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Christy Clark's first task is to find a seat in B.C. legislature

British Columbia Liberal Leadership candidate Christy Clark hugs her son Hamish, 9, after being elected as the party's new leader in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday February 26, 2011. Clark replaces outgoing Premier Gordon Campbell.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Christy Clark, British Columbia's premier-designate, will sit down this week with the caucus that all but froze her out to map out her agenda for change - one that puts her B.C. Liberal party on a trajectory for an election well before the date set in May 2013.

But Premier Mom - the "families first" candidate whose only news event Sunday was at her nine-year-old son's hockey game - will first hunt for a seat in the legislature, meaning one of her 47 MLAs needs to step down to allow for a by-election this spring.

Ms. Clark won the party leadership in a vote by 56,600 party members on Saturday night, defeating three sitting MLAs. Ms. Clark, who had previously served in the B.C. Liberal government, cast herself as the outsider in the contest, the fresh face who could turn around the governing party's fortunes.

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"I think people want change," Ms. Clark said Sunday when asked how she managed to defeat the party's establishment. She's promised a family friendly and consultative government, but she has some immediate tasks to attend to first.

Ms. Clark's first day on the job got under way at 7 a.m. with a government transition briefing. She went to church at 8 a.m. and was back in meetings by 9, before dashing across town, late for the hockey game.

Between events, she was talking with each member of caucus as she draws up a new cabinet, in which she'll likely have to give prominence to her three rivals, Kevin Falcon, George Abbott and Mike de Jong. Although Mr. Falcon and Mr. Abbott sewed up virtually all of the MLA endorsements during the leadership race, Ms. Clark predicted Sunday she'll have no trouble uniting her party.

"I'm certainly working on that with all the members of caucus but I'll tell you, the job has been a lot easier than many pundits have predicted," she told reporters outside an East Vancouver community ice rink.

With her strong ties to the federal Liberals, Ms. Clark will have to demonstrate that she can maintain the coalition of B.C.'s centre-right political forces nurtured by her predecessor, outgoing Premier Gordon Campbell.

John Reynolds, a prominent federal Conservative organizer in B.C., said Ms. Clark will find Tories willing to help her. "I'm a great Kevin supporter but Christy has won. She'll have my full support financially and every other way I can help."

Ms. Clark won with only 52 per cent in the third round and was quickly joined on stage by the MLAs who attended a party event in downtown Vancouver. Only one of them, backbencher Harry Bloy, supported her as a candidate.

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Despite the cheery show of support once the votes were announced, some in the room acknowledged that many in the party harbour deep reservations about Ms. Clark.

"God. I hope we're not into another [Bill]Vander Zalm situation," said MLA Bill Bennett, a party member who was dumped from the caucus for criticizing Mr. Campbell. Mr. Bennett was referring to the charismatic outsider who won the B.C. Social Credit leadership in 1986 - before running that governing party into the ground. (Mr. Bennett was quick to add that he is optimistic Ms. Clark can keep the B.C. Liberals in power.)

Mr. Bloy said Sunday the caucus needs some time to adjust to the new reality. "I know a few of them are personally upset, and I talked to a couple of them last night. I just think things will get better. Give it a couple of days."

One key challenge will be moving caucus on the timing of an election.

Just hours before the votes were tallied, Mr. Falcon met with reporters and scoffed at the notion of an early election, saying there isn't a single member of caucus who wants to head to the polls early.

Ms. Clark sidestepped questions on Sunday about how she'll handle that opposition. "I'm not thinking about the election in the next few months so I'm not even thinking of trying to sell anybody on it at the moment."

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It's more likely that she would wait until the opposition New Democratic Party chooses its new leader in April. As well, Ms. Clark has promised to hold a referendum on the harmonized sales tax on June 24. The earliest likely election window would be this fall.

The B.C. Liberals will need cash to fight that election, and condo developer Bob Rennie, a key supporter of Ms. Clark, said business leaders will come through even though many had backed Mr. Falcon.

"I've had e-mails from the big guys all day. I can see it already happening," Mr. Rennie said. "People are transitioning to support Ms. Clark."

On the other end of the fight, property developer Ryan Beedie, who rallied dozens of business leaders to support Mr. Falcon, said the result was "disappointing," but that he is an "eternal optimist" and will support Ms. Clark.

"The battles of the last few weeks are over," said Mr. Beedie, who put together a network of business support for his lifelong friend. "The battle that is the leadership race is over."

How Clark can govern without being an MLA

Christy Clark will become British Columbia's 35th premier when she takes her oath of office, likely on March 14. The fact that she does not hold a seat in the legislature is unusual, but not an impossible situation.

"It's not a presidential system," noted Norman Ruff, the University of Victoria's political science professor emeritus. "The person who is the premier is the leader of the majority party." Right now, that is her B.C. Liberal party.

Ms. Clark will be sworn in by B.C.'s Lieutenant-Governor, and she will have a new cabinet to unveil as well. The government needs to recall the legislature to hold an HST referendum in June - a commitment Ms. Clark made during the campaign. Whether Ms. Clark can take a seat in the House by then will depend on how quickly she can bring about a by-election.

Once an MLA steps down and a by-election is called, it still takes 50 days before the writ is returned. Ms. Clark still has to win - but the B.C. Liberals would have to throw every resource needed to ensure their new leader suffers no embarrassment.

Justine Hunter

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About the Authors
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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