two parties to vote against what they stood for. She will then be able to say that these parties voted against their own policies because they want to be in power more than effecting policy changes.
    This could come back to bite them in the butt in the next election.

    • And how many of her followers will think she has gone too far left and abandon her? Could bite her in the butt also.

    • The BC Socre-Liberals will have the shame of voting against an NDP/Green throne speech platform supported by the majority of BC voters, which she cynically tried to co-opt after 14 years of vindictively sticking it to those same constituents.

      That will be the height of hypocrisy.