Andrew Wilkinson stepping down as leader of B.C. Liberal Party

Andrew Wilkinson is stepping down as leader of the B.C. Liberals after the party lost a projected 12 seats in Saturday’s election — including some in traditional Liberal strongholds.

“Leading the B.C. Liberals has been a great honour, but now it’s time for me to make room for someone else to take over this role,” Wilkinson said in a brief statement Monday afternoon. He did not take questions from the media.

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Wilkinson said he has asked the B.C. Liberal Party president to work with the party executive to immediately determine the timeline for a leadership election process to select his successor.

“I will step down as leader as soon as the new leader is selected,” he said.

Wilkinson said on Sunday called John Horgan, who won a historic majority and became the first NDP premier to win re-election, on his victory.

Preliminary election results show the NDP leading in 55 of the province’s 87 constituencies, with the Liberals ahead in 29 and the Greens leading in three.

Wilkinson noted that while there are still more than half a million mail-in ballots to be counted, it’s clear that the NDP have won a majority.

Wilkinson was criticized for failing to connect with voters and for a lack of leadership when scandals hit the party during the campaign.

The B.C. Liberals could be completely wiped out on Vancouver Island, with Liberal incumbent Michelle Stilwell trailing NDP candidate Adam Walker in Parksville-Qualicum. The election night count was 7,308 for Walker, and 6,366 for Stilwell.

Stilwell told the Times Colonist on Sunday that the numbers are close enough that mail-in ballots could swing the result.

In eight of the 12 Island ridings where the NDP are leading, Green party is second.

B.C. Liberals are also behind in strongholds in the Lower Mainland, with high-profile Liberal incumbents Mary Polak, Jas Johal and Sam Sullivan looking likely losing their seats.

On Monday, before Wilkinson announced his resignation, Johal said that the B.C. Liberal Party had a chance to renew after the 2017 election, which saw the NDP form a minority government thanks to a coalition with the Greens.

“And in my opinion, the B.C. Liberals failed to renew so in 2020,” said Johal, who noted the party hasn’t been connecting with voters in Metro Vancouver. “Moving forward we have to decide what we look like as a party.”

Speaking to the Times Colonist on Sunday, Stilwell said the Liberal party needs to reflect on its future.

“There’s definitely some reflection that we have to come together and acknowledge the changes that need to be made to move forward as a party,” said Stilwell, a former Paralympian who was first elected in 2013. “We also have some great new young candidates who did get elected and who are the future of the party.”

Ron Cantelon, a Liberal MLA in Nanaimo-Parksville from 2005 to 2009 and Parksville-Qualicum from 2009 to 2013, said Wilkinson, who touted his experience as a doctor and lawyer, appeared elitist and didn’t connect with everyday voters. “He certainly didn’t appear to be a person of the common man. We need someone who has more empathy for people.”

Cantelon said the B.C. Liberals’ reputation as a pro-business, free-enterprise party is not resonating with enough voters. “We lost connection with the average person frankly. We need to be working for everybody. We have to find a way to provide opportunity for everybody and that includes education, that includes health care, that includes addressing situations for the less fortunate, the homeless and other people with mental issues.”

During a campaign stop in Victoria, Wilkinson visited the former Paul’s Motor Inn, one of the hotels purchased by B.C. Housing and converted into supportive housing. Wilkinson criticized the NDP for “warehousing” people with mental health and addiction issues, and opposed 24/7 sheltering in parks but offered few comments on what a Liberal government would do differently.

Martyn Brown, who was chief of staff for Gordon Campbell when he was premier, said the B.C. Liberals face an “incredible annihilation,” losing seats in previously safe Liberal ridings in Richmond, Delta, Surrey, the Fraser Valley and the North Shore.

“He basically did nothing to fundamentally relate to younger voters, the different ethnic voter groups who in many cases have lots of concerns with the Liberal party policies,” Brown said. “He certainly didn’t do anything to understand suburban Vancouver concerns.”

Wilkinson doesn’t have the charisma that Christy Clark brought to the Liberals and lacked a strong policy vision, Brown said.

The leader alienated fiscal conservatives who balked at the $7 billion price tag of Wilkinson’s promise to scrap the PST for a year, Brown said.

Wilkinson was criticized for his weak response in condemning sexism and homophobia within his party. He was seen chuckling along with other MLAs during a Zoom “roast” for retiring MLA Ralph Sultan, during which North Vancouver-Seymour candidate Jane Thornthwaite made sexist remarks about NDP MLA Bowinn Ma.

Wilkinson condemned Thornthwaite’s comments and apologized to Ma but did not fire Thornthwaite, who on election night lost her seat to the NDP’s Susie Chant.

Wilkinson was also reluctant to expel Laurie Throness, Liberal candidate for Chilliwack-Kent, who, even before his controversial comments comparing free prescription birth control to eugenics, was criticized for supporting conversion therapy for LGBTQ people. Throness eventually resigned from the Liberals but remained on the ballot. He is currently trailing NDP candidate Kelli Paddon by fewer than 200 votes.

Wilkinson’s handling of Throness was criticized by Liberal party membership chair Nicole Paul who wrote on Twitter: “The B.C. Liberal party under Andrew Wilkinson does not reflect values I support.” Paul wrote that “any reasonable leader” would have ousted Throness months, if not years, ago.

Wilkinson was elected leader in February 2018, defeating five other candidates, including former Surrey mayor and MP Dianne Watts and Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee, in the fifth round of voting.

Brown said Johal and Lee are both strong contenders for the Liberal leadership if Wilkinson steps aside.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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