The curious emptiness of Christy Clark’s legacy

She was a formidable force on the stump, and sailed into office on favourable economic winds. So why couldn’t Clark convert her advantage into enduring achievements?
Former B.C. premier Christy Clark speaks to media next to her son Hamish for the first time since announcing she will be stepping down as B.C. Liberal leader and MLA in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday, July 31, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ben Nelms
Former B.C. premier Christy Clark speaks to media next to her son Hamish for the first time since announcing she will be stepping down as B.C. Liberal leader and MLA in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday, July 31, 2017. (Ben Nelms/CP)
Clark speaks to media next to her son Hamish after announcing she will be stepping down as B.C. Liberal leader and MLA i (Ben Nelms/CP)

Former B.C. premier Christy Clark, who steps down on Friday after six and a half years as Liberal leader—all of them as the province’s 35th premier—might’ve imagined she’d have more to point to when history comes to judge her.

When asked to name her inspiration and guiding light in office, the 51-year-old always named W.A.C. Bennett, the B.C. populist who left behind systems of dams, highways and ferries before exiting the premier’s office in 1972. Like Bennett, Clark, who spent almost her entire working life in politics, first as a party organizer, then in the elected realm, is a dynamo and a striver. Both were experts at the retail side of the game, the stuff that can’t be taught. Neither had a university degree. The $9-billion Site C mega-dam, the $3.5-billion Massey Bridge, the promised LNG miracle, with its $130-billion in riches, were intended to be legacy projects like Bennett’s: endowments meant to endure long after Clark left office.

But Site C and the Massey Bridge may fall to the axe under the NDP. And Clark’s Liberal government was never able to deposit a single LNG dollar in B.C.’s Prosperity Fund, a petro treasure chest styled after Norway’s Oil Fund. In 2016, when the Liberals finally made their first payment, it was hived out of revenue from health-care premiums. Critics dubbed it the “Fantasy Fund.”

But perhaps Clark’s was never going to be the kind of legacy that gets beatified. More often than not, great leaders are those dealt bad hands; who rise to the challenge, undaunted; who deliver big, leaving the province or country better off than before. Clark, however, took power in 2011 one year after B.C. hosted Canada’s most successful Olympics. The ’08 recession was in the rearview mirror. The Lower Mainland housing market was hitting turbocharge (during Clark’s tenure, land transfer taxes alone generated more than a quarter of B.C.’s $1.15-billion annual budget). Even the NHL’s Canucks were ascendant. It’s hard to imagine a modern B.C. premier being dealt a better hand.

What followed were five balanced budgets and some of the strongest top-line economic growth in the country—all creditable stuff. Others may remember Clark for the formidable fight she put up to take the 2013 election after pundits, pollsters and even some in her own caucus wrote her off. Still others may remember her for standing up to Alberta, to win costly concessions for B.C. in return for allowing their crude to move to the coast.

But none of that amounts to a legacy. And six years on, few in B.C. could tell you what Clark stands for. Her roots were in the federal Liberal party; but she took the B.C. Liberals so far to the right to appease its ascendant federal Conservative flank it is now unrecognizable from the centrist party led by Gordon Campbell, her predecessor.
Indeed, Clark leaves behind the country’s most unequal province, socio-economically speaking, thanks to 37 per cent cuts to income tax levies, tightened rules for welfare eligibility, cuts to child-care subsidies, reductions in support for women’s centres and the doubling of post-secondary tuitions.

Despite B.C.’s riches and advantages, Clark chose last year to revoke bus passes for the disabled, some of the province’s poorest, most isolated citizens, refusing to budge even after people in wheelchairs descended on the B.C. legislature in protest. She kept welfare rates and disability payments frozen throughout her time in office, while boasting record revenues and growth. She took B.C., a one-time climate leader that introduced North America’s first tax on carbon many steps backwards in environmental policy. The only notable social policy Clark introduced was a program aimed at helping single parents get off welfare—catnip to the party’s right flank.

At her final press conference last week, Clark told reporters she has no immediate career plans but will do some gardening and get her son Hamish “to do his homework because Grade 11’s a busy year.” She says she won’t return to politics, but has repeatedly said she hopes her next job has an element of public service, opening the door wide open to a federal appointment, possibly the real reason she is suddenly leaving office after insisting she would head a tough opposition to the NDP. Ambassadorships, of course, followed the fading political careers of Manitoba premier Gary Doer, who went to Washington, and Clark’s predecessor, Gordon Campbell, who went to London.

Clark clearly saw a revolt within her party brewing. And voters had grown weary of the ruthless, hyper-partisan style that led to the “ethnic outreach” and “triple delete,” document destruction scandals, among others; her approval ratings plummeted in her final term in office. She waved off relentless criticism over bottomless corporate and foreign donations that gave her party a four-fold advantage over the NDP, even after the New York Times labelled B.C. the “wild west” of political cash and the province’s elections agency referred its investigation to the RCMP. To Clark, winning always seemed so much more important than governing. Ultimately, the approach would cost her.

The former premier seems stung by her premature exit. No one wants to go out this way. At her final presser, she at times, sounded fed up and even bitter: “I guess I’ll never see any of you ever again,” she began, addressing reporters.
“I am done with public life,” she later said. “I’m not planning on going back—that’s for sure. Politics isn’t a happy job. It’s not a fun job.”

Later that night, she told the Vancouver Sun she felt like she “gets to be me again,” adding: “I feel good about that.”