POLITICS
02/13/2012 07:00 EST | Updated 04/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Ample challenges await Liberals when spring session starts in B.C. legislature

VANCOUVER - British Columbia Premier Christy Clark has unveiled her plans for the spring legislative session, launching what could be a bumpy ride towards the 2013 provincial election.

The former radio talk show host went back to her roots Monday, spending 90 minutes on private Vancouver radio station CKNW laying out her government's priorities, including tourism, transportation, technology, mining, agriculture, an anti-bullying campaign, a seniors' agenda and her already announced job creation plan.

But Clark's government is also on the hot seat to expedite the removal of the hated harmonized sales tax and resolve the months-long dispute with B.C.'s public school teachers.

When reporters asked if her government might move to accelerate the end to the tax sooner than the 2013 date, Clark said wait for next week's budget.

"I don't want to overstate that though, because we're in pretty difficult financial, fiscal times. It's a real stretch to balance this budget."

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon has said earlier this month the budget would be balanced by 2013-2014.

Clark wouldn't say if the government was preparing to legislate the end to the teachers strike this spring, but added a negotiated settlement appears remote.

"Today, I can say I'm not optimistic because there have been 73 meetings to negotiate and almost no movement from the teachers' union at the table."

She said the government doesn't have the $2 billion extra the teachers are demanding in a wage increase.

"The only way I can get that is to go out and raise taxes."

Teachers aren't allowed to strike, but started limited job action last September which includes not filling out report cards, not attending staff meetings or performing other administrative duties.

The government appointed a fact finder in the dispute last week to see if middle ground could be found between the two sides.

The premier's decision to release plans for the session on a private radio station didn't sit will reporters questioning her after her show.

"What can be more transparent that having the opportunity to take calls from people," Clark said, when asked why she chose that venue.

"I have always believed that talk radio is a unique place where you can actually get feedback from citizens."

Clark took seven calls. In one call, host Bill Good chastised the caller for delivering praise for Clark instead of asking a question.

Other challenges facing the B.C. Liberal government include getting Community Living B.C., the agency that provides services for mentally disabled adults, back in order, dealing with a justice system on the brink and uncertainty around a major employer being able to resume operations in northern B.C.

The Liberals also have two seats at stake when byelections are called in Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope in the coming months.

Public opinion polls are already trending low for the premier, which a retired University of Victoria professor said may partially explain why she elected to release details of her party's upcoming agenda on the radio.

"It's suggestive of contempt for the legislature," said political scientist Norman Ruff. "To say you're going to pronounce on your policy aspirations on a radio show is demeaning."

The Liberals and Opposition New Democrats had agreed last year not to start the session with the usual formality, owing to the timing of Clark's election as leader last February. A throne speech outlining the government's objectives was read instead during the start of last fall's session.

But Ruff characterized the Liberals' decision to open the legislature this week without another throne speech as a "missed opportunity."

"There's a kind of a sense they've been drifting. The policy changes (Clark has) made so far are very reactive," he said. "Why they're not doing so well in the polls is that there isn't a sense that she really has firm control over her policy agenda."

New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix said the government is out of touch with British Columbians.

"I think when people re-elected the Liberals in 2009, they expected more than the HST and 50 reviews three-and-a-half years later. Presumably what the premier is saying is elect me again and I'll do something."

Dix said there are a minimum of 36 incomplete government reviews, many of them overdue and another 16 reviews completed by the Liberal government. He said there will be even more reviews if the government follows through on its promise to review all Crown corporations.

"This is the wrong approach and we'll be holding them accountable for that," he said.

Last week, Clark appointed nine new judges to the provincial court. But critics — including a top judge — say neither that move nor a wholesale review of the justice system will do much to stem rising costs or the flow of cases tossed out due to lengthy delays.

A week earlier, Clark laid the foundation for a revamped clean-energy strategy that will emphasize liquefied natural gas plants and their job potential. It's a file that will likely require refinement due to the possibility of problems around supplying energy to run the operations.

And last month, she travelled into the small town of Burns Lake, west of Prince George, to reassure a devastated community her government has its back after the local sawmill, the community's main employer, exploded and burned down.