Lib­eral makeover needed

The B.C. Lib­er­als will need to find new ways to en­gage alien­ated vot­ers de­spite their fis­cal re­straint — or maybe be­cause of it

Investment Executive - - COMMENT & INSIGHT - BY BRIAN LEWIS

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-the­bud­get-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 non­par­ti­san, 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 fron­trun­ner, 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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