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The B.C. Liberal leadership race: Rebirth or reckoning?

The B.C. Liberals have always been an uneasy coalition of conservative and liberal voters,

By Bruce Cameron, Black Press Political Affairs Columnist

This coming February, the B.C Liberal Party will hold a leadership contest to replace outgoing leader Andrew Wilkinson. The party vote will be held February 4, 2022, more than a decade since Christy Clark won a surprise victory as the ultimate outsider over Kevin Falcon, who was considered a rising star in the party at that time.

For political watchers, party leadership races are fascinating contests decided by a volatile mix of factors. First is the degree to which the party members want an outsider taking the reins—someone usually coming into government from the private sector—or an established political operator familiar with the party and governing systems. Clark won in 2011 as an outsider when Falcon was a young insider.

Kevin Falcon is running for leadership again after a hiatus from politics since 2012, which now ironically makes him an outsider. In a recent campaign swing through Vancouver Island ridings, he said his decision to step away from politics to spend more time with his young family was well-timed, noting that his second daughter was born on the very day (as Finance Minister) he would been delivering the BC budget, February 19, 2013.

Since that time, he has worked in the private sector at Anthem Capital, a Vancouver-based company investing in a diverse range of sectors, from housing development to craft beer, technology and mining. At his campaign stops, he highlights his current work with not-for-profit organizations like the StreetToHome Foundation, seeking solutions to the problem of homelessness and addiction in Vancouver’s downtown east side.

While the leadership race remains mostly under the public radar so far, there is a lot of internal maneuvering and persuading going on within the party across B.C. And this brings us to the second major factor at play: the push/pull of the debate over whether to court centrist voters or more conservative right-wing interests.

There are six declared candidates vying for the role, plus a seventh, Aaron Gunn, who has recently signalled he will run but has yet to submit his official papers. Gunn’s controversial support for people who have espoused what critics call homophobic and trans-phobic positions may draw attention to the race, but will that be beneficial or detrimental to the party?

The B.C. Liberals have always been an uneasy coalition of conservative and liberal voters, united in one common purpose: to defeat the NDP. That coalition will be severely tested over the next few months. When Falcon narrowly lost to Clark in 2011, he won most of the more “conservative” interior and suburban Vancouver ridings, while Clark took the more progressive-minded ridings along the coast and in downtown areas. The primary challenge for the B.C. Liberals today is to bridge that divide between urban-rural and conservative-liberal voters. While socially conservative positions may rally a core base of motivated supporters in a leadership contest, they make it very hard to get elected in a diverse progressive place like British Columbia.

That could explain why Falcon is reminding potential party voters of his ground-breaking support in 2008 for a carbon tax which both reduced emissions and kept the economy healthy.

Aside from Falcon, there are some impressive candidates, each with a unique constituency and political base. The list of leadership hopefuls includes three current MLAs, including Michael Lee (Vancouver Langara), Renee Merryfield (Kelowna Mission) and Ellis Ross (Skeena). Merryfield is hoping to inspire younger voters, while Ellis Ross’ experience as Haisla Nation Chief may attract northern and Indigenous voters. Rounding out the list of “insiders” is previous leadership hopeful Lee, who may appeal to tech-savvy urban voters in his trademark congenial approach. A good example is the lighthearted gesture he made recently by “buying forward” a beer at a craft brewery on Vancouver Island for his rival Kevin Falcon, who was coming through the area the following week. All posted on Instagram, of course.

At the heart of the race again in 2022 is the preferential weighted vote ballot. Sound complicated? It is. Think back to other party leaders who won recently because they were not the first choice within their party, but who garnered enough second- and third-place choices to win: Andrew Scheer, Erin O’Toole and Andrew Wilkinson. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the success of the preferential weighted ballot.

Lee was leading on the fourth ballot in 2018, but due to the convoluted leadership voting system, which awards points for second and third place choices, Lee was dropped from the fifth and final ballot. Everyone’s second or third choice, Wilkinson, was elected leader.

The B.C Liberals are hoping for a different outcome this time around.

Bruce Cameron has been a pollster and strategist for over 35 years, working initially for Gallup Polls, Decima Research and the Angus Reid Group before founding his own consultancy, Return On Insight.

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