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British Columbia The BC Liberals: A legacy of transformation and division

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark arrives at Government House to meet with Lt-Gov. Judith Guichon after her Liberal minority government was defeated on a confidence vote in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, June 29, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The BC Liberals have been dethroned after 16 years in which the party was able to transform the province's approach to issues ranging from climate change to resource development – all while holding together a right-of-centre coalition of voters with a heavy focus on smaller government, lower taxes and job growth.

The result is a divisive legacy that has allowed the Liberals to leave office boasting of balanced budgets, job growth and a stellar credit rating, and for critics to complain that those gains were made on the backs of the province's most vulnerable and, more recently, at the expense of the province's reputation as an environmental leader. It also leaves the party in an existential crisis about how to rebuild, especially after last-minute, and ultimately unsuccessful, policy reversals in the dying days of the government's term. The party's greatest legacy, former Liberal MLAs and insiders say, is building a "free-enterprise coalition" that transformed British Columbia from a have-not province to Canada's leading economy with a vaunted AAA credit rating.

In the style of the Social Credit Party, which was supplanted by the BC Liberals as the province's centre-right party, two Liberal premiers crafted a vision of a province friendly to business and resource development. The Liberals also set the province down the path of building what is likely its last major hydroelectric dam in Site C and getting more bitumen from Alberta to global markets through the potential expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

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Read more: A look back at 16 years of Liberal successes and failures

"If you physically drive around B.C., you see things that Gordon Campbell built, the same thing with Christy Clark," said Greg Lyle, a pollster who has occasionally worked for the Liberals after managing Mr. Campbell's failed attempt at becoming premier in 1996.

But, both those controversial big-ticket items, which remain in jeopardy after the change in government, sowed division across the province, just like other problems that developed under their watch such as the skyrocketing cost of homes in many communities and chronic child poverty.

Critics argue that the party balanced its budgets at the expense of a more equitable social-safety net, citing a decade-long freeze on welfare rates and mismanagement of the foster-care system.

Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at the University of Victoria who has studied B.C. politics for 30 years, said Liberal policies brought the province the "holy trinity" of smaller government, lower taxes and job growth.

However, their reticence to spend on social services eventually wore thin on more and more British Columbians, who felt they may have taken a mean-spirited or austere approach to some pressing public issues, according to Prof. Prince.

"The irony is they worked hard on the fiscal side, I give them credit for that, but they had the money, they had the room and they could have been far more gracious and far more Liberal – in the national sense of the Liberals," he said.

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An example of this approach creating a logistical – and political – headache for the party was the gutting of contract language that limited the size of classes in 2002, under then-education minister Christy Clark, Prof. Prince said.

Last November, after a protracted legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, the government was forced to pay a $300-million settlement to the BC Teachers' Federation and agreed to pay millions more hire additional teachers and reduce class sizes to their 2002 levels.

George Abbott, who was elected in 1996 and held a Liberal seat for 16 years, agreed, saying the Liberals felt pressured to make cuts to education and health-care contracts after they brought in a 25-per-cent cut to income tax shortly after gaining power.

"In retrospect, government badly overreached," he said Friday.

Another Liberal success, he argued, was that for the first time in B.C.'s history, the government invited First Nations to participate substantively in developing natural resources.

"First Nations were treated pretty shabbily in terms of the ways in which they were consulted and shared in the resource development," he said. "Mines today are the largest employers of First Nations people in B.C. – that's a positive story and trending in the right direction."

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Bill Bennett, a cabinet minister under both Mr. Campbell and Ms. Clark, said criticism of the Liberals for holding back additional spending on social services was unwarranted – except for freezing welfare rates and not doing enough to support disabled citizens.

In recent years, there was "huge support in the caucus" for raising social-assistance rates, but the finance minister refused to allow it, Mr. Bennett said.

This issue was ultimately one of the factors that lost the Liberals the past election, Mr. Bennett said.

"We just assumed that our record on the economy was going to be enough and we let the other guys get away with painting us as really being bad people," he said.

After Mr. Campbell brought in the hugely unpopular Harmonized Sales Tax in 2009, the party faced a political crisis that led to his exit and the rise of Ms. Clark.

The party also fought off a challenge from the fledgling BC Conservative Party – which has no formal connection to its federal counterpart – in 2013, when it appeared the Conservatives were poised to siphon off votes or even seats from the Liberals and potentially allow the New Democrats to take power. It didn't happen and the Conservatives have since withered, barely registering in the most recent election.

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Now, many argue the Liberals are facing a crisis because Ms. Clark's embrace of huge boosts to the social safety net – contained in her Throne Speech – threatens to alienate the conservatives in the party's "big tent."

That, Mr. Lyle argues, could lead to the evaporation of B.C.'s centre-right coalition because that new system would likely lead to the resurgence of other parties that cater to former B.C. Conservatives – whom he says consistently poll at about 10 per cent of the total population.

In B.C.'s history, only George Walkem has returned to become premier once again after an electoral loss.

But, at least in the near term, expect Ms. Clark to remain as leader of a formidable opposition that could trigger the downfall of an NDP minority government that is balancing on a hair's breadth, Mr. Bennett said.

"I would not anticipate any kind of palace revolt," he said.

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