Sunday, February 04, 2018

Why Andrew Wilkinson won the BC Liberal leadership, confounding pundits and Dianne Watts; BC NDP beware

New BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson celebrates his win Saturday on stage at the Wall Centre 

By Bill Tieleman 

No one in the political prognostication business likes to be wrong but we all are occasionally and when that happens the best thing to do is review the analysis that was erroneous.

Andrew Wilkinson is the new BC Liberal leader even though I predicted in this space Saturday that Todd Stