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A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for BC

By Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman

Review By Tracy Summerville

June 2, 2018

BC Studies no. 199 Autumn 2018  | p. 191-2

In February of 2011, I was the moderator for the BC Liberal Leadership candidates’ debate in Prince George, British Columbia. As the evening got underway I saw Christy Clark enter the room. She caught my eye, came straight toward me, took my hand in both of hers and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Hello, you’re Tracy Summerville, it’s nice to meet you.” She then took a few moments to engage me in questions about my research and matters of interest to constituents living in northern BC. As she smiled and excused herself so she could head to the stage, I thought to myself, “Wow, is she ever impressive.” I am under no illusion that she could have picked me out of a crowd but clearly she had made sure that a staffer had told her who was moderating that evening.  I tell this story primarily because the feeling that she engendered in me in those few moments has stuck with me for years and those feelings emerged again as I read A Matter of Confidence by Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman. The authors capture perfectly the visceral feelings that Clark brought to her campaign and to her Premiership. In fact, the whole book is about the dynamic personalities of BC politics written in a way that is compelling.

This book is not academic in the traditional sense. It is meant for a broad audience but the authors have done significant research. They interviewed over 70 people (listed in the acknowledgements) who provided in-depth accounts of their time in BC politics and provided details of some of the most dramatic political moments over the last nearly 20 years. The authors sometimes provide direct attribution as they bring to life the difficult conversations that took place between advisors, staffers and political leaders, but a lot of the book is a narrative compiled by aggregating the details of events through the interviews and other supporting information. It is interesting to note that former Premier Gordon Campbell “declined multiple requests to be interviewed” (viii) and I would have appreciated a list of those individuals who the authors wanted to interview but could not or did not for some reason. For example, it is notable that Shirley Bond is missing from the list of interviewees.

The book starts with the moment that John Horgan became Premier. The short four-page prologue sets the context for the story of the newest dramatic shift in BC politics when Horgan informed the Lieutenant Governor, Judith Guichon, that he would be able to maintain confidence in the House and form a government with the support of the three newly elected BC Green Party MLAs. The thesis of the book is driven by the idea of confidence, not just in the political, responsible government sense, but in the sense of the personal confidence of three protagonists: Gordon Campbell’s “over-confidence”, Christy Clark’s self-assuredness and John Horgan’s “questionable self-confidence.” The authors adeptly show how each Premier’s personal traits worked both for and against them in their individual bids to win over the voters. Because the book focused so closely on the personal attributes of the players I felt a little bit like the broader national and international context was missing. While it is clear that leadership styles matter, both Campbell and Clark were helped by the larger political context in which neoliberal rhetoric about big government and high taxes was winning favour in other jurisdictions. While the book is an “inside story” it would have helped a bit to explain the Campbell and Clark premierships if the reader knew more about the bigger story.

Readers will find stories of public policy like taxation, the pursuit of LNG, and child welfare strategies embedded in personal stories rather than in bureaucratic processes. Campbell was known as a policy wonk and did not suffer fools gladly. He is described as “inspire[ing] fierce loyalty” by those he respected, but dismissive of those who could not keep up with him.  Clark’s personal story is rich with tales of her father’s struggles, the sexism she faced in politics and her life as single mother. All of those challenges framed the single most important idea that drove her politics: the importance of a stable job.  Horgan’s story is shaped by the loss of his father when he was young, the tough love of a high school teacher and the deep gratitude for the kindness of strangers that his mother instilled in him. Shaw and Zussman do a very good job of showing how different types of “confidence” can lead to both success and failure in the tumultuous world of BC’s polarized politics.

A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for BC
Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman
Victoria: Heritage House Publishing, 2018. 336 pp. $22.95 paper.