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Why Premier Clark has her hands full keeping her own party in line.

Premier Christy Clark is in a lot of trouble — especially if she loses the Chilliwack byelection to the Conservatives which, with John Van Dongen crossing to the Conservatives, is almost a certainty.

That she’s in trouble anyway has been (finally) canvassed by the mainstream media. The HST has been a horrifying failure. There’s no way the average taxpayer can accept the proposition that it must stay in effect until a year this April.

The Liberals are in a trap of their own making. If, as they swear up and down, the HST wasn’t on the their “radar” in the 2009 election but came about like a flash of light a month or two later, then why cannot it be disbanded as quickly as it happened? If, as most people believe, including me, that it was in the works long before 2009, then Campbell and then-finance minister Colin Hansen had been preparing the HST months before the election, then the Liberals won an election by deception.

If they did indeed have a Damascus-like conversion, then why does it take two years to get out of it? The Liberals can’t have it both ways.

And now, as if to compound the sense of disarray and erosion, their Finance Minister Kevin Falcon is hemming and hawing about whether he’ll even run for office next election.

The poisoned chalice

The Clark government has been stumbling from the moment Premier Clark was sworn in. Not all of that was her doing, of course. She was handled a poisoned chalice by the disgraced Gordon Campbell. The fact remains, however, that Premier Photo-op has stumbled from one goof to another since the beginning and she will pay the price, perhaps sooner than we think. The reason has to do with our system of government.

Under first-past-the-post, the government must fall if it loses a money vote or one of confidence. This means that the backbench must support the government when it’s nut-cutting time.

So far as I can tell, only once in Canadian history has a prime minister/premier with a majority been turfed out because he couldn’t command a majority anymore, and that was Sir John A. Macdonald in the wake of the Pacific scandal in 1873 when party discipline wasn’t nearly as rigid as it is today.

This doesn’t mean that a first minister cannot be driven from office without losing a vote, as seen in recent years in B.C. with premiers Vander Zalm and Glen Clark.

For one to understand the reasons first ministers can thusly be turfed, one needs to understand the system.

In first-past-the-post, the backbenchers have no power to really affect policy. They can raise hell at caucus meetings, but rarely does that affect government policy. Moreover the backbencher has promotion on his mind and hesitates to upset the applecart otherwise known as the premier.

The methods of compulsion are varied and brutal. The recalcitrant backbencher thinks that he is better, indeed much better, qualified to be in cabinet than those already there. It’s as Napoleon said, “Every French soldier carriers a marshal’s baton in his knapsack.”

One of the problems is that government backbenchers have little if anything to do. This calls for make work projects to keep “idle hands from doing the devil’s work.” Some backbenchers, Ralph Sultan of West Vancouver comes to mind, really believe that these projects are important to the government, but most know that it’s all bullshit.

During relatively quiet times the backbencher, like the hopeful player as the captain creates the team, is pointing to himself as worthy of attention. There are goodies to be had which enhance the hopeful’s chances of making the team.

The best one, short of cabinet, is to be made a parliamentary secretary to a minister which pays more than the MLA’s stipend and gets the backbencher’s presence closer to the action. Then there is the whip and the deputy whip — two jobs where there isn’t anything to do except deposit a bigger paycheque. Even when Campbell had an over 70-seat majority, these “jobs” were filled. There is the deputy speaker and the chairman’s spots to hand out to boys and girls whom the premier wants to be ever so nice to him and cabinet.

In the “stick” department is the power the prime minister/premier has to kick naughty children out of caucus and refuse them the right to run under the party banner. That is a very big step implement of compulsion indeed!

Who would pick up a sword?

There is an additional problem facing Premier Clark and it is critical to her survival. Everyone in that caucus (except the hopeless Harry Bloy who was put in full cabinet, then demoted to a minister of state, then axed because he made a secret missive available to members of the public) supported someone else or sought her job themselves. In other words, from the start they’ve had a death wish for her. We needn’t look that far back to see a prime example of what that means.

Bill Vander Zalm took over the Socred leadership with everyone except Jack Davis in caucus and cabinet having done everything they could to defeat him and he was dead in the water. It showed almost from the start as he lost key ministers Grace McCarthy and Brian Smith from cabinet, both powerful ministers. Eventually several MLAs resigned from his caucus to sit as independents.

(Pay no attention to good sportsmanship expressed by political losers to the winner — unless the new leader has and demonstrates firm control, they are bread soon to be toast. The toaster is humming.)

I believe that there are two moments in time, shortly to come, when several more of Christy Clark’s backbenchers will move to independents.

The first move was signalled when my MLA, Joan McIntyre, walked out of the House when Premier Clark was speaking which, coupled with Van Dongen’s departure, indicates that the movement might be sooner than later.

MLAs, like any group, at the best of times like to bitch and that brings those of similar complaints together. Of course there’s been talk. And this is not the best of times.

The usual signs of rebellion are in place. They have nothing to do, they fear an election with the premier still leading them and, at least in theory, they want to save the party that they see as needing a new leader to survive. If the B.C. Tories win Chilliwack and the NDP Port Moody, those seat changes, added to the two independents, put Premier Clark in a position where just four more defections make her beatable in a confidence vote.

Mostly MLAs, they want to save their own skins. And seats.

Conservatives as game changers

If the Conservatives win in Chilliwack, there is a new very powerful influence in place. A party which many MLAs to the right of the Liberal Party will see as attractive if only because it makes them more secure in their own ridings. Moreover, how can crossing the floor be worse than staying where they are?

You can bet the ranch on this — many backbenchers have been wooed by the Conservative Party, although John Cummins has probably absented himself from direct involvement.

Would this enhance the chances of the Conservatives in the May 2013 election?

Yes and no and maybe.

Yes in the sense that they will be in the hunt for second place, just as the Gordon Wilson Liberals were in 1991.

But the Conservatives have an Achilles heel in their positions of support for the Enbridge pipeline and tanker traffic on our coast. Frankly, this Cummins’ position is puzzling. Here’s a man who has devoted all his political efforts to save our salmon and now he is bent on destroying them. If he reversed his position, he would lose none of his support in the Fraser Valley and would give himself and his party a fighting chance in many other ridings.

One thing is for sure. Premier Clark is on a roll over the waterfall and won’t have any of her parliamentary party with the slightest desire to toss her a lifeline.

In fact, the party would like to dump her but a messy leadership convention would put them even deeper in the hole.

Forgive the self-congratulation, but I said from the beginning that Christy Clark doesn’t have what it takes to be a leader.

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