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BC Election 2020

The Woes of Andrew Wilkinson

People describe him as smart, educated and capable. But the BC Liberal leader has struggled in the campaign and faces growing internal criticism.

Andrew MacLeod 19 Oct

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at .

The first impression that BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson made on Sam Klein-Laufer was so strong that it still stings seven years later.

“I just despise Andrew Wilkinson,” said Klein-Laufer, now 24 and a student at the University of British Columbia. “He was rude, he was elitist, just absolutely awful.”

In 2013 Wilkinson was a new candidate running for election in Vancouver-Quilchena, a wealthy constituency and BC Liberal stronghold. Klein-Laufer was a Grade 11 student moderating a debate that he and other students had organized for the candidates at Magee Secondary School.

On the topic of housing affordability Wilkinson offered no solutions, instead advising students they better become doctors and lawyers, Klein-Laufer recalled, a position that came off as unhelpful and elitist. When there were technical issues with the sound system, he said, Wilkinson became angry and accused the students of censoring him.

“All in all, he talked down to the audience,” said Klein-Laufer, who pays attention to politics but isn’t involved in any partisan way. “He just kind of had this air of ‘I’m better than you.’ For someone who’s got two graduate degrees, it’s amazing some of the things that come out of his mouth.”

Wilkinson could have been having a bad day, Klein-Laufer allowed, but argued how he conducted himself at the high school that day was consistent with some of his more recent comments and the impression he still gives. “People have patterns of behaviour.”

The Tyee made repeated requests for an interview with Wilkinson starting in the first week of the campaign, but he has been unavailable.

Both NDP Leader John Horgan and BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau gave substantial interviews to The Tyee during the campaign.

For many years the BC Liberals, a coalition of federal Conservatives and Liberals united around “free enterprise” and opposition to the NDP, looked like the province’s natural governing party. They were in power for 16 years before the 2017 election, and many observers thought their time out of power would be brief.

But with the party far behind in opinion polls a week ahead of election day, the weakness of Wilkinson’s leadership has emerged as one of the dominant themes of the campaign.

CKNW radio host Mike Smyth wrote about the NDP’s lead. “One reason is new Liberal boss Andrew Wilkinson has proven to be a stiff, uninspiring leader.”

Smyth drew on an episode of The Simpsons where the wealthy Mr. Burns runs for governor but is hampered by his inability to smile. “Wilkinson seems unable to turn his own frown upside down as election day nears, and the Liberals could soon be into another leadership race if he loses and is forced to resign.”

And veteran Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer weighed in on the resignation of social conservative Laurie Throness as the Liberal candidate in Chilliwack-Kent. “Wilkinson let the situation drift until it was too late to replace him with a more mainstream candidate. Chalk it up as one more reason why Liberals are despairing about the election and already speculating about possible successors to Wilkinson.”

Wilkinson’s weakness as leader is a bit of a surprise. He’s well-educated, and people who have worked with him say he’s capable and intelligent.

On the campaign trail Wilkinson has spoken many times about being a doctor, saying it equips him to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and helps him understand issues in long-term care for seniors, the opioid poisoning emergency and the struggles of people living with addictions.

851px version of AndrewWilkinsonVIUVisit.jpg
As minister of advanced education in the previous BC Liberal government, Andrew Wilkinson visited Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. Wilkinson has two graduate degrees. Photo via BC Government Flickr.

Wilkinson moved to Canada from Australia with his family as a child and grew up in Kamloops. He graduated in medicine from the University of Alberta in 1984, according to his LinkedIn page. It’s unclear though how long he practised.

By 1986 he was a law student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and he began working full time as a lawyer in 1989. His experience includes a stint as executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association from 1993 to 1995. His time in private practice includes representing Big Tobacco after the B.C. government sought compensation for the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. He also represented a Chinese company that reneged on a promise to reopen a Prince Rupert pulp mill and wouldn’t repay property tax breaks the city had provided contingent on the project going ahead.

Wilkinson had previously done a BA in law at the University of Oxford while on a Rhodes scholarship from 1980 to 1982.

Suzanne Anton, who as the MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview and justice minister was a colleague of Wilkinson’s for four years in cabinet, said “he is what he appears.” Wilkinson is capable, well regarded by people who know him, paid attention on his file and had good ideas for public policy, she said.

“I thought he was a very serious kind of guy,” said George Abbott, a cabinet minister in the government led by then-premier Gordon Campbell starting in 2001 when Wilkinson was a deputy minister. “I judged him to be serious and capable and thoughtful from the interactions with him.”

Abbott has recently written a book about those years, Big Promises, Small Government: Doing Less with Less in the BC Liberal New Era, that expands on his PhD thesis and examines how tax cuts inevitably led to service cuts and reduced government capacity.

Before joining the bureaucracy as a deputy in Campbell’s office in charge of intergovernmental relations, Wilkinson had been working as a lawyer in Vancouver and serving as the president of the BC Liberal Party.

“Gordon and Andrew would have been close,” Abbott said, adding he expects Campbell would have had some influence on Wilkinson becoming president of the party. “Andrew’s a very intelligent and capable guy, so I’m not surprised Gordon would have enlisted him as party president.”

