Clark to run in Kelowna byelection; Ben Stewart steps aside

VICTORIA – Premier Christy Clark will run in a Kelowna-area safe seat after one of her cabinet ministers agreed to step aside to ensure she has a place in the British Columbia legislature.

Ben Stewart was re-elected with 58 per cent of the vote in Westside-Kelowna in the May 14 vote. He had been serving as minister of citizens’ services and open government.

Clark was defeated in her Vancouver-Point Grey riding, where she spent little time as she toured the province. The Liberals were widely expected to get badly pummelled in the vote and the party’s come-from-behind win to increase its number of seats in the legislature is largely attributed to Clark’s campaign skills.

The Liberals said on election night she sacrificed her own riding to do it, making a byelection necessary.

Clark lives in the Vancouver area, but it is not unprecedented for leaders to choose seats elsewhere for the expediency of getting into the legislature. Clark said Wednesday she would be getting a residence in the riding.

“To me, Kelowna is a natural political home for me, and the values that I believe in” said Clark, who was in Kelowna at a winery run by Stewart. “This is the cradle of free enterprise in Canada. This is the community that’s been represented by two premiers before and it’s a community that’s been represented by a man of great character for the last four years.”

Clark said she was humbled by Stewart’s “act of character. You have decided to put the needs of our province first. I want to express my gratitude to you as well.”

She noted the riding once belonged to two past Social Credit premiers: W.A.C. Bennett and later his son, Bill Bennett, who she described as visionaries.

She said the senior Bennett, who officially resigned his seat exactly 30 years ago Wednesday to allow his son to run, represented the province’s development traditions while his son instilled the need to curtail government spending.

“We think of two great premiers and people sometimes say which one was better?” said Clark. “It’s like comparing Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky: One was one of the best forwards hockey has ever seen and one was the best defenceman.”

“I hope that with the blessing of the people from Westside-Kelowna, I can be the third premier to bring a vision to British Columbia from this community,” Clark said.

A date has not yet been chosen for the byelection, but Clark said it’s expected to be sometime in mid-July.

Stewart fought back tears as he announced his decision to give up his seat for Clark.

“I intend to step down as the MLA for Westside-Kelowna,” he said. “It’s been a remarkable four years.”

Opposition New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix issued a statement saying Clark won’t be getting a free ride in the byelection.

“We are looking forward to running a strong campaign with an Okanagan candidate against the premier in Westside-Kelowna,” said Dix’s statement.

The Dix statement said the NDP will run a candidate with local roots who can offer the people of Kelowna and West Kelowna a strong, local voice in the legislature.

The NDP candidate will hold Clark accountable for statements made during the election, including the commitment to a balanced budget, to decreased debt and increased job creation, said Dix’s statement.

Clark plans to introduce a new cabinet Friday that her advisers say will send a message to British Columbians about the direction she plans to take the province and her government.

The advisers, who asked not to be named, said Clark’s cabinet will mirror her election campaign promises and objectives, including a new natural gas ministry and a team of ministers focused on growing B.C.’s economy and reducing government costs.

Clark is also expected to announce a wide-ranging review of government programs that will coincide with the recall of the legislature, which could happen within the next two weeks.

The Liberals are expected to introduce an updated budget and spend the last two weeks of June and much of July at the legislature debating the budget.

The Liberals forecast a balanced budget last February, but the Opposition New Democrats said during the recent election campaign that the budget was heading for a deficit of $800 million.

The Liberal advisers suggest Clark’s cabinet could include up to three newly elected MLAs and see several current ministers dropped from the front bench.

The election defeats of two ministers — Margaret MacDiarmid and Ida Chong — and the retirement of Pat Bell leaves openings in the health, jobs and aboriginal relations ministries.

It’s expected that Shirley Bond will drop one of her two portfolios as attorney general and minister of justice.

Rich Coleman is also carrying a heavy load as energy, mines and natural gas minister, minister responsible for housing and deputy premier.

Of the 85 available seats in the B.C. legislature, the Liberals elected 25 new members of their total of 49 MLAs.

Potential cabinet ministers among the newly elected Liberals are: Langley mayor Peter Fassbender; Olympic wheelchair champion Michelle Stilwell; former deputy minister Andrew Wilkinson; and Richmond businesswoman Teresa Wat.

Other cabinet possibilities among the newly elected Liberal MLA’s are: Penticton mayor Dan Ashton; former Reform adviser Laurie Throness; Dawson Creek mayor Mike Bernier and criminologist Darryl Plecas.

Re-elected Coquitlam-Burke Mountain Liberal Douglas Horne could be one of the few incumbent Liberals currently not in cabinet to make it into cabinet.

Liberal advisers said the government-wide review Clark announced is connected to her belief that there is always room and opportunity to save government money.

Clark’s natural gas ministry will emphasize the Liberal government’s focus on developing B.C.’s multi-billion-dollar opportunities to develop northern B.C.’s natural gas industry, including exports of liquefied natural gas to Asia.

Clark repeated her campaign promise in Kelowna that she intends to make B.C. debt-free within the next 15 years.