VICTORIA - Premier Christy Clark has a monumental rebuilding job ahead of her as four key members of her government have announced they won't be running in the May 2013 British Columbia election.
Critics, even supporters, agree the pending departures of the four members, including two former Liberal leadership candidates, represent serious blows to Clark's already battered Liberal government, but they are not knock-out punches.
It's now up to Clark, who has promised to shuffle her cabinet within days and bring fresh eyes to her Liberal election team, to use her highly regarded and feared political skills to bring her government back from the brink, said outgoing Liberal veteran George Abbott.
"She's a remarkable campaigner and a remarkable communicator," said Abbott, a four-term Liberal who announced he won't be running next May. "She can turn this around."
Abbott was one of the three high-profile members of the B.C. Liberal government who announced Thursday they will not be seeking re-election.
Also announcing their departures were Children's Minister Mary McNeil and three-term veteran John Les, Clark's parliamentary secretary and a former solicitor general.
The announcements come one day after Kevin Falcon announced he would not seek re-election and resigned his cabinet post as finance minister.
Clark has been battered by pundits' suggestions that her team is bailing in anticipation of a rout in next May's election, but she has instead said the departures are a normal part of politics, especially with MLAs who have spent more than a decade in the legislature.
Clark said she's taking the resignations as an opportunity for party renewal.
Chuck Strahl, former B.C. federal Conservative MP and a one-time Clark-government advisor, said the losses of Falcon, Abbott and Les are huge drains on the Liberal government's experience pool, but their losses also represent opportunities for others to surface.
"It's hard to replace that many years of experience," said the former federal aboriginal affairs minister. "But there's another dynamic that's created with a new crop of people."
Strahl said there are always turnovers in governments, especially in long-running governments like the B.C. Liberals who are seeking their fourth consecutive mandate.
"Are you really surprised John Les said that he's had enough — he's been in public life for 30 years?" said Strahl. "The timing of it is never great because it will always be read into it that there's some nefarious thing going about."
Clark has pointed out the B.C. Liberals have endured huge bench strength losses in the past, only to find new blood and win again at the polls.
She cited the 2005 election where former finance minister Gary Collins, attorney general Geoff Plant and Clark herself, who was then children's minister, all decided to leave politics. The Liberals still won the election.
She said the Liberals also won the 2009 vote even though star cabinet minister Carole Taylor decided not to seek re-election.
So far, joining Abbott, Falcon, Les and McNeil on the Clark Liberal resignation bandwagon are Kevin Krueger, Dave Hayer, Harry Bloy, Bill Barisoff, Kash Heed and Murray Coell. Coell is the only cabinet minister among them and Barisoff is Speaker.
Former Liberal John van Dongen bolted to sit as a B.C. Conservative.
Former Liberal cabinet ministers Barry Penner and Iain Black left Clark's government earlier, and their seats were won by Opposition New Democrats in byelections last spring.
Paul Ramsey, a former NDP cabinet minister during the 1990s and a party election strategist, said the departures of Falcon and Abbott and the others would normally be viewed as normal turnovers, but since the Liberals are low in the polls and apparently losing strength, the departures are troubling.
"If the Liberals were at 40 per cent in the polls rather than 23 per cent, this would not be a big deal," he said. "Context is everything and what I see is weakness on the front bench. Inevitably the public sees it as weakness."
Opposition New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix said individuals come and go in politics, but what he's seeing is a government that is losing its way under Clark's leadership.
"Their problem is not individuals," Dix said. "The problem is the government has very little direction."
Abbott, who described himself as a political warhorse after 33 years in public life, said even though the Liberals are currently down in the public opinion polls, public opinion can change almost overnight, especially during campaigns.
"One's political fortunes can turn around very quickly; sometimes a day is a lifetime in politics," he said. "What we will see are likely younger, different MLA's having an opportunity to show what they can do."
Retired University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff described the recent resignation announcements by Falcon and Abbott "as a house of cards."
He said it appears that the veteran ministers did not do Clark any favours by announcing their resignations before she shuffled her cabinet.
Ruff said Clark would have shown more control over her own government if she had unveiled a new cabinet without Falcon, Abbott and McNeil prior to their announcements.
Abbott has represented the Shuswap riding since 1996, while Falcon was elected in 2001.
At his news conference Thursday, Abbott displayed the kind of dry wit and good humour he has become known for, even as he steered the province through a divisive, year-long job action by teachers.
Abbott said Thursday the legislature had become "my personal Hotel California."
He noted the 1970s-era song also includes the lines "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave," and "I was thinking to myself this could be heaven or this could be hell."
Abbott, who had served as minister in the delicate portfolios of health and aboriginal relations, ran an uncharacteristically bitter leadership campaign which he lost to Clark last year and placed behind Falcon. Prior to politics, he was a political science instructor, berry farmer and minor hockey coach.
McNeil, who represents Vancouver-False-Creek, was first elected in 2009, but said she now wants to spend more time with her family.
"My decision comes after much discussion with my family over this summer," McNeil said in a statement.
"It was not an easy one to make as I have very much enjoyed my time in public office. The most important (factor) for me was my family, especially my thirteen wonderful grandchildren, who I know have lost out on quality time with their grandmother these past four years."
Les was elected in 2001 in Chilliwack after 16 years in municipal politics. Provincially, he served as solicitor general and small business minister under former premier Gordon Campbell. He did not sit on the front benches of Clark's cabinet.
Clark issued a statement Thursday thanking all three for their service.