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Tensions on the rise for Liberals

This has been a summer of quiet discontent for B.C. Liberals.

This has been a summer of quiet discontent for B.C. Liberals.

Not much of that discontent has been made public, but Barry Penner's sudden and unexpected resignation from cabinet is the first evidence of the tensions that are mounting behind the scenes.

Penner was being pressured by the B.C. Liberal party to sign his nomination forms and to get out and recruit a volunteer campaign team. With a new baby in the family, he had decided he wouldn't be running again.

But Premier Christy Clark's insistence on getting her party ready right now for an election call forced his hand. He told me it would be disingenuous of him to recruit friends to work on his campaign if he wasn't planning to run.

So he took the extraordinary step of quitting cabinet. But it was the way he did it that raised eyebrows: he issued his own news release to reporters, and he caught the premier, the government and the party completely by surprise.

This was not the kind of move by an MLA who was happy with what's going on in the party.

And Penner is not alone. I'm not sure if anyone else will quit, but I know of at least a handful of MLAs who have spent the summer issuing loud grumbles on the barbecue circuit about the direction of the government and the party under Clark's lead.

They are concerned about what they see as a lack of a game plan for the government, and they are nervous about the prospect of a fall election that could end in disaster. Some think there is a not-so-subtle attempt to deny them their own re-nominations.

Clark has talked about creating a "jobs agenda" but has provided no details about what that really means. She has said the legislature will resume sitting in October, although it's unclear how heavy a legislation package will be introduced.

And she has announced she will travel to China and India in November. It will be a trade mission, and to hear her talk about it you'd think she was the first Canadian politician to discover that area of the world.

Clark has been criticized for appearing to govern by photoop. Her brash call for swift justice in the wake of the Stanley Cup riot now looks opportunistic and in fact simply highlights the problems of a clogged court system that suffers from, among other things, lack of funding from her government.

She keeps talking about her "families first" agenda, but as time goes on it begins to wear a

little thin as her government cuts daycare subsidies and closes group homes.

She's been tagged as "Premier Flip-Flop" by some for her contortionist exhibitions on some policies (the timing of the HST vote and the two-cent-a-litre gas tax, to name two).

In the meantime, Clark appears to have done little to unite her team behind her. The government caucus does not meet often and has held one retreat since she became leader.

Her leadership was backed by just one MLA, remember, and that was Harry Bloy, who has been under fire for his weak handling of the social development ministry.

Of course, it is the dog days of summer right now and not much is being done anywhere. But expectations are high come the post-Labour Day period. That's when the public starts focusing again on policies and politics, and the pressure will be on Clark to step up and prove to her own colleagues she's got what it takes. I've said before the prospects of a fall election seem to be fading. If the house does indeed resume sitting and Clark does go to Asia, it leaves precious little time for a 28-day campaign.

I'm told internal party polling shows Clark continues to lead her own party in popularity. Perhaps, because of that, she thinks she's her party's best and only hope for winning that election.

Perhaps. But I think the bloom came off her rose some time ago, and the public now wants to see someone govern, rather than play electoral politics.

She'll have to lead by example and show that she has a plan and a vision for B.C., or those grumbles in her own party are going to become a lot louder.

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