Former Chilliwack-Kent BC Liberal MLA Barry Penner, pictured here in 2016 when he was the outgoing chair of the ICBC board of directors, said the BC Liberals have a lot of work to recover from the Oct. 24, 2020 election defeat. (Black Press File)

Former Chilliwack-Kent BC Liberal MLA Barry Penner, pictured here in 2016 when he was the outgoing chair of the ICBC board of directors, said the BC Liberals have a lot of work to recover from the Oct. 24, 2020 election defeat. (Black Press File)

BC VOTES 2020: Former Chilliwack-Kent MLA Barry Penner opines on BC Liberal future

‘There isn’t enough room on the political spectrum … for two free-enterprise parties’

Saturday’s provincial election once again confirmed that there is only room for one centre-right political party in British Columbia, at least for those who don’t want an NDP government.

That’s according to former BC Liberal Chilliwack-Kent MLA Barry Penner who compared the preliminary result in Chilliwack to the 2012 byelection won by the NDP beating out the BC Liberal and the BC Conservatives finishing third.

• LOOK BACK: Penner resigns to join law firm – November 2011

• LOOK BACK: NDP all smiles as O’Mahony wins – April 2012

Both in 2012 and in the 2020 election, the combined BC Liberal and BC Conservative vote totals were greater than the number the NDP received. In the Chilliwack riding, before mail-in ballots have been counted, Dan Coulter of the NDP leads with 4,575 votes over incumbent John Martin with 3,512 votes. BC Conservative candidate Diane Janzen finished third with 2,190.

“With the BC Conservatives landing in third place in both the 2012 byelection and this year’s general election, this seems to confirm the long-held view (since the 1950s) that there isn’t enough room on the political spectrum under the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system for two free-enterprise parties to compete against each other without electing the NDP,” Penner said.

In his old riding of Chilliwack-Kent, Penner pointed to the possibility that either the NDP’s Kelli Paddon or Laurie Throness (who was on the ballot as a BC Liberal but has resigned form the party) could still win given how close the margin is with thousands of mail-in ballots to be counted. After Election Day, Paddon sits with 5,199 votes to Throness’s 5,004.

• READ MORE: BC VOTES 2020: An unexpected orange wave hits Chilliwack and Agassiz

“These will be anxious days over the next few weeks and I feel for the candidates…the suspense is something I am sure they could do without.”

As for the future of the BC Liberals, Penner says Wilkinson should stay on until results are finalized, but even then he suggested this is not the time for a leadership race.

“Running as a leader of a provincial party is no small task,” Penner said. “Andrew Wilkinson gave it his best shot. Like life, politics doesn’t always turn out the way you hope it will.

“It would be best for the BC Liberal Party not to rush head-long into another leadership race. For one thing, there is a pandemic…. [I]t would make sense for elected MLAs to select an interim leader once all the ballots are counted, and then conduct a review of the current rules for running a leadership. For example, it would be worth considering whether the current 100 point system for each riding, regardless of the number of members in those ridings, is the best way of reflecting the will of the members. This could provide one or two years of stability where the focus is on fixing the party rather than arguing about who should lead it.”

Penner, who served 16 years as MLA in Chilliwack-Hope and Chilliwack-Kent serving in a number of roles including Attorney General and Environment Minister, added that restoring public confidence and rebuilding the BC Liberal brand will require a huge effort.

“British Columbia will have a large fiscal hangover to deal with in coming years as a result of unprecedented deficit spending. While predicting the future is always a risky undertaking, there’s a good chance this will be a dominant issue for the next election – along with who has the willingness and skill to put B.C. on a solid footing following the pandemic to sustain funding of healthcare, education, environmental and other social priorities.”

On specifics, and related to Chilliwack-Kent, Jas Johal, who was the BC Liberal member for Richmond-Queensborough until his defeat in Saturday’s election, said the party needs to do more to support the diversity and rights of LGBTQ people and others.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Johal pointed directly to Laurie Throness who was ousted from the BC Liberals after the latest in a string of comments leader Andrew Wilkinson said were unacceptable.

“When you think you can convert somebody who is gay to a heterosexual life, I think that’s absurd,” Johal said, referring to former Throness who placed advertisements in a magazine supporting conversion therapy.

• READ MORE: Too rural, not enough diversity, soul searching needed, say BC Liberals

“So in 2020, B.C. voters inflicted renewal on the party and that’s what you’re seeing now,” he said. “When you lose the amount of seats that we did in what was once solid B.C. Liberal territory, it’s a wake-up call. To be very blunt, B.C. voters took us to the back of the barn and gave us a thumping.”

– with files from The Canadian Press

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