VICTORIA - With the Liberals facing defeat in two Lower Mainland byelections today, Premier Christy Clark appears to be already looking ahead to next May's provincial election.
Clark said Wednesday she wants to bring new voices to her government's free enterprise coalition, but those voices don't appear to include B.C. Conservatives Leader John Cummins.
Clark said she's open to different voices within her government — even a new party name — but won't mention Cummins by name.
She warned that splitting the free enterprise vote means a New Democrat government next May.
Clark's Liberals are facing long odds in ridings traditionally considered safe for the party.
The decisions by former Liberal cabinet ministers Iain Black and Barry Penner to leave politics for jobs in the private sector have created political openings for the NDP and Conservatives.
In Port Moody-Coquitlam, former Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini, once a Clark campaign worker, is expected to win.
In Chilliwack-Hope, a tight, three-way race has developed where Penner easily won four times.
B.C. Conservative John Martin, with his hard right message, has generated voter interest.
Also running are New Democrat Gwen O'Mahony and Liberal Laurie Throness, once a political adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and right-wing political leaders Stockwell Day and Preston Manning.
Lewis Clarke Dahlby is running as a Libertarian.
Clark candidly admits that governments usually lose byelections, and in B.C. the tradition is decades long, with the premier being one of only two government politicians to win byelections in the last 30 years.
Last year, Clark won the Vancouver-Point Grey byelection. The riding was once held by former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell.
Clark said the two byelections serve as warm-ups to the May 2013 provincial vote, which she's billing as the battle to preserve free enterprise from what she calls the tax-and-spend NDP, led by Adrian Dix.
"We are a coalition party," she said. "We include people from all across the political spectrum. We include everybody who wants to defeat the NDP."
Clark said the Liberals discussed changing the party's name at their convention last year. If a name change allows the party to broaden its appeal, Clark's all for it, but she said she wants to be the leader.
"I'm not opposed, as you know, to changing the party's name," she said.
"We are still the free enterprise coalition in B.C. Yes, I'm going to be leading the free enterprise coalition into the next election."
Clark did not mention Cummins by name, but explained at length what happens in B.C. when the free enterprise vote is split.
"If you care about free enterprise in British Columbia, remember this, in 1991 and in 1996, Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark were elected because there was a split in the free enterprise vote," she said.
"If you vote to split the free enterprise vote, all you're going to do is elect Adrian Dix the premier of B.C., and not for one term, probably two."
Some business leaders who support the Liberals have been calling on Clark to form some type of political merger with the Conservatives to keep the Opposition New Democrats from winning the next election.
Clark said she understands the business concerns, but believes keeping the Liberal door wide open preserves and strengthens the coalition.
Recently, Clark has been working with well-known federal Conservatives Stockwell Day and Chuck Strahl.
She attended meeting with former Reform Party leader Preston Manning and watched a minor hockey game with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Clark has also hired Harper aides to sharpen her government's issues approach.
But Norman Ruff, a veteran political scientist from the University of Victoria, said Clark's attempts to get cosy with the federal Conservatives aren't giving her traction in the byelections.
Ruff said voters are more concerned with her leadership abilities, not the political leanings of her allies, and if the Liberals finish third in both byelections there will pressure on her to step aside.