Let the BC Liberal Civil War Begin

Leadership campaign pitting federal Conservatives against federal Liberals could fracture long-standing BC right-wing coalition.

By Bill Tieleman 1 Aug 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. Email him at weststar@telus.net see Twitter @BillTieleman or visit his blog.

“The allies we gain by victory will turn against us upon the bare whisper of our defeat.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

When Christy Clark left the political battlefield by resigning as BC Liberal leader last week she started what will likely be a devastating civil war inside her party.

The often-shaky coalition of federal Conservatives and federal Liberals that makes up the BC Liberal Party will now have to find a new leader who can bridge significant ideological and personal divides.

The BC Liberals are merely the latest version of the anti-New Democratic Party coalition that has existed since 1941, when Liberal and Conservative MLAs joined together to form a majority government.

When that coalition fell apart, the new Social Credit Party took power in 1952 under W.A.C. Bennett, ruling for 20 years until the NDP under Dave Barrett finally formed a government. The Socreds regrouped under Bill Bennett, W.A.C.’s son, to defeat Barrett in 1975 as a self-described “free enterprise coalition.”

When Social Credit and that coalition imploded, the NDP took power in 1991 under Mike Harcourt, then won re-election in 1996 under Glen Clark. Those 10 years of NDP rule re-invigorated B.C.’s right wing and former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell took over leadership of the opposition BC Liberals, turfing scandal-plagued leader Gordon Wilson and turning it into another anti-NDP coalition.

When Campbell was forced out of office by a 2010 caucus revolt, Christy Clark leapt back into B.C. politics.

Clark was once a prominent federal Liberal, working in Ottawa in 1993 for then-transport minister Doug Young. But she cleansed herself of those ties as premier by shamelessly flattering Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, attending former Reform Party leader Preston Manning’s conservative conference and hiring ex-Harper aides like Ken Boessenkool and Dimitri Pantazopoulus.

And now, with Clark hastily exiting after losing the premiership to NDP leader John Horgan, the right-wing coalition is again preparing to go to war — with itself.

Clark precipitated the hostilities, first by blowing the May election despite huge political and financial advantages, then by not negotiating a deal with the Green Party to retain power and finally by introducing a Throne Speech that destroyed the BC Liberal Party brand of fiscal conservatism by promising to implement almost the entire NDP and Green election platforms.

Clark’s decision to spend like a drunken socialist sailor after being more miserly than Ebenezer Scrooge to the poor, disabled and disadvantaged for years reeked of rank hypocrisy and an unbelievably desperate attempt to cling to power.

Clark’s last-gasp shot at remaining premier didn’t convince the public, but it did completely alienate those Liberal MLAs who are fiscally and socially conservative — and who heavily lean towards the federal Conservative Party.

That sets up the coming fierce battle for control of the party between the right-wing coalition’s federal Conservative and Liberal wings.

Expect South Surrey-White Rock MP Dianne Watts to be the main Conservative candidate for BC Liberal leadership, with likely support from hard right MLAs like Rich Coleman, Mary Polak and Mike de Jong.

But former Surrey mayor Watts’ decision to join Harper’s team in the 2015 election means she will have to wear their discredited campaign tactics — like the endorsement from discredited former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and the proposed “barbaric cultural practices hotline” aimed at picking up anti-Muslim votes, an idea Watts publicly defended.

“We can deal with a hypothetical situation but if, at the end of the day, calling an RCMP tip line helps a single child and helps us take care of them, then it’s well worth it,” Watts said in response to widespread criticism of the Conservative idea.

Watts was also condemned over a Conservative flyer with her name and photo on it that claimed in all capital letters: “ISIS URGES JIHADISTS TO ATTACK CANADIANS/ ‘YOU WILL NOT FEEL SECURE IN YOUR BEDROOMS.’”

Liberal candidate Judy Higginbotham said Watts’ leaflet was: “Absolutely fear-mongering. It doesn't address the issues that South Surrey-White Rock have top of mind, and it certainly was meant to provoke and totally inappropriate."

Watts would also alienate federal Liberals in the coalition as well as the Justin Trudeau government and its numerous B.C. cabinet ministers and MPs.

They will be looking for a more liberal leader who will appeal to the urban voters alienated by Clark, but essential for Trudeau’s re-election in 2019.

That leadership candidate might be Todd Stone, Kamloops-South Thompson MLA and former transportation minister. Stone was once a federal Liberal riding association president and recently described himself as “a Paul Martin Liberal or a Joe Clark Conservative” federally.

Neither of those choices will appeal to BC Liberal hardline conservatives who want neither a federal Liberal nor a “red Tory” leader.

Should the Conservatives prevail and Watts win the leadership, federal Liberals and voters alike may simply bail out, preferring to see the NDP government continue over having an ex-Harper Conservative MP as premier.

The BC Liberals have tried to stay out of federal politics to avoid opening rifts in their coalition. They noted the backlash when some BC Liberals — including Christy Clark’s then-husband Mark Marissen and some ministerial aides — were involved in taking out Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien in favour of Paul Martin. Marissen — with Clark’s support — also backed ill-fated Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, and headed his successful leadership campaign.

The BC Liberals also have to fear a positive result from a planned referendum on proportional representation, which could split the right-wing coalition into its component parts and encourage the revival of the BC Conservatives.

The right-wing BC Liberal coalition has survived by agreeing to fight federal elections as separate parties while co-operating in provincial elections to keep the hated NDP out of office.

That provincial cooperation would quickly end if all parties were to be elected under a proportional representation system that is designed to give roughly the same percentage of seats as the percentage of votes each party receives.

The challenge now for the BC Liberals is to find the perfect leader who doesn’t irritate either side of the existing coalition — and can also defeat Horgan whenever the next election happens.

The more likely alternative is a Liberal civil war with one side winning, and then losing the support of the other side, before likely losing the election to the NDP.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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