It’s been a tumultuous year or so for British Columbia’s fragile right-wing political coalitions.
After winning its lowest number of seats since 1991 in last year’s snap election, the BC Liberal Party is now in the early stages of a leadership race to fill the role vacated by Andrew Wilkinson, who resigned in February.
With four leadership candidates currently declared, rifts between the party’s elected caucus and membership, as well as between its socially “progressive” and social conservative wings are becoming increasingly apparent.
Similarly, at the municipal level, Vancouver’s right-wing Non-Partisan Association (the city’s oldest civic party, formed in reaction to the growing influence of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation during the 1930s) is in the middle of its own civil war, with elected councillors resigning from the NPA caucus, and breakaway parties and mayoral campaigns gearing up to split the right-wing vote for the 2022 election.
BC Liberals grapple with social conservatives, disgruntled members
Picking up where the Social Credit Party left off in the early nineties, the BC Liberals comprise a right-wing coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives with the primary goal of keeping the BC NDP out of power.
In years past, the party was able to massage divisions between its so-called “socially progressive” and social conservative wings with the promise of political power. Having now lost two elections in a row, that bargain appears to be getting harder to sell to key sections of the party, who are becoming visibly disgruntled.
Former BC Liberal MLA Laurie Throness, a regular attendee of anti-abortion rallies and an outspoken opponent of LGBTQ rights, deepened rifts inside the party last year when he defended placing taxpayer funded ads in an evangelical magazine that regularly publishes homophobic and transphobic content. In response to calls for his resignation, Wilkinson did nothing for months (resulting in the party being banned from Vancouver’s virtual Pride parade).
After finally being turfed by the BC Liberals for comparing free birth control to eugenics in the middle of last year’s election campaign, Throness, who lost his seat to the NDP, recently re-emerged on Twitter to offer advice on how the next BC Liberal leader can keep hardline conservatives in the party fold.
Echoing sentiments expressed at anti-lockdown rallies, Throness wrote: “Here’s a policy to attract social conservatives: require a legislative vote to approve any lockdown. The power granted Dr Henry (even if popular) to shut down all of BC without debate is too great for any one person. Health is not the only consideration.”
Here's a policy to attract social conservatives: require a legislative vote to approve any lockdown. The power granted Dr Henry (even if popular) to shut down all of BC without debate is too great for any one person. Health is not the only consideration. #bcpoli @BCLiberalCaucus— Laurie Throness (@LaurieThroness) May 24, 2021
A few days prior, the former MLA tweeted: “About 1/3 of BC Liberal members are social conservatives. So-cons in general feel marginalized and disrespected. This presents a huge opportunity for leadership candidates. Embrace social conservatives, offer policies to gain their support—and win.”
While Throness’ reactionary ramblings will not necessarily be heeded by any of the party’s elected caucus or current leadership candidates, social media commentator Aaron Gunn, who has expressed an interest in potentially running, has indicated he would give the party a new name, and shift it significantly to the right. However, some of his recent statements have provoked open hostility from sitting BC Liberal MLAs.
Responding to an NDP MLA’s anti-racism motion in the BC legislature, Gunn grumbled: “More garbage from the NDP perpetuating the myth we live in a systemically racist country founded on “white supremacy.””
BC Liberal MLA Karin Kirkpatrick replied: “I am shocked and horrified by these comments from @AaronGunn which clearly demonstrate his lack of awareness, empathy and understanding of the world around him.”
Even if Gunn does not run, and former BC Liberal cabinet minister Kevin Falcon (who is the pundits’ favourite to win) secures the leadership, the very prospect of Gunn entering the race has inflamed already bubbling divisions inside the party.
If Falcon does win, he will bring a record of overseeing BC Liberal austerity during his time as finance minister between 2011 and 2012, and, more recently, a career working as an executive for a luxury real estate developer during some of the worst years of the province’s ongoing housing crisis. Part of the reason the party fared so poorly in Metro Vancouver in the 2020 election, some analysts say, was because of its dire track record on addressing the housing crisis while in government, and offering nothing to struggling renters while in opposition.
Splits within the BC Liberal caucus and among leadership hopefuls have also been reflected among the party’s base. During a virtual town hall following last year’s election defeat, BC Liberal members were given a chance to vent their concerns about the party’s direction.
MLAs Dan Davies and Stephanie Cadieux, who hosted the meeting, heard from apparent urban liberals upset by the embarrassment social conservatives had caused the party, and from hardliners demanding the party shift even further to the right. One member declared:
The silent majority is waking up because of what’s happening and they want limited government and big freedom. You can tell I’m conservative, right off the bat … Man, I had huge red flags when I started hearing about these mail-in ballots … the chain of custody was flawed. It doesn’t matter, provincial, municipal, federal. We have a problem with the election system.
The member was cut off by Cadieux.
To top it all off, BC’s campaign finance reforms, which banned corporate donations and capped individual contributions at $1,200, have hit the BC Liberals hard. Recent Elections BC filings show the party, once flush with corporate cash, is nearly $2 million in debt.
What does this mean?
None of the above is to suggest the BC Liberals (or NPA) are finished. BC’s right-wing coalitions have held together and bounced back in the past, as Bill Bennet’s Social Credit Party did when it defeated BC’s first NDP premier, Dave Barrett, in 1975.
What it does mean, however, is that the NDP and its municipal allies in towns and cities will need to be pressured to stop pandering to big business interests who currently don’t have a functioning political home, and who are aggressively lobbying and seeking to curry favour with supposedly progressive incumbents.
A key recent example is the issue of sick pay: the BC NDP’s temporary COVID-19 sick-pay program (contrary to what this author suggested in a previous article) ended up being virtually identical to Doug Ford’s program in Ontario, and also risks being exploited by highly profitable corporations that could be free to scrap existing programs in order to take advantage of government subsidies.
Absent any parties in the BC legislature aggressively pushing for measures like 10 days of sick pay, it is up to extra-parliamentary movements to hold the BC government’s feet to the fire on behalf of working people. In this context, a weakened right-wing is an opportunity for real progress, not compromise.
Alex Cosh is a regional news reporter for PressProgress and former opinions editor for rabble.ca based in British Columbia.