A new party leader will bring a front bench makeover
The BC Liberal Party leadership contest was expected to be a dull affair. In the end, however, it was anything but, arriving at a gripping conclusion watched by a ballroom overflowing with party supporters and every major provincial news outlet in attendance.
The dinner hour newscasts were breaking away from their coverage to reveal the results of each ballot. But the fifth and final ballot was announced at 7:10pm, leaving those audiences hanging as to who won.
The much-touted rookie MLA Michael Lee (Vancouver-Langara) and former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, whose campaigns were run by some of the province’s most-seasoned political operatives, fell into third and second place respectively.
The last man standing was Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Andrew Wilkinson, who few were predicting as the prospective winner.
And not because Wilkinson was not qualified – far from it.
As political leaders go, Wilkinson has an impressive background. In addition to being both a doctor, lawyer, and a Rhodes Scholar, he once served as a deputy minister. He has also been one of the BC Liberals’ best parliamentarians.
Rather, it was the fact Wilkinson was being lumped into the category as part of the BC Liberals’ ‘old guard’ – even though he had only served one full term in the B.C. Legislature.
This is now Andrew Wilkinson’s party, and B.C. voters will be watching closely.
At a media scrum on Saturday night, he brushed off a question about his age (60) saying he would challenge skeptics to hike the formidable Grouse Grind with him.
For all the talk of “renewal” during this campaign, people have overlooked the cards Wilkinson has been dealt. It is no secret that the BC Liberal caucus needs to modernize with a stronger balance of youth, experience, gender and diversity.
With many MLAs likely eyeing retirement, it is inevitable the party will attract fresh blood. But in the meantime, Wilkinson will have to remake the party’s image with the team as it is today.
Luckily for Wilkinson, his caucus has several rookie MLAs who distinguished themselves during the fall session. He will assign them to key critics’ roles to hold the BC NDP government’s feet to the fire.
The new leader must come to rely on MLAs such as Ellis Ross (Skeena). Ross brings an unparalleled passion for bringing prosperity to rural British Columbia, and has been a critic of U.S.-funded environmental activism. He would be a strong and credible counterpoint to government on environmental and rural development issues.
Last fall, Tracy Redies (Surrey-White Rock) was strong in question period, and with the first full budget pending later this month from the governing BC NDP, Redies’ experience as a credit union CEO will be put to good use.
Jas Johal (Richmond-Queensborough) was another standout, and he should be seated within arm’s length from the new leader in the Legislature. There are plenty of tough portfolios to hand to Johal, such as unraveling what is next for BC Hydro or ICBC.
Mike Bernier (Peace River South) showed himself to be an effective critic for Health. Few in Premier John Horgan’s Cabinet know their portfolios as well as Minister Adrian Dix, which is why Bernier’s Cabinet experience is an asset in Opposition.
Ian Paton (Delta South), Peter Milobar (Kamloops-North Thompson), Joan Isaacs (Coquitlam-Burke Mountain) are rookie MLAs who also deserve an honourable mention for strong performances in question period and in committee last fall. Each will likely get handed challenging assignments from the new leader.
Assuming he does not have other political ambitions – such as running for the Vancouver mayor’s job – Michael Lee is someone who Wilkinson can work closely with as he finds his feet in the Legislature. Lee opted out of taking a critic’s portfolio in the fall session.
One of the tough roles to fill for Wilkinson could be his House Leader. Tradition holds that it is a job that would go to one of his rivals for the leadership. That makes the list pretty short, given that second-place finisher Dianne Watts does not hold a seat.
One option would be Todd Stone. The Kamloops-South Thompson MLA had a bad week though after questions were raised by of the previous government’s handling of decisions relating to ICBC, and his campaign admitted to membership signup infractions. But with little bench strength under the age of 50, Wilkinson needs Stone as part of his image re-making effort.
It would make sense if veteran MLA Mike de Jong (Abbotsford West) hung onto the House Leader’s job for the upcoming session.
Finally, for Wilkinson there is the matter of L’affaire Plecas – and what to do with the now independent MLA who sits in the Speaker’s chair. For many in the party and the caucus the defection of Abbotsford South MLA Darryl Plecas from the BC Liberal caucus is deemed a betrayal.
To succeed in the Legislature, the BC Liberals need rapprochement to happen with the Speaker immediately. While reinstating his BC Liberal membership would be a bridge too far, resetting the relationship would be a smart move I predict Wilkinson will make.
This is now Andrew Wilkinson’s party, and B.C. voters will be watching closely as he works to refresh the BC Liberals’ image.
The Analysis of the Vote
Thanks to Chad Skelton for this interesting dissection of the voting data. Read the whole thread.