Similarly, Wilkinson’s education and experience made him a relatively uncontroversial hire for the government, even though the BC Liberals had campaigned heavily on ethics and making the public service non-partisan, Abbott said.

But those qualities don’t necessarily translate to good political leadership, Abbott added. “I was surprised when he was elected leader, because he never struck me as particularly an easygoing politician along the John Horgan line.”

To some degree Wilkinson was the compromise winner of the 2018 leadership contest, winning by coming up the middle in a field of six. The party used ranked ballots and weighted them to give each constituency the same number of “points” in the contest regardless of how many members they had.

Despite having more endorsements from BC Liberal MLAs than any of his rivals, Wilkinson was fifth in terms of raw votes after the first round of vote counting, a result that improved to third with the weightings considered.

In subsequent rounds, as second, third, fourth and fifth choices were distributed, he passed Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee and former Surrey mayor and MP Dianne Watts to win the leadership.

Federally Wilkinson has been a Liberal, having served as a riding president for the party in the 2000s and as an official in B.C. on Michael Ignatieff’s leadership campaign.

After winning the BC Liberal leadership, Wilkinson had some success with his campaign against changing the province’s electoral system in a 2018 mail-in referendum and drawing attention to issues like the rising cost of condo insurance and how the NDP’s speculation tax was affecting some homeowners.

During the COVID-19 pandemic he’s collaborated with the government and the Green party and has spoken on the need for a unified, non-politicized public health response.

But during the campaign Wilkinson has largely found himself on the defensive. There was the bungling of the response to sexist remarks MLA and North Vancouver-Seymour candidate Jane Thornthwaite made during a roast for retiring MLA Ralph Sultan.

Then came the bungling that saw Throness resign Thursday as a BC Liberal candidate, letting Wilkinson avoid having to decide whether or not to fire him following remarks that compared providing free prescription birth control to eugenics. Throness will still be on the ballot, and he says he’ll sit as an Independent and be a voice for social conservatives if he wins.

Now there’s the failure to send a clear message by firing Margaret Kunst, the Langley East candidate who as a Township of Langley city councillor recently voted against a rainbow crosswalk. Wilkinson’s responses have stressed that there’s no room for intolerance in the BC Liberal Party, but Kunst remains as a candidate.

Even party insiders are raising concerns about Wilkinson’s leadership. Membership chair Nicole Paul last week said publicly there’s a leadership problem, tweeting, “The BC Liberal Party under Andrew Wilkinson does not reflect values I support.”

“The BCLP doesn’t have a Laurie Throness problem,” she wrote. “We have a problem in the leadership of the party and their lack of willingness to stand up for diversity, inclusion and the values of BC Liberal members — not just the interests of a small group of constituents.”

Paul tweeted Friday that she wasn’t “pulling the knives out” on Wilkinson but that she is fighting for a party she cares about and wants to see it return to its foundational values.

Wilkinson, asked in a teleconference with reporters about Paul’s tweets, said, “Every party has some dissenting voices,” and that the BC Liberal Party is based on equity and fairness.

Other critics have suggested the party lost touch with what the province needs some time ago and has had a hard time finding its way back.

At the end of September, a week into the campaign, former Nanaimo BC Liberal MLA Ron Cantelon posted a comment on a blog written by former BC Liberal strategist Mike McDonald about the challenge the party faces in the election.

“Perhaps the old ‘free enterprise party’ is no longer a big enough tent,” Cantelon wrote. “Christy didn’t look to care for people left behind in the economy.”

Reached by phone, Cantelon said he’s supporting his local BC Liberal candidate, but messaging from the central party on social supports has been unclear for years. “I think we became obsessed with free enterprise and making a buck, and we left people behind,” he said.

A broader approach is needed that takes into account how people’s backgrounds shape their lives, he said. “It has to be co-ordinated. It seems pretty obvious. Our society is leaving people behind.”

Abbott too said he thinks the party has made a veer to the right. “I was surprised in the current campaign how the tack seems to be to the more conservative wing of the party in this election. I’m not sure if the conservative wing of the party would agree with that, but it’s certainly my sense the tack is to the right.”

As an example, he gave the BC Liberal promise to allow private companies to compete with ICBC to provide basic auto insurance, an idea the government considered and rejected after the 2001 election.

“Revisiting that surprised me,” Abbott said. “There were a lot of very intense cabinet discussions around how ICBC might be reformed in that 2001 to 2003 period. Ultimately there was some changes to ICBC, but not of the fundamental nature of opening it to competition in all aspects. There was a reason for that.”

He also said the promise to cut the seven-per-cent provincial sales tax to zero for a year, then return it to three per cent for another year after that, was surprising. “A more directed stimulus program that could use even a small portion of that money would be of greater value to those who are vulnerable in this pandemic than the sort of shotgun of PST.”

The policy would put a $10- or $11-billion hole in the provincial budget, a situation reminiscent of 2001 when a 25-per-cent income-tax cut led to spending cuts and starved services, he said.

Abbott said Wilkinson and the people around him would have sat down and figured out what combination of policies would give them the greatest hope in the election.

That hope may be looking increasingly thin with days to go before Saturday’s election day.  [Tyee]

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