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Clark stepping down as B.C. Liberal leader, MLA; Coleman interim leader

Former premier Christy Clark, who led B.C. for six years before her government lost a confidence vote in the legislature last month, has announced that she will resign as Liberal leader and Kelowna West MLA next Friday.
Former Premier Christy Clark has announced that she will resign as Liberal leader next Friday.

Former premier Christy Clark, who led B.C. for six years before her government lost a confidence vote in the legislature last month, has announced that she will resign as Liberal leader and Kelowna West MLA next Friday.

Clark, 51, said she was stepping aside to allow the party to renew itself after 16 years in power.

She said she made the decision Friday morning and informed the Liberal caucus at its retreat in Penticton.

The caucus named Langley East MLA and former cabinet minister Rich Coleman as interim leader.

“I am so proud of everything our B.C. Liberal team has accomplished,” Clark said in a statement.

“From working to make British Columbia Canada’s leading economy and creating more than 200,000 new jobs, to helping thousands of single parents go from welfare to work through the single-parent employment initiative, to British Columbia’s gift to the world, the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest.

“I am certain that British Columbia’s best days lie ahead. Because British Columbians can, through hard work, determination and perseverance, achieve anything they set their minds to.”

The Liberals failed to win a fifth straight majority in the May election and Clark stepped down as premier after her government lost a confidence vote on the throne speech to an alliance of NDP and Green Party MLAs.

Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon accepted Clark’s resignation and asked NDP Leader John Horgan to form a government.

Horgan, sworn in as B.C.’s new premier last week, issued a statement Friday thanking Clark for her service to the province and wishing her well in the future.

“While we represented two different political parties, Ms. Clark and I are united in the belief that, working together, we can build a better future for British Columbia and the people who call this place home.”

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver praised Clark’s dedication to the province. “One of the highlights of my time in the B.C. legislature was working with the premier in a non-partisan and cross-party fashion to introduce and pass legislation with respect to sexualized violence or sexual assault on post-secondary campuses,” he said in an interview. “That was an example of one of the things she’s done; she’s been a very fierce supporter and advocate for British Columbia both nationally and internationally.”

Coleman, who acknowledged being emotional as he spoke to reporters in Penticton, with the Liberal caucus standing behind him, said he was surprised and saddened by Clark’s decision.

“I’ve never worked with anybody with more passion and love, strength of leadership and management in my entire life than Christy Clark,” he said.

He credited Clark with reviving the Liberal party after she took the helm in 2011 and pulled off an unexpected election victory in 2013.

Coleman said he has no plans to run for the leadership and will focus on preparing the party for the return of the legislature in September.

Coleman said he plans to announce the Opposition’s critic roles within a couple of weeks.

The decision to resign marked a reversal of sorts for Clark. After the NDP and Greens signed an accord in May, she initially pledged to stay on as leader — even if her government went down to defeat.

“Should the government fail the test of confidence in the house, as seems likely, I would be given the job of leader of the Opposition,” she said. “And I’m more than ready and willing to take that job on.”

Norman Ruff, associate professor emeritus of political science at the University of Victoria, said Clark still seemed to be enjoying her role as leader. “But that seems to have waned, and presumably, she may have got a better offer,” he said.

There were murmurs within the party about Clark’s decision to recycle the campaign strategy, focused on jobs and the economy, that helped her win a majority in 2013, he said. “Although she got slightly more votes than the NDP, [the Liberals] faltered as a government, and she takes the blame for the situation that they find themselves in. I think she’d become a very polarizing figure, and I think there’s a sense that perhaps the campaign was out of touch with where people were, back in May.”

Ruff noted that Clark, by resigning as MLA, has given the NDP and Greens more breathing room in the legislature. The NDP-Green alliance had a slim 44-43 vote edge over the Liberals that will widen to 44-42 until Clark is replaced in a byelection.

“In a sense, she has helped the NDP survive into the spring because, number one, the Liberals are going to be distracted by a leadership campaign, and two, there’s one less Liberal seat,” he said.

