COLUMN: Christy Clark hoping history doesn't repeat

Her party may be plummeting in the polls and her own personal popularity may be slipping, but Premier Christy Clark soldiers on, smiling for the cameras and maintaining a determined optimism despite recent setbacks. Recent bumps on the road have included the departure of John van Dongen from her party and reports that two senior ministers may not run in the next election.

It hasn't been going well for for the first woman leader of the BC Liberals and the second woman premier of the province.

All of Clark's evident energy, intelligence and media savvy have been unable to improve support beyond the brief, post-leadership bounce in polling numbers when she replaced controversy-magnet Gordon Campbell.

It's been a downhill ride since then, a familiar one for any student of provincial political history.

In B.C., it seems, women don't get to lead a major political party until said party is circling the drain, almost beyond rescue.

Rita Johnston became the first female premier in the history of B.C. and Canada in 1991, when she took the helm of the governing Social Credit Party after Bill Vander Zalm, another controversial figure, resigned.

A few months after Johnston won the Socred leadership at a party convention, she was forced to go to the polls under an election law that set the timing for provincial votes.

Johnston lost, badly. Mike Harcourt and the NDP took power.

Grace McCarthy then took over as Social Credit leader following the loss and Johnston's resignation, but by then, the decline was so pronounced that even the fierce former florist was unable to reverse it.

It must have seemed to Johnston and McCarthy as though the men running the party had waited until they'd messed things up beyond repair before giving a woman a turn at the wheel.

Kim Campbell may have had the same impression after she took over the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives in 1993 to briefly become Canada's first female prime minister.

Campbell took over from the unpopular Brian Mulroney.

Despite starting out high in the polls, Campbell was overwhelmed by a wave of public outrage that all but eradicated the Tories and kept them from governing the country again until Stephen Harper took control.

No matter what the gender, history is not kind to any political leader who has an unpopular predecessor.

This is not to suggest that Clark's defeat is inevitable, just that her odds aren't good.

A look at Margaret Thatcher's career shows success is possible under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Thatcher took over the Conservatives in Great Britain following their 1974 defeat.

By promising a fresh start, she was able, in five years, to lead the party from the wilderness of opposition to become the first woman prime minister in British history.

Thatcher had the support of the men who ran the party until her popularity began to slip and she was forced to resign.

On the other hand, there is Carole James, who won the leadership of the BC NDP in 2003 after the Liberals reduced them to only two seats.

James rebuilt the party, boosting its share of the vote and the number of seats in the legislature. But though she came close, James couldn't command enough support at the polls to form a government.

She paid the price for coming up short in the shape of an internal uprising by party members of both genders which forced her resignation.

James, and Johnston, and Campbell, are cautionary tales for Clark, the kind of history she can't afford to repeat.



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