Political misfires, bad timing usher BC Liberal leader to the exit

There was no choice.

The poorest showing in a generation by a party that hadn’t lost an election this century meant that BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson couldn’t wait for the count of mail-in ballots. He had to lock in his departure, the only leader of a pro-business party since the Second World War to never to become premier.

Discord dogged him from his first day. The ranked ballot that elected him leader in 2018 was pronounced a faulty compromise – Dianne Watts didn’t find her feet in the race, Michael Lee was a newbie, but both carried sizable and unhappy cohorts. Where many leadership races eventually heal and coalesce, this one just never did.

What the party got was one of its most intelligent leaders, but not the retail politician of his predecessor Christy Clark, nor his rival John Horgan. In other times this persona has worked, but in these times the party wanted the big brain to also be the big schmoozer.

Wilkinson never rejuvenated the Liberals, either in reprising his courthouse lawyer days as a formidable foe in the legislature, a visionary for the party’s next chapter, a collaborator and team-builder, or a sufficiently personable public character to charm the electorate. In some ways he lived in denial it needed a reboot.

It’ll sound strange, but in person he is different than he is in public: curious but not invasive, prepared for small talk but preferring bigger talk, and precise in his language on policy. He does have a sense of humour. He does have a lighthearted vein and a love for light rock. He does have life experience that serves to be relevant in public life. And of course, he does have a Rhodes Scholar’s mind to apply.

He courted trouble when he digressed into sharing experiences as a doctor, a lawyer, a renter, whatever. He chooses the oddest anecdotes: delivering a child of colour then named after him, when asked about race and privilege in the leaders’ debate; musing about the “wacky” times he had renting, when discussing affordability; and those awful “tough marriage” choice of words, when discussing victims of domestic violence. 

Long before that Zoom video in which he didn’t stop sexualized comments by his MLA about an NDP MLA – another episode he walked back – it was that recurrent disconnection that stymied his ascent.

He waited and waited to dispatch the baggage of the party, surrounded himself with inexperienced or inadequate hands, and permitted his profile to be usurped by his party executive director or fellow MLAs at critical times.

In particular he wouldn’t shed the in-name-only Liberals who advocated conversion therapy, opposed rainbow crosswalks or didn’t champion tolerance but merely tolerated it. From the start, he wanted to keep everyone in the tent. By the time he dismissed a candidate in the campaign for equating contraception funding with eugenics, or apologized for sitting idly on that Zoom call, it was too late.

To be fair, he didn’t catch many breaks. It did not help that the Horgan government and its partnership with the Greens were not the immediate train wreck to provide him the grist to mill public discord. It did not help that his critique of NDP taxes did not land when the province’s economy was cratering. It did not help that his party’s legacy included the spectacle of ICBC finances and the strange silence on LNG after it had touted it as the province’s economic destiny. It also did not help that his cross-party support of the consequential pandemic fight was conducted behind the scenes. In those circumstances, maybe it was never to be.

His terse statement Monday, capped with a smile for appearance’s sake, made clear he is not exactly folding up the tent immediately. He will stay as leader until a new one is elected, he asserted. More likely, though, is that the party will canvass its executive and caucus and determine that an interim leader in the legislature is the best course while a successor is scouted.

What happens now is an open question. The BC Liberals are now an ostensibly rural party that wishes it could be big-city. Its MLAs are unquestionably situated to the right of the political spectrum; the notion of this party as a federal Liberal-Conservative coalition is a myth. There is no new face from the 2020 election that might spark a resurgence, so it will rely on either its familiar ranks or risk an outsider to muster the internal politics of a treacherously difficult organization.

If he is generous to the party, beyond all he has given, he would stay as the MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena and vacate his seat if his successor isn’t already in the legislature. But this has not been an enjoyable experience, so who could blame him if he either bolted soon or squatted until 2024?

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.