Most influential women: Christy Clark

One of the hardest places to disrupt, says Premier Christy Clark, is government

In her view, being disruptive means confronting the status quo with the view that the status quo always needs to be changed. “Government is very big, very process-oriented, and has multiple bottom lines that we measure by,” she says. “Status quo lives and breathes more heartily inside big institutions than anywhere else in society. So it’s harder here. I think you always have to be questioning the relevance of everything you’re doing all the time and be prepared to change it.”

As she enters the final year of her mandate, Clark’s leadership can be evaluated in those terms. She points to the settlement with the teachers’ union as an example of a positive disruption. Most parents of school-aged children, having scrambled for childcare during the months-long strike, wouldn’t see it that way. But Clark’s point is this: the antagonistic pattern of teachers’ strikes and government’s back-to-work legislation had gone on for 25 years, and needed to be broken. “I insisted that we figure out how we were going to negotiate a settlement, and it was really hard to get there. But the reason I wanted to was that we had to force peace between both parties, and the result was what I hope is going to be a very long-term change in the system: at least five years of labour peace.”

Another rancorous issue—with no resolution in sight—is transit in the Lower Mainland and how it’s funded. Clark insisted on a referendum for a new sales tax to cover more buses and trains; when it failed, many blamed the premier for gridlocking the process. “It’s going to take a longer time to change the landscape around TransLink and the way that municipal governments interact with senior levels of government,” she says. “We haven’t been successful yet on changing the culture around how we make decisions on transit. We will, but it’s going to be slow.”

Clark built much of her 2013 election campaign on one word, “jobs,” which she continues to use with great frequency. It usually comes up around big energy and infrastructure projects, especially LNG, on which promise she hasn’t given up. The billions in wealth Clark expected would flow from LNG is still far from her grasp, due largely to low global oil prices and foreign competition, and she acknowledges it’s been harder than she expected to get the industry in motion. But a smaller initiative also aimed at giving people jobs is already creating meaningful change. It started when Clark looked at some particularly stubborn statistics: single parents (mostly moms) don’t get off social assistance.

“So I asked all our ministers to find out why,” says the premier. “And guess what? All the various ministries are working at cross-purposes. We say to a single parent, ‘we want you to get in the workforce, but here’s the thing. You’re going to have to find and pay for child care, you’re going to have to find and pay for the education, you’re going to have to figure out how to get back and forth to your school—and by the way, we’re going to cut off your welfare cheque the minute you register for school.’ So of course nobody gets a job!”

The answer, realized in the Single Parent Employment Initiative, required various ministries to work together and offer tuition, transportation, childcare, and ongoing income support to single parents who pursue training for an in-demand occupation. Fifty people from the program are already working, with hundreds more enrolled. “We are starting to change those statistics,” says Clark, “but what it took was breaking down those silos between ministries and getting everybody to pony up a little money from their budget and say, ‘we are going to do this part of the process completely differently.’” 

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