Having lost heartland seats in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley and Okanagan in the pandemic election of 2020, the B.C. Liberal Party is preparing to select a new leader and potentially a new name in the new year.
Premier John Horgan’s majority NDP government has made permanent a temporary subsidy for political parties, after it out-fundraised the B.C. Liberals and B.C. Greens by a wide margin for voluntary personal donations that are now capped at $1,200.
Out of government after 16 years led by premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark, the B.C. Liberals had the distinction this year of tapping the federal government’s pandemic program, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, for more than $300,000 to help pay staff. The federal NDP also used the program, but the B.C. NDP did not.
The minority NDP-Green government of 2017 gained support as the COVID-19 pandemic set in and emergency funds flowed out federally and provincially. Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Andrew Wilkinson struggled to be noticed in the travel-restricted October 2020 snap election campaign. He resigned the leadership soon after the final result: 57 seats for the NDP, 28 for the B.C. Liberals and two for the B.C. Greens.
Now party financial support has shifted to the six leadership campaigns competing for the job of taking over from interim leader Shirley Bond, who won praise on all sides for mounting a strong opposition to Horgan’s government. The campaigns were given until Dec. 17 to sell memberships and win existing members’ support on ballots they must rank one through six. Vote results are to be announced Feb. 5, 2022.
After candidate debates in September and November, former Surrey MLA, finance, transportation and health minister Kevin Falcon has had the most attention from rivals. Repeatedly questioned about his intentions if he doesn’t win, Falcon said he has proven his loyalty over decades and will not seek a return to the B.C. legislature unless he wins the leadership.
Falcon has been adding MLA endorsers in recent weeks, including Abbotsford South MLA Bruce Banman, Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok, Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes and Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo. They joined a list with Delta South MLA Ian Paton, Surrey-White Rock MLA Trevor Halford, Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris and Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone, who was an early favourite but declined to run himself.
Another key Falcon endorser is former Surrey mayor and MP Dianne Watts, who came close to defeating Wilkinson in the 2018 leadership contest. Watts and Falcon both remain popular in Surrey.
Member preferences are not officially known until a vote is revealed. But in the late November debate, rival candidates focused on Skeena MLA Ellis Ross, a former Haisla Nation chief councillor and pioneer of liquefied natural gas development in B.C. Ross has endorsements from Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka, Peace River North MLA Dan Davies and Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad.
At the latest debate, dominated by the province’s response to the flooding and landslide emergency in the Fraser Valley and Interior, Ross said an emergency plan he put in place for Kitimaat Village shows what needs to be custom-designed in every community in B.C.
Kelowna-Mission MLA Renee Merrifield is the only female candidate, and was in the key health critic job until stepping down for the leadership contest. Merrifield emphasizes her experience working with Indigenous people in private business, before being elected to the B.C. legislature in 2020.
Making his second run at the leadership is Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee, who targeted Falcon in one debate exchange. The B.C. Liberals can’t rebuild public support by “bragging about the bridges we’ve built in the past,” Lee said.
There are two first-time candidates from the Vancouver business community. Former B.C. Chamber of Commerce president Val Litwin emphasized his business and health care experience in a Sept. 28 debate that featured discussions of daycare, Indigenous relations and the challenges of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gavin Dew emphasized his work organizing Vancouver campaigns and running himself in the NDP stronghold of East Vancouver, as well as starting his own businesses.