Too rural, not enough diversity, soul searching needed, say B.C. Liberals

VICTORIA — British Columbia's Liberal party should view the election results as a wake-up call from voters who punished the free-enterprise coalition for refusing to renew itself in changing times, say former and current members of the legislature.

The Liberals lost up to a dozen seats and finished a distant second to the New Democrats who will form a majority government.

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The election revealed the party's declining support in Metro Vancouver and its failure to recognize the needs of middle-class families, said Jas Johal, who was the Liberal member for Richmond-Queensborough until his defeat in Saturday's election.

The Liberals also must do better when it comes to reflecting and supporting diversity and the rights of LGBTQ-plus people and others, he said in an interview.

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

Throness quit as the Liberal candidate in Chilliwack Kent during the election after comparing free contraception to eugenics at an all-candidates meeting. He continued to run as an Independent and was trailing NDP rival Kelli Paddon by fewer than 200 votes with mail-in ballots still to be counted.

Elections BC says there are about 600,000 mail-in and absentee ballots across the province still to count, so the final result in some ridings could change.

Johal said the Liberals chose to lick their wounds after the 2017 election when they should have embraced renewal after winning more seats and votes than the NDP but found themselves out of power when the Greens helped the New Democrats form a minority government.

"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."

Johal's comments came a few hours before Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson announced on Monday that he will step down as party leader as soon as a successor is chosen. Wilkinson said his announcement starts the "challenging and exciting process of rebuilding the party."

Mike Bernier, a former Liberal cabinet minister, said the party will have to do a lot of soul searching after Saturday's election defeat.

The Liberals must find ways to keep the party's Liberal and Conservative supporters together to maintain a united front to counter the NDP, he said.

Bernier, who was re-elected in his Peace River South riding, said now may be the time to change the name of the party, which has no affiliation with the federal Liberals.

"In a big part of the province, a lot of the challenges are around the party name," he said, adding that past calls to change the name were not supported by its members.

Bernier said the Liberals were dejected following their loss of power in 2017 and renewal was not being considered, but it will be now.

"We need to look at our policies. We need to look at our vision and we need to look at what we can offer the people of B.C. as an alternative to the NDP," he said.

Johal said the Liberals must examine how they surrendered the urban vote to the NDP over the years.

The NDP won traditional Liberal seats in Vancouver, Surrey and even the Fraser Valley, he noted.

"Those ridings, especially the Fraser Valley, Richmond, that was the wall," Johal said. "That's where our support would never waver and now it has. It speaks to the fundamental need for the party to renew and speak to a new generation of voters."

He said a modern and renewed Liberal party must focus on more than just cutting taxes. It must speak to the needs of people, especially those in Metro Vancouver.

"It can't just all be about sawmills and LNG and an industrial economy," Johal said. "We're not having that broader modern conversation. We've got to start talking that urban language."

Prof. Sanjay Jeram, who teaches political science at Simon Fraser University, said the Liberals must maintain the right and centre coalition by continuing to keep the party as the voice of fiscal conservatives, and supporters of entrepreneurs and small business.

"In some ways the election might be a silver lining with only 29 or 30 seats, because they are going to have a lot of new candidates next time," he said.

Johal said the Liberals should consider the next four years as an opportunity to get things right.

"It's a tough, hard slog but we've got four years and that's a long enough period to rebuild this party."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2020.

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