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The Andrew Wilkinson Era: 2018 - 2020

Three hits and five misses from his term as leader of the Official Opposition.
Andrew Wilkinson, in happier days.

Over the weekend, Andrew Wilkinson formally ended his time as leader of the BC Liberal Party, having presided over a crushing electoral defeat. His time saw more misses than hits.

Hit: Winning leadership

Winning is always a notch in the “hit” column – but there are good and bad ways to do it.

The night he narrowly won the BC Liberal party leadership race, Wilkinson said all the right things. He bent over backwards to verbally reach out to leadership rivals and their supporters, even ad-libbing “broaden our appeal” in his speech, one of close third-place contestant Michael Lee’s signature lines.

Reaching out was a savvy move, because the hard truth was Wilkinson wasn’t many voters’ first choice: in first-round votes, he finished fifth. Out of six. The party used a preferential system, which has a tendency to reward compromise candidates. To his credit, Wilkinson didn’t spike the football. (It’s hard to picture Andrew Wilkinson spiking a football. Metaphorically, or literally.)

Miss: Disappearing act

Fourth- and fifth-place finishers Todd Stone and Mike de Jong, respectively, resumed their roles as featured performers on the BC Liberal bench. Less so Sam Sullivan, but he finished a distant sixth, and often seemed to prefer working on his own files. So far so good.

Third and second-place finishers Lee and Dianne Watts – who between them won more than half the first-round votes – fared much worse.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that “Lee was largely invisible, content to focus on bill committee debates in the legislature.” Since then, several BC Liberal sources say Lee was in fact asked to ensure he remained in the background, work behind the scenes, and not take the spotlight – and Lee agreed. Unselfish, but perhaps unwise.

Still, Lee was at least physically there beside Wilkinson, if (mostly) publicly quiet. Watts disappeared entirely. To be fair, she was the only candidate without a seat in the legislature. But from the second ballot until the end, Watts was in front, and obviously commanded a lot of support, especially in Surrey, where she had been mayor – and as the election laid bare, somewhere the BC Liberals badly needed a boost.

No matter whose fault, not successfully bringing in Watts and her support base was a major misstep.

Hit: A disproportional win

As leader, Wilkinson’s first and most pressing task was the already-underway referendum on electoral reform.

At the time, it looked grim, with polls consistently showing the Yes side way out in front, and the government all-but openly tipping the scales in “Canada’s least honest attempt at electoral reform.”

It ended up as Wilkinson’s high water mark in provincial politics. His exact high water mark is easy to point to: the one-on-one live TV debate with Premier John Horgan.

Much of the coverage said there was no clear winner, which was puzzling. It reflected neither what happened on the screen, nor the results after the fact: Wilkinson kept pushing Horgan on the lack of details, and flustered him. Horgan is no slouch in debates; this was a major accomplishment.

The tide turned, and the No side won in a walk.

So comprehensive was the No side’s win, it has spawned the lowest form of political conversation: conspiracy theories. Far too many otherwise-intelligent people say NDP must’ve intentionally sabotaged it. They didn’t. They rushed, misjudged, and lost. It happens.

Miss: Can’t lose the turnover battle

Almost from day one, Wilkinson displayed a tendency for unforced errors.

He attacked the speculation tax at an event held at the West Vancouver Yacht Club. There were verbal missteps that got attention (“wacky time,” “tough marriage,” etc.) but there were others that passed more or less without comment. Wilkinson could be abrupt and dismissive when the camera was on, and as Rob Shaw reported, apparently even more so behind the scenes – and especially with women.

In 2020, this kind of thing doesn’t stay private – nor should it.

In public, Wilkinson had a tendency to push things slightly too far. It was one thing to refer to Darryl Plecas’ assistant Alan Mullen as “a person with no qualifications in life whatsoever” – harsh, but few rushed to Mullen’s defence. But in the election, Wilkinson referred to NDP MLA Ravi Kahlon as “an aggressive, angry, corrosive, divisive person in the legislature.”

There are members of the then-NDP caucus that Wilkinson could have described accurately in similar terms. (With fewer adjectives.) And for all I know, Kahlon might be an absolute bear behind the scenes. But that’s simply not his public image, and not what reporters see every day.

