POLITICS

B.C. Premier admits she's had a tough 1st year, but says she remains optimistic

03/14/2012 06:43 EDT | Updated 05/14/2012 05:12 EDT
VICTORIA - Premier Christy Clark concedes her first year helming the B.C. Liberals has been no easy feat, but says she remains optimistic about winning the next election despite a drop in popularity.

Clark's party is trailing the Opposition New Democrats in opinion polls while her government fends off a right-wing charge from the resurgent, though seatless B.C. Conservatives. Even so, she said on Wednesday, there's still time to win citizens' votes.

The next B.C. election is set for May 2013.

After Clark was elected leader by party delegates last February and subsequently crowned premier in March, she suggested for months she might call a snap election. That changed last summer, when Clark announced she would stick to the pre-scheduled election date.

"I never thought that this would be easy," Clark told reporters in Victoria. "I always knew that this was a tough challenge to take on, and, in fact, that's why many people said to me, 'Christy, you shouldn't do it. It's too tough.'"

Clark's first life in B.C. politics ended in 2004, when she quit for family reasons and began a career as an open-line broadcaster at Vancouver's CKNW radio. She was still in that job when she sought to make a comeback by running for the Liberal leadership, even though she said outgoing premier Gordon Campbell was leaving behind major unresolved issues.

Campbell announced his early retirement in November 2010, encumbered by public uproar over his government's introduction of the harmonized sales tax.

Clark's Liberals continued to defend the HST in a referendum last summer, though British Columbians ultimately rejected the tax.

In the lead up to the next election, the premier said she intends to focus on initiatives to support B.C. families and spur provincewide job creation.

She said 40,000 new jobs have been created over the past six months.

"The election is 14 months away, and I think the most important thing that I can do is be focused on the goals and the things I said I would deliver for the province and for families," Clark said.

Clark's Liberals have promised to balance the budget by next year, following three consecutive deficits. Balancing the books is a matter of limiting spending to two per cent and seeking efficiencies throughout government, the party says.

The NDP, which has been leading the Liberals in public opinion polls and threatening to unseat the government, says the Liberals have lost touch with middle class and struggling families. If victorious, the left-wing party would form its first government since 1996.

On Wednesday, NDP House Leader John Horgan offered a barbed assessment of Clark's first year as leader.

"The anniversary present for the public isn't quite what it should have been," he said. "Twelve months later we have higher ferry fares, higher hydro rates, higher MSP premiums, more stays in criminal proceedings, continued budget deficits, more raw log exports offshore, failures in the forest, a thousand jobs lost at B.C. Hydro.

"I could go on."

Clark said she expects to call byelections in two vacant Lower Mainland ridings that were held by former Liberals, but hasn't yet hinted at the dates. She acknowledged byelections are difficult for governments to win.

Liberal backbencher Bill Bennett said Clark's approach to government and leadership has rejuvenated the party.

The Kootenay East MLA was banished from the Liberal cabinet to become an independent after he publicly challenged what he described as Campbell's one-sided leadership approach.

Clark invited Bennett back to the Liberal ranks.

"The mood in caucus today is considerably more optimistic and, I think, unified than it was a year ago," he said.