Rita Johnston was B.C.'s only woman Premier, but it didn't last long (button: gunzburger.com)
This is my most recent column for 24 Hours newspaper, again focusing on the BC Liberal leadership contest...
Experts with “ranked ballot” votes like the one the BC Liberal party are conducting Saturday suggest that Christy Clark’s first place lead is insurmountable. So on Sunday morning there is a very high probability British Columbians will have a woman premier for only the second time in their history (though no candidate is coming close to conceding yet).
We think of ourselves as a pretty enlightened and liberal society in Canada, but political leadership has been mostly left to the boys. To date there has never been a woman mayor in one of Canada’s three largest cities. Only one woman has been elected Premier of any province (Catherine Callbeck in PEI), and no woman has been elected as Prime Minister.
B.C.’s first woman Premier was Rita Johnston, who like Clark ran for her party’s leadership and won in a surprise defeat of another woman candidate, Grace McCarthy. But the Social Credit brand had been so badly damaged under the leadership of Bill Vander Zalm before her, the party was virtually wiped out in a general election.
Another woman who rose to the leader’s spot was Kim Campbell, a Vancouver lawyer and former school board trustee who earned a reputation for frankness that had her topping the polls in the summer of 1993. But when she went to the voters for a mandate, the PC party she led was crushed with only two seats remaining.
It’s been nearly two decades since we had Kim Campbell as Prime Minister, and it was the fall of 1991 when Johnston lost to the NDP. Why haven’t we seen more women in these top spots since?
It’s interesting to note that the two names discussed as likely successors to replace Gordon Campbell were women – Carol Taylor and Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts. But neither wanted the job this time around.
Did Canada’s track record with women leaders factor into their decisions not to run?
Either Johnston or Campbell might have been an outstanding leader if they only had time to govern, but the mandates expired soon after their ascension.
As Premier, Christy Clark would have to live down this legacy, but she would have a chance to prove the critics wrong. It’s by no means an easy task.
When Rita Johnston beat the popular McCarthy, she inherited a deeply divided party. So it may be if Clark becomes leader on Saturday night. For this reason Christy would have to dig down and reach out to members of the BC Liberal caucus immediately – especially those on the conservative side of the party.
Clark would have a two-year mandate to prove herself, if she decided to use it. There will be pressure though from supporters who would urge her to call an election in the spring.
Like Kim Campbell before her, Christy Clark is extremely popular among the general public. If she wins the leadership, her immediate challenge will be to build support within the “anybody but Christy” crowd.
If not, we’re going to see a replay of Rita Johnston all over again.
In my original story I didn't mention that one woman has been elected as Premier. Catherine Callbeck was elected Premier of Prince Edward Island in 1993. Thanks to a reader for that update.