A new leader will be chosen by British Columbia’s Liberals on Saturday after a months-long campaign that often focused on renewal and a new course for a party that has lost successive elections after 16 years in power.
The party is looking for its third leader since 2017 and is replacing Andrew Wilkinson, who stepped down in 2020 when the NDP were re-elected with a majority government.
The campaign has not been typical due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, featuring online debates and virtual events rather than large rallies and gatherings, but it has consistently centred on soul searching and a focus on the party’s identity by those running to be its new leader.
Seven candidates, including three members of the Liberal caucus, three relative newcomers and a former cabinet minister taking his second shot at the leadership, are vying to replace Wilkinson. The candidates are legislature members Michael Lee, Ellis Ross and Renee Merrifield; business leaders Gavin Dew, Val Litwin and Stan Sipos; and Kevin Falcon, a former Liberal cabinet minister and leadership candidate in 2011.
An election post-mortem report released by the party last June said the Liberals are perceived by many as lacking diversity and must embark on a rebranding that supports the values and aspirations of voters. It said the province has changed and so must the B.C. Liberals.
The party fell behind and the leadership contest is critical for the Liberals, who were left weakened after the 2020 election and have yet to recover, said Stephen Smart, a press secretary to former premier Christy Clark and a Vancouver-based public relations strategist.
“The party continues to bleed support and perhaps, more alarming, the party continues to bleed relevance for many voters, particularly urban voters,” he said.
The Liberals were reduced to 28 seats in B.C.’s 87-seat legislature, losing 13 seats in the 2020 vote, including several in key Metro Vancouver ridings and suffering defeats in former party strongholds in the Fraser Valley.
Smart said cracks continue to form in the party foundation, which despite its Liberal name, comprises a long-standing coalition of federal Liberal and Conservative supporters. The party is not affiliated with the federal Liberals.
“For a long time, there was a lack of recognition that voters had changed, and the party stopped evolving along with the voters,” said Smart, who is a member of the party but not connected to any of the leadership campaigns.
“The new leader is going to need to read the room and figure out what voters are looking for today and how they can make the party relevant for that and 2024 and beyond.”
Every one of the seven candidates made reconnecting the B.C. Liberal party with voters a central theme in their leadership bids.
“This party requires, in spite of its great history, it requires a reboot and a rebuild and a potential rebranding,” Falcon said at the first leadership debate last fall.
Mary Polak, a former Liberal cabinet minister defeated in 2020, said the decline in support from urban voters is concerning, but the party’s success historically has always been the ability of its leaders to bring together people from different regions and cultures.
Those leaders knew which issues to put aside and focused instead on core Liberal values, she said.
“It’s healthy to have people in caucus who have very different views of the province, be it from a rural or urban perspective,” said Polak, who’s now volunteering as the Liberal riding president for the Langley constituency she lost in 2020.
“It’s healthy to have that tension in the room because it exists in the province,” she said. “You’ve always got to balance those interests if you are going to have a successful government.”
Colin Hansen, co-chairman of the leadership election committee, said the party gained more than 20,000 new members during the campaign and he believes they will help lead a Liberal rejuvenation. Liberal party membership is now about 43,000 members, he said.
Voting online or by telephone will run from Thursday to Saturday. The winner is expected to be announced Saturday evening.
The leader will be elected by a ranked ballot process where registered voters choose their candidates in order of preference, ranking them from first to seventh.
In the voting process, each of B.C.’s 87 ridings are worth 100 points for a total of 8,750 points, said Hansen. The first candidate who receives 4,350 points, plus one will be declared the winner.
The Liberals used the same ranked ballot process in the 2018 leadership race that elected Wilkinson on the fifth ballot.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press