B.C. dispatch

Christy Clark can save her party or create her legacy

VICTORIA — The Globe and Mail

David Parkins for The Globe and Mail

Premier Christy Clark, faced with her first full-frontal leadership attack, this week laid out her primary objective for the next 14 months: “I’m focused on one thing, and that is holding our free enterprise coalition together, to win the next election.”

That has been her focus for the past year since she became premier. Perhaps it explains why, as this week’s polls suggest, her government is still lagging behind the New Democrats and the Premier’s personal approval ratings are dropping. When her clear priority is saving her party, all the talk of a “families first” agenda and a jobs plan ring hollow.

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What if she governed as if her party were heading for defeat in 14 months? Such a fatalistic approach could be liberating – and maybe even helpful to her cause.

If you had another 14 months to live in government, what could you do? What changes could you make, lasting permanent changes to British Columbia that would serve as your legacy?

Dave Barrett, the NDP premier whose government survived only 39 months in the 1970s, created lasting legacies that include the Agricultural Land Reserve, the Insurance Corp of BC, and the provincial ambulance service.

Here are three areas where Ms. Clark could plant a flag:

Families:

At the same moment Ms. Clark issued a news release on Thursday touting her efforts to help families purchase a newly constructed home, the province’s watchdog for children issued a damning report on how penny-pinching in the justice system resulted in a serious child-abuse prosecution being tossed out of court. For want of $40,000 in translation services, a father walked away after being charged with incest and other horrific abuses against his family.

Ms. Clark could do better than tweak the margins for new-home buyers or pick a fight with the judiciary over resources. She needs the judges on side to help families at risk. Today, the average wait just to get to trial for a child protection case in the north is 20 months. Experts have proposed domestic violence courts, but at the very least make child-abuse prosecutions a priority. These are ideas that might not have the populist allure of pursuing Stanley Cup riot prosecutions, but could make a lasting difference to the most vulnerable in society.

Education:

Last fall, Education Minister George Abbott described the provincial government’s relationship with the union representing B.C.’s public-school teachers as a “very long and dysfunctional marriage.” The BC Liberals may score points with their base of supporters by continuing that adversarial relationship, but it isn’t a winning strategy for kids.

Over the past four decades, provincial governments of every political stripe have failed to find a way to manage industrial relations in B.C. schools. Mr. Abbott frequently points to the work of Thomas Fleming, a professor of educational history at the University of Victoria, who has made a study of the chronically toxic relationship. But with Mr. Abbott’s imposed solution to the latest labour disruption by the BC Teachers’ Federation, there is no sign that his government is prepared to break the pattern.

Using education as campaign fodder won’t get there. Imposing new strategies won’t achieve the required buy-in from teachers. A fresh approach would take political courage.

Forestry:

Embracing a new industry, liquefied natural gas, has absorbed much attention in the B.C. government. It’s a still-years-away part of the jobs strategy. In the meantime, the once-mighty forest industry is facing profound challenges.

A recent auditor-general’s report found that the province is falling behind on its targets to replant forests ravaged by pests, disease and fire. At the current rate, it would take 85 years to replant all the land that is known to be due for planting.

At the same time, while the mountain pine beetle has been devastating millions of hectares of land earmarked for timber harvest, the government's grasp on what is left of the forest resource is slipping. Without a proper inventory, B.C. is blithely approaching a time when its interior mills start to run out of logs without even knowing when the end will come.

The next two decades will likely see a precipitous drop in the volume of trees available for harvest in the interior, while the province hasn’t been keeping up with planting for the future. This was once a proud and stable industry that actually kept jobs – and payroll taxes – in B.C.

Forests for Tomorrow isn’t a bad slogan. Actually tending the forests for the future could be a legacy for the taking.

When she was seeking the leadership of the BC Liberal Party, Ms. Clark said: “I’m running in this because I want to bring real change for British Columbia, I’m not running in this just so I can be another politician doing the same old thing.”

Ms. Clark has had 12 months to bring real change. She has another 14 months to try. Or she can spend those 14 months worrying about the next election.

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