VANCOUVER - Premier Christy Clark, humbled by two byelection defeats in traditional Liberal strongholds, vowed Friday to unite British Columbia's free-enterprise voice in time for next May's provincial election.
But while pundits agree Clark is likely the best leader to unite free enterprisers, some say she's wounded by internal struggles from within her own government and the external pressures placed on her party by the upstart Conservatives.
The Opposition NDP made historic breakthroughs in Thursday's byelections in the Fraser Valley riding of Chilliwack-Hope and suburban Vancouver's Port Moody-Coquitlam. The results left Clark to blame the losses on vote splitting, with the B.C. Conservative party capturing support on the right that would have traditionally gone to the Liberals.
New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix said Clark and the Liberals are fooling themselves if they continue to believe their losses were the result of vote splitting on the right.
"I think it's unbelievably disrespectful to the electorate to say that," he said. "It's the wrong lesson to draw from the election."
Dix noted the Liberals only garnered about 30 per cent of the vote in both ridings. He suggested attributing those results to vote splitting was akin to telling 70 per cent of voters they made the wrong choice.
Clark vowed to pump up her government's efforts to listen to British Columbians. She said she's looking for ways to ensure her "free-enterprise coalition" doesn't fracture as it did on Thursday.
"We've been working hard to listen, but we have to redouble our efforts ... and make sure that our government reflects what British Columbians want for their province," Clark said.
Speaking to reporters the morning after, Clark rejected questions about her leadership.
"I am the leader of the free-enterprise coalition in this province and I'm going to lead us into the next election," said Clark.
Clark warned an NDP government could send people to other provinces looking for jobs.
"Me and my team and our party are going to be working very, very hard over the next 389 days to talk to British Columbians about those risks and reaching out and finding out what it is they want from their government and how they think that their government could better reflect them. And I'm going to be leading that effort."
Former B.C. cabinet ministers Geoff Plant and Paul Ramsey both agreed Clark can lead the free-enterprise coalition, but they disagreed on the impact of the byelection losses.
Plant, who served with Clark in the Liberal cabinet of former premier Gordon Campbell, said the byelection losses were expected. He said Clark and her Liberals still have the next year to build a strong free-enterprise vote to beat the NDP.
"Folks who care about free enterprise, I think, have their work cut out for them to find a way to bridge their differences and speak with one voice in 2013," said Plant.
He said the Conservatives, led by former Tory MP John Cummins, still can't be considered a serious political force.
But Ramsey, who served in NDP cabinets in the Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark governments, said the Liberals will attempt to knit together a free-enterprise coalition, but it won't be with the Conservatives under Cummins.
"The Conservatives don't like them," he said. "They don't like Christy and they don't like the Liberals."
Ramsey said Clark is also facing internal problems within her own caucus and cabinet that have yet to fully emerge. He said the recent comments by senior cabinet ministers Kevin Falcon and George Abbott that they have yet to decide whether or not they will run in the election are tell-tale signs of internal issues.
"Everybody was asked, and if the answer was, 'I'm not sure' or 'I'm not going to run,' you were out of cabinet," he said, recalling his time as a cabinet minister in the 1990s.
"That was it, and you understood that. Those were the rules."
Dix pointed to the byelection victories to remind his supporters that with continued hard work, even in once sacrosanct Liberal ridings, the party can form government once again after a three-term absence.
"We're not going to be outworked at any time," he said.
"I don't take anything for granted."
Some Liberals were clearly upset with the byelection results, especially with what they viewed as Conservative vote splitting.
Liberal John Les, who represents the riding of Chilliwack, lashed out at the Conservatives, calling them spoilers and saying their third-place results in both byelections should be enough to send them into talks with the Liberals to beat back the NDP.
"For John Cummins to say, 'Let's just carry on based on these results,' he's going to absolutely guarantee a very large majority NDP election next year," said Les. "I'm not interested in that."
He called on Cummins to start talks with the Liberals to ensure the free-enterprise vote doesn't split between the Conservatives and the Liberals, allowing the NDP to move up the middle and win the election.
Les also took a shot at Cummins, noting the Conservative leader has admitted to voting NDP in the 2009 election.
"Maybe he doesn't care, but I can tell you that I care, and I care a lot," Les said.
Former federal Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl, who worked on the campaign of defeated Chilliwack-Hope Liberal candidate Laurie Throness, said the Liberals need to open their doors to attract Conservative and Liberal voters.
Strahl said the open door may be as simple as changing the party name, a suggestion Clark says she can support.
An open-door policy will appeal to voters who would rather describe themselves as free-enterprise supporters than Liberals or Conservatives, he said.
"I'm not into giving advice to B.C. Conservatives, but I'll do it anyway: the (Conservatives') welcome mat is not out for people who are not just like them," he said.
"You can't form a government like that."
Strahl said the Liberal door is open and is about to open wider following the byelection defeats.