Premier Christy Clark sanctioned personal attacks on her critics this week, saying she will not muzzle her MLAs. In fact, she suggested it can be a winning strategy at the polls.
By allowing the intemperate remarks of BC Liberals Harry Bloy and Kevin Krueger to go unchecked, she has effectively unleashed the pit bulls.
It's a well-used tactic. The party leader keeps his or her hands clean, delegating the mudslinging to others. With all the dirt flying in the B.C. Legislature in recent weeks, however, some of it is going to end up on the Premier.
This week, Mr. Krueger called NDP Leader Adrian Dix a cheater who has demonstrated a pattern of dishonesty. But it is not just the New Democrats who are bleeding support from the BC Liberals these days, and he saved his greatest vitriol for MLA John van Dongen, who quit the BC Liberals to represent the BC Conservatives. A man with a "really nasty streak" and no integrity, he said. Then he went into details.
"I would have expressed that differently," Ms. Clark said when asked by reporters about Mr. Krueger's 10-minute rant to reporters.
Ms. Clark, however, described Mr. Krueger as a passionate man whose refusal to adhere to political correctness has been validated by voters at the polls. She won't put a cork in it. "On the BC Liberal side of the House, MLAs express their views about things. In my government, that is not an unacceptable thing."
That principle had already been tested last month when Mr. Bloy launched his own attack on Mr. Dix, accusing the opposition leader of fraud and theft, with a hefty dose of innuendo. Mr. Bloy did apologize, and the Premier later said he was wrong to make those comments. But there was no reprimand.
Not everyone has embraced the ethos that going negative works. Mr. Dix has repeatedly vowed that he – and his party – won't engage in personal attacks. Old habits die hard, however, and NDP House Leader John Horgan admitted in an interview on Thursday that he himself struggles to keep onside of his leader's edict.
"There are opportunities to be negative and Adrian fastidiously says, 'No, we're not doing that.' I have a tendency, as you know, I can get [worked up] as well and I'm trying my level best to follow that leadership." The NDP Leader argues that negative attacks turn voters off.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Horgan thinks Ms. Clark should have shown disapproval for her MLAs' conduct. But closer to home, Ms. Clark's approach can be contrasted with the response of her own deputy premier, Kevin Falcon. "I don't believe nasty is necessary," Mr. Falcon told reporters last month when asked about Mr. Bloy's commentary. "I would not do that." Mr. Falcon is as prepared to throw down the gloves as any politician in the B.C. Legislature today, but he took pains to say those exchanges should be limited to ideological differences.
Angus Reid pollster Mario Canseco thinks the BC Liberals would be wise to avoid going negative as they fight to climb their way back up the polls. Attack ads are best deployed by parties that are ahead and have a base of support to hold onto, he said. "If anything, Dix's approval has improved after the BC Liberals launched their [attack]ads. When the base is eroding – and this is evident, as they have lost half of their 2009 voters to other parties – the negative ads only serve to reinforce some of the unfavourable features that the public has already absorbed about the BC Liberals."
Ms. Clark is not persuaded. She notes that Mr. Krueger – who has earned a reputation for blunt talk – has been an electoral success in a bellwether riding.
"The people of Kamloops have elected Kevin Krueger every time since 1996," she said. "My guess is, the people of Kamloops think the fact that he says what he thinks and doesn't worry about political correctness all the time, is something that appeals to them."
Opposing members of the B.C. Legislature are symbolically seated two sword-lengths apart to ensure that they use only their words when ideologies clash.
Those words, in the House and in the corridors outside, are often sharp and occasionally push the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.
Kevin Krueger, BC Liberal MLA, to reporters on May 9, on former colleague John van Dongen:
"This little man with his jealousy and his self-serving behaviour … suffers from delusions of grandeur.… The guy has a really nasty streak."
John Horgan, BC New Democratic Party House Leader, in Question Period on May 8:
"The privatization of the Liquor Distribution Branch was a dead issue … until the arrival of a new premier and a new handler, a guy named Patrick Kinsella. So my question to the Premier is this: What changed your mind? Was it just the political contributions, or was it pressure from the guy that delivered the premier's chair to your office?"
Premier Christy Clark, in an interview May 10:
"This is politics. People will express their views. Sometimes it's not flattering. I live with my fair share of that, I don't whine and complain about it."