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How long will Clark stay on cruise control?

Christy Clarke announces new initiatives to get greener vehicles on the road.
Christy Clarke announces new initiatives to get greener vehicles on the road. .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

VICTORIA – Last week’s throne speech and this week’s provincial budget make it clear the provincial government is very much on cruise control, and I suspect that’s just the way Premier Christy Clark wants it.

The throne speech was described by many as “threadbare” and an indication the B.C. Liberals are out of gas, to which Clark retorted that the speech wasn’t about generating news headlines but was instead a reiteration of her government’s ongoing plan.

The budget was another steady-as-she goes economic document, which achieves the B.C. Liberals number 1 priority of all: balancing the books. But the budget continues to be balanced on the proverbial razor’s edge, which means there are few dollars available for many new spending initiatives.

Things weren’t always like this, of course. In the run-up to the last provincial election, the Clark government was running around, announcing all kinds of things. The premier herself tried to dominate news coverage and her critics derisively labelled her “Premier Photo-op.”

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But the premier is nowhere near as active in the media these days, and her government is not feverishly trying to change the world. The coming legislature session will see only a modest amount of legislation – less than 30 bills in all likelihood – and I suspect little of it will be controversial.

In conversations with B.C. Liberals, I get the distinct impression they see no reason to do anything particularly dramatic. They sense their voter base seems content with the state of the province, and so a laissez-faire approach has been adopted by the government.

Clark herself seems particularly confident, if not content in how things are going. No one pays attention to polls anymore (not that there have been any), so there is no evidence that if an election were held today that her party would be in trouble with the electorate.

And the premier continues to toy with the NDP Opposition, which is by no means as comfortable in its collective skin as the B.C. Liberals. Clark uses the NDP as the butt of a number of jokes in speeches she makes to party faithful, and in the legislature (which she attends only a couple of days a week) she appears to relish any question period encounter.

The B.C. Liberals are well aware of the discomfort in NDP circles these days, and use any opportunity to exploit the situation. For example, NDP leader John Horgan’s controversial decision (in a year-end interview with Canadian Press) to single out five of members of his caucus as “stars” (thus suggesting the rest of the caucus is something short of chopped liver) has given the governing side a delicious opening in the House.

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For example, B.C. Liberal MLAs occasionally tease any NDP MLA who is not one of the deemed “Fab Five” about their apparent lower status, thus keeping alive the ongoing narrative that the NDP has yet to resolve its internal dynamics.

Contributing to the lower temperature at the B.C. legislature these days is the looming federal election. It’s not until the fall, but its presence is already it is starting to hover over the provincial scene.

The BC NDP, because of its direct ties to the federal party, will naturally become more distracted as the federal campaign draws nearer. Two members of its caucus — MLAs Jenny Kwan and Mable Elmore — are about to fight it out in a nomination for a federal riding, and that will likely cause some tension.

The B.C. Liberals are in a somewhat different situation, but it’s one that can also create some internal tension. The party is a coalition, and its caucus has members who have divided loyalties between federal Conservatives and Liberals.

One of its members – Maple Ridge-Mission MLA Marc Dalton – has opted to sit as an Independent MLA as he seeks a federal Conservative nomination.  If he were to actually win the nomination, he would stand a pretty good chance of winning a safe Conservative seat – which would open up his provincial seat, which in turn is a swing riding that the NDP could capture in a byelection.

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But that’s a lot of ifs. In the meantime, the provincial political scene is off to a quiet start in 2015, and there’s not much to suggest things are going to really heat up for a while yet.

Still, even when a government is content to travel along on cruise-control, something can come out of nowhere to force it to make a sudden, sharp turn along the way. There’s nothing in sight right  now, but the year is young.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.