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Lessons in unity

Whoever emerges as BC Liberal leader, the smart move isn’t settling grudges, but turning former competitors into loyal allies. It’s been done before, says Katy Merrifield.

It’s February 2022, which means two things. Dry January is over, and the BC Liberals are about to elect their new leader. Coincidence? Time will tell.

Since Christy Clark was elected to replace then-Premier Gordon Campbell 11 years ago, the party will usher in its third leader on Saturday. Whoever wins carries the hopes and dreams to return to government after their half-decade long (and counting) voter-imposed time out.

Will this be easy? No.

Is BC’s free-enterprise, big tent coalition ready to take on the challenge anyway? Also no.

I’m not being intentionally rude, nor am I doubting the capability of the BC Liberal Party – a once-powerful, fearless and inspiring political movement that built critical transportation infrastructure, established world-leading climate change policies, and created an unprecedented number of jobs. I’m just being realistic.

With 28 seats to the NDP’s 57 and the Greens’ 2, the path to victory in the next election would be a difficult trek for any party. Fortunately, difficult doesn’t mean impossible. It just means a lot of hard work, humility, and most importantly, unity within the coalition.

Hard work is doable. Humility should come with being stuck in a distant second place. On unity, I cannot overstate the importance of the days and weeks immediately following Saturday’s vote. After a lengthy leadership race fraught with allegations of racism, voter suppression, cheating, and harassment, the wounds are not only open, but salted.

The winner may be tempted to hold grudges, punish former competitors, and shut people out of the coalition instead of gracefully letting bygones be bygones. There are several reasons why I think this would be a strategic error.

First, the candidates running for leadership, and their teams, are diverse in region, ethnicity, ideology, age, and gender. Diversity is an area the BC Liberals have been roundly criticized on, and have made promises to fix. It would be foolish to ignore the work each campaign did to attract support from key demographics throughout the province.

Second, for now the BC Liberals are firmly in opposition. They have to add 16 seats in the next election while holding on to the ones they have. This is a tall order, and requires a strong, unified team with motivated supporters and volunteers. Using candidates who’ve raised their profile over the past year can only help attract and motivate new, accessible voters.

Third, the devil finds work for idle hands. Leaving your competitors and their teams sidelined, bitter, and possibly vengeful will serve at best, as an annoyance and at worst, your inevitable downfall as leader. Keep people busy, motivated, loyal, and productive.

For a lesson in quick forgiveness and smart strategy, look to Christy Clark and her team after her successful 2011 leadership campaign. Top campaign staff from rival campaigns were elevated to the Premier’s Office. Her top competitors were immediately returned to Cabinet, including appointing as Deputy Premier the second place finisher – Kevin Falcon.

Back then, I was a junior staffer in caucus research (still my favourite job ever) and we were all terrified we would be fired, especially if we hadn’t supported her. Instead, the opposite happened. We were thanked, embraced, and motivated to rally behind her.

Yes, we were in government then, and power can be a soothing elixir. But the coalition is too fragile for infighting. If the BC Liberals want to be returned to government, that path starts with unity, not division.

Katy Merrifield is the Vice-President for BC at Wellington Advocacy, who has served as Communications Director to Premiers of both Alberta and British Columbia, and was the first woman to run a winning leadership campaign in BC.