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Wilkinson the ‘Lesser Evil’ for BC Liberals

Uninspiring perhaps, and hardly renewal — but safe.

By Paul Willcocks 5 Feb 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and now an editor with The Tyee. He covered B.C. politics and policy from the legislative press gallery for a decade.

And so the BC Liberal leadership express limps into the station, brakes squealing, several coaches off the track and passengers and crew squabbling.

But for all that, Andrew Wilkinson’s fifth round win over former Surrey mayor and Harper MP Dianne Watts is, at least in the short term, good news for the party.

It would have been disastrous if Watts or Todd Stone had won after both were accused of attempting to register some 3,700 ineligible people as party members.

Stone belatedly acknowledged the party had rejected 1,359 memberships his campaign had submitted, contradicting his previous denials of any problems — but he only came clean after more than half the party members had cast their leadership ballots.

And Watts never addressed charges from Mike de Jong campaign strategist Stephen Carter that her campaign had 2,300 memberships rejected.

“Fourteen hundred and 2,300 memberships not allowed for specific campaigns? That’s not administrative error. At the very least it’s an attempt to manipulate the process,” Carter told The Tyee’s Andrew MacLeod.

If either had won, other candidates would have rightly felt cheated, as they did after Christy Clark’s 2011 win.

The Liberal party once again bungled the leadership process, refusing to provide basic information to members about how many sign-ups were rejected and which campaigns and ridings they came from, another source of anger from some members.

Wilkinson’s first job is to soothe the hurt feelings and keep the party together. On the plus side, he starts with the support of 13 of 41 MLAs, more than any other leadership candidate. But during the campaign he was also abrasive, critical and dismissive of the other hopefuls.

The BC Liberals have been successful because they united the centre right. Since Gordon Wilson was purged in 1993 and the last two Socred-Reform MLAs abandoned their party in 1997 — Jack Weisgerber to sit as an independent, Richard Neufeld to join the Liberals — the party has stuck together.

When the party was in power, that wasn’t too challenging. The leader had the ability to reward loyalty with extra pay and plum positions and punish dissent. (In 2016, 44 of 48 Liberal MLAs were getting some sort of salary top up thanks to appointments by Clark.)

But the task is tougher in opposition, especially if there is no clear path to victory in 2021 (or whenever the next election comes).

Wilkinson also has to convince voters the Liberals have something new to offer. Not a lot of voters — the party did win the most votes in last year’s election. But enough to create a different outcome next time.

That won’t be easy, especially given the bizarre pre-defeat throne speech — which Wilkinson supported — that copied the platforms of the NDP and Greens and made the party look unprincipled, bereft of ideas and ridiculous.

Wilkinson isn’t a likely choice for a leader who will bring renewal. He’s an insider, party president before Gordon Campbell was elected in 2001, deputy minister and lobbyist. After he was elected in 2013, Wilkinson held three minister’s jobs — technology, innovation and citizens’ services, advanced education and, briefly after the election, Attorney General. It’s hard to think of any particular accomplishments in any of them.

And while he talked about the need to convince ordinary voters that the Liberals understand their concerns during the leadership race, his action — or inaction — as a member of the Clark cabinet speak much louder.

Wild West political donations overwhelmingly seen as corrupt? Fine by Wilkinson. Running ICBC and BC Hydro into the ground and pushing Site C ahead without proper review? No problem. Ignoring warnings of money laundering and other crime in B.C. casinos? The profits of BC Lotteries and the private casino companies were more important.

Wilkinson was a major player in a government that steadfastly refused to address the housing crisis and placed the interests of real estate political donors over citizens.

And on everything from disability assistance rates that left people dirt poor to the failure to acknowledge the need for a child poverty plan to understaffing in 85 per cent of seniors’ residential care homes, Wilkinson’s government was indifferent to the needs of average citizens.

Everyone will tell you how smart Wilkinson is, and about his undergrad degree from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and medical and law degrees. Smart is good, of course, but so are political skills and some basic policy ideas.

And Wilkinson had few specific policy ideas to offer during the leadership race — tax incentives for rental housing, more jobs training, a vague commitment to take action on the opioid crisis. After winning, Wilkinson said he plans to focus on holding the NDP government to account in the legislature, asking “smart, incisive questions that will make their skin crawl.”

That suggests he might not have fully grasped the changes in politics over the last 30 years. Question Period is still a good place to expose government bungling or policy missteps, but for a lot of reasons — including the shrinking role of traditional media — its impact is much less than in the past. Snark and snide may rally the back benches, but they don’t play with voters the way they did 20 years ago.

Wilkinson also repeated his pledge to fight any proposal for electoral reform.

That’s ironic. The Liberal party used a ranked ballot for the leadership race. If the party had used the first-past-the-post system Wilkinson pledges to defend, Watts would be the leader today and he would have finished third.

But his focus on the coming referendum on electoral reform is understandable. Keeping the Liberals together— urban and rural, centrists and right-wingers, libertarians and social conservatives, federal Liberals and Conservatives — is only possible with a two-party system. In a more representative system, two or three centre-right parties would emerge and need to co-operate to govern. That would end the central control by the premier’s office that was the hallmark of 16 years of BC Liberal rule.

Ultimately, Wilkinson’s chance of success depends on factors he can’t control.

If the Liberals can drive a wedge between the Greens and the NDP — another priority he set out after the leadership vote — they gain a stronger position.

More critically, Wilkinson has to wait to see if Premier John Horgan’s government will make the kind of big mistakes or policy decisions that alienate the centrist voters who gave them the chance to form government.

That, more than anything he does, will decide the next election.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, BC Politics

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