In an email to B.C. Liberal Party supporters, Clark, who has a teenage son, said it was the “honour of a lifetime” to serve as leader. “Together, we have achieved so much — winning a comeback election victory that almost nobody thought possible, positioning British Columbia firmly as Canada’s leading economy, and laying a strong foundation for future generations to achieve their dreams here. I’m excited to see the renewed engagement that will strengthen and energize our party as we choose the next leader.”

Liberal Party president Sharon White said she will call a meeting of the party executive within 28 days to set a date for a leadership vote.

Coleman said it could take “as little as three months and no more than a year” to choose a new leader.

Possible leadership candidates include former cabinet ministers Todd Stone and Andrew Wilkinson, rookie MLAs Ellis Ross and Jas Johal or Conservative MP Dianne Watts, a former Surrey mayor. George Abbott, a former Liberal cabinet minister who lost to Clark in the 2011 leadership race, said he has no plans to seek the job again. “That ship has sailed,” he told the Times Colonist.

Former finance minister Mike de Jong, who finished fourth in the 2011 contest, declined to comment on the leadership race. “Today is a day to reflect upon the public service rendered by Christy Clark and I believe many, many British Columbians will join and agree with me in rejoicing and thanking her for that service.”

De Jong credited Clark with an “irrepressive and unrelenting optimism” that led the Liberals and the province to new heights. “I think much of the legacy will relate to the fundamental strength that our province now possesses — the diversity of our economy, the nation-leading growth in our economy, the training opportunities and how that has translated into opportunities for others.”

He said Clark opened doors to public life for women and young people. “She is someone that came to the vocation of public service as a young person and demonstrated that you can succeed.”

Clark was born to a politically active family and took an early interest in it. As a child, she helped with her father’s unsuccessful campaigns, and later got involved in student politics at university.

She was a research staff member for the B.C. Liberal caucus in the early 1990s and then won election as an MLA in 1996.

She was a sharp critic of the NDP government and was rewarded with the designation of deputy premier, along with the education portfolio, when she was named to cabinet after the Liberals’ first victory in 2001.

It was during her term that the government unilaterally curtailed teachers’ contracts. That prompted a long legal battle that ended when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of teachers, which prompted a huge makeup effort to hire more staff and restore previous working conditions that is still underway.

She was sent to the Children and Families Ministry in 2004 and signalled her unhappiness with that role by quitting politics ahead of the 2005 election.

Clark mounted a failed effort for the Vancouver mayoralty, then became a radio talk-show host until 2010.

When former premier Gordon Campbell announced he was quitting, Clark became an immediate front-runner in the race to replace him. She launched a high-profile campaign as an outsider running against cabinet ministers Abbott, de Jong and Kevin Falcon. Strikingly, she had the support of only one caucus member, but she won on the third ballot over Falcon.

Clark was sworn in March 2011 and became premier without a seat in the legislature until she took Campbell’s Point Grey seat. She put the Liberals’ harmonized sales tax debacle to rest and instituted a new provincial holiday — Family Day — but went into the 2013 election against long odds and few expectations of winning.

Campaigning on promises of a debt-free B.C. and a jobs-first plan based on LNG development, she pulled off one of the biggest surprises in B.C. history, winning an increased majority, while losing her own seat. Clark later won a byelection in Westside-Kelowna, now Kelowna West.

Her four-year term was marked by strong economic performance and consecutive balanced budgets, but the LNG promises never materialized.

Former Oak Bay-Gordon Head Liberal MLA and cabinet minister Ida Chong said Clark will likely be remembered for those LNG promises — for better or worse.

“You fault people when they don’t have vision, but then when their vision doesn’t turn out, people fault that as being, ‘a wasted time or effort,’ ” Chong said. “But great leaders have to try something as opposed to just hanging onto the status quo. So I have to give her credit for trying to do something different and not just managing a province, but trying to paint the picture of a possibility.”


Christy Clark’s statement, from the B.C. Liberal Facebook page:

B.C. Liberal statement, from Twitter:

Premier John Horgan's comments on Twitter:

Statement from Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver:

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