At the time, Kahlon was the NDP’s point man on an accusation of electoral fraud that amounted to nothing and went nowhere. As we've seen south of the border, if you're going to make accusations of fraud, there had better be something to it. Criticism was both fair and warranted – but to be effective, it can’t sound hyperbolic. And this was another example that not only didn’t stick, but rebounded.

Hit: Sheathing the sword

Faced with the worst global pandemic in a century, Andrew Wilkinson faced a choice. Attack and undermine the government response, as the Alberta NDP chose, or swallow his pride and undertake a cooperative, united effort with the NDP government and Green caucus.

Wilkinson took the ethical, Hippocratic route. Riskier politically, but infinitely better for public safety and confidence.

Yes, the NDP took ruthless advantage of this decision. And yes, it was a significant factor in his election defeat. But it was still the responsible thing to do, and I suspect history will judge it well.

Miss: One man band

In 2018 my year-end interview, I asked Wilkinson about his no-podium, no-notes (and to be fair, very well-received) party convention speech:

“Yeah, I’m pretty independent. I don’t take any written notes from anyone; I just go and do it myself and live with the consequences. If it works out, I get some credit. If it doesn’t, it’s all my fault.”

This offered an important glimpse into Wilkinson’s leadership style.

Whether it was never finding people he felt he could trust and/or delegate to, trying to lead by example, or both, Wilkinson tried to do too much himself. On the weekend of the Jane Thornthwaite Zoom controversy, while the media and social media melted down, Wilkinson was inexplicably silent – for almost 48 hours. The reason? He was holed up writing the BC Liberal election platform himself.

On one hand, it’s admirable – never ask anyone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. On several other hands, it’s hard to fathom. It’s a terrible drain on a leader’s valuable time, the kind of thing best delegated and then reviewed, and left a media vacuum at the worst time imaginable.

Miss: Insurrection

If the Jane Thornthwaite issue was a flashfire, Laurie Throness was a long, painful, slow burn.

Throness’ extreme social conservative views had been an issue before, but came to the fore in what should have been a relatively small problem: an Easter Greetings ad in a small Christian publication.

The ad was placed next to some unpalatable but unrelated opinion content, and should have been explained quickly – after all, nobody accused Vancouver Sun advertisers of regression when their ads appeared next to an op-ed the entire chain had to apologize for, and the NDP had examples of ads next to uncomfortable content elsewhere. (And just as much not their fault.)

But when Wilkinson said caucus would no longer advertise there, Throness appeared to defy him – with no consequences.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say Wilkinson should have jettisoned Throness then and there, but that’s not realistic. That said, Wilkinson should have at least read Throness the riot act, and clarified the boundaries. Instead, the appearance was that Throness could freely speak his mind, for better or worse. And when he compared contraceptives to eugenics, it was much, much worse for the candidate, leader, and party.

Miss: Election Unreadiness

Wilkinson simply did not attract a diverse slate of candidates.

Yes, it was a snap election. It’s hard enough to drop everything and run for office with a year’s notice; doing so with 48 hours’ notice is positively Herculean. It’s also even more challenging for women than men, which exacerbated the problem.

But unlike Sonia Furstenau, sprung into an election by a false partner less than a week into her leadership, Wilkinson had time. But he simply hadn’t done the work to ensure a diverse slate of viable star candidates.

It’s hard to understand why. Candidate recruitment is an absolutely fundamental pillar of a party leader’s job. It’s incredibly time-intensive, almost entirely behind the scenes, on the phones (or in better times, on the road), and after office hours. The keys are enthusiasm, patience, persistence, and knowing how to close a deal. That, and caffeine.

But source after source says Wilkinson simply didn’t do enough of this. Again, it’s truly difficult to see why – as noted above, it’s not like he preferred delegating, and nobody who becomes both a doctor and lawyer lacks work ethic.

What comes next? Wilkinson is enduring the worst weeks of his professional life, but he was known as a capable minister and deputy minister, and may well salvage his political career. After all, in 2013, Adrian Dix suffered an even more personal election defeat, complete with agonizing and difficult post-mortems. Today, he’s the most respected member of cabinet.

Whether Wilkinson wants to begin a long, slow, uphill climb back, or is just keeping his Vancouver-Quilchena seat warm in case the next leader needs it, is up to him.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca