The BC Liberals’ worst nightmare — the emergence of a serious right-wing rival — could be coming true.
Rebecca Bligh was one of five Non-Partisan Association candidates elected to Vancouver council last year. Late Friday afternoon, Bligh announced she was quitting the party and would sit as an independent.
The NPA, an 82-year-old centre-right political force in Vancouver, had changed, she said.
In late November, 10 new directors were elected to the 15-person NPA board. They included Christopher Wilson, until two years ago the B.C. bureau chief for the right-wing Rebel Media and best known for being slapped down by then-federal environment minister Catherine McKenna.
The new NPA board met last week and elected an executive. Two of the three members were new directors, both unsuccessful candidates for other parties in 2018. Phyllis Tang had run for council; Ray Goldenchild for park board. Both had been endorsed by the socially conservative Let’s Vote Association. And the association’s endorsements had been backed on a website opposing the province’s sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) curriculum designed to “make schools inclusive and safe for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities.”
Bligh saw it as a defining moment.
“...The newly elected executive to the NPA Board having any affiliation with anti-SOGI is against the core values that I hold dear to my heart,” she said in a statement. “There is no debate when it comes to inclusion.”
The four other NPA councillors, along with the party’s school and parks board reps, backed her. “LGBTQ2S+ issues are close to the hearts of all our elected NPA Caucus members,” they said in a statement. But they didn’t leave the party. (To dig deeper, check out Charlie Smith’s excellent reporting at the Georgia Straight.)
NPA president David Mawhinney shot back at Bligh’s statement, saying there is “no evidence that either our secretary Ray Goldenchild, or our treasurer Phyllis Tang have ever made any anti-SOGI statements.”
Why should Andrew Wilkinson and the BC Liberals be worried?
Because Wilson, the former Rebel personality elected to the NPA board, is a director of the BC Conservatives. Ryan Warawa, the BC Conservatives president, was also elected to the NPA board.
That’s bad news for the Liberals on two levels.
First, because the NPA has always been an ally. Gordon Campbell was an NPA councillor and three-term mayor before he entered provincial politics. Christy Clark unsuccessfully tried to become the NPA’s candidate for mayor in 2005, narrowly beaten out by Sam Sullivan.
And more important, because the BC Conservatives’ role in what has been described as a right-wing takeover of the NPA suggests the party has become a more serious threat after decades of irrelevance.
Ryan Warawa’s father was a 15-year Conservative MP until his death from cancer this year. He has political connections. Wilson landed a post as co-chair of the NPA’s fundraising committee, a chance to build relationships that will help the provincial Conservatives. They are both well-placed to help the provincial party.
The BC Liberals can only win elections if there are no other options for voters on the right. In 1996, for example, the Campbell Liberals, the Reform party and Gordon Wilson’s Progressive Democratic Alliance captured 57 per cent of the vote. But the NDP won a majority government.
Neither Campbell nor Clark faced a threat from a right-wing alternative. Former MP John Cummins led the party into the 2013 election but could only find candidates in two-thirds of ridings and bombed.
But the success of Warawa and Wilson in claiming roles within the NPA suggests they could organize a more serious challenge.
The Liberals have struggled since Wilkinson became leader almost two years ago. Partly that’s to be expected; he’s carrying the baggage of the Clark and Campbell years. But Wilkinson has also stumbled into gaffes that left him looking hopelessly out of touch and faced internal challenges.
And the Conservatives have somehow made an impression. A poll this spring found 12 per cent of decided or leaning voters supported them — within one point of the Green party, and a disaster for the BC Liberals.
It’s too early to say if the BC Conservatives can nominate credible candidates and wage a provincial campaign.
But it’s not too early for Wilkinson and the BC Liberals to start worrying.