If ever there was a time for the British Columbia Liberal Party to come out of hiding, it’s now.
The Liberals, still licking their wounds after being deposed early last summer by a New Democratic Party (NDP)/Green Party coalition, are now in the early days of selecting a new leader to replace Christy Clark, the departed former premier.
For the previous 16 years that the Liberals ruled B.C., the party was “liberal” in name only, having no formal ties with the Liberal Party of Canada. And although many members still see their party as a liberal/conservative coalition, B.C. Liberals governed like true-blue Tories.
In fact, that’s what cost them the election. They excelled at consistently balancing the books and fostering strong economic growth, but failed – miserably – at managing street-level needs in sectors such as housing, health, education and child care.
Now, as the new government under NDP premier John Horgan enjoys spending the $2.7-billion surplus the Liberals left behind, the Liberals themselves must remake their image. Simply put, they must shift, ideologically, toward the political centre where some of their traditional soft support left and voted for the NDP.
Leading up to the Liberals’ leadership vote next Feb. 4, the seven candidates will, no doubt, continue preaching fiscal responsibility. But they’ll also need to put forward fresh ideas on how to fulfil the needs of grassroots voters, which the Liberals ignored last spring. They must demonstrate that they’ve learned there’s more to governing than simply balancing the books.
For some of the front-runners, such as former finance minister Mike de Jong, this could be challenging. The 23-year veteran Fraser Valley member of the legislative assembly quarterbacked the balance-the- budget-at-all-costs election game plan.
“I am someone who believes government should live within its means,” de Jong recently told B.C.’s media. “I am a free enterpriser who believes that the engine driving the economy is the private sector, not government.”
Although that sounds like there’s still a lot of fiscal conservative sentiment in his tank, it won’t sit well with many centrist or left-leaning voters. But only Liberal Party members vote for their leader and, during de Jong’s 23 years, he built many alliances within the party.
However, there will also be many new party members voting, thanks to a concurrent party membership drive in which $10 buys you the right to cast a leadership vote on Feb. 4. Among this group, many may gravitate toward a fresher face – and this is where the race gets interesting.
Dianne Watts, the well-known former mayor of Surrey, and, until recently, the Conservative member of Parliament for South Surrey-White Rock, is among the strongest front-runners. She admits she’s an outsider, but of all the candidates, Watts comes across as the most non- partisan, which is the way she governed in Surrey. Moving to the centre shouldn’t be a problem for her.
Todd Stone, formerly minister of transportation and infrastructure, is also a front-runner, but has baggage from his handling of B.C. Ferries and Lower Mainland bridge tolls. Otherwise, only Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Andrew Wilkinson, a doctor, lawyer, Rhodes Scholar and former attorney general in the Liberal government, has a chance.
Regardless of the outcome, though, the B.C. Liberals must learn to open their closet door and put on more voter-appealing clothing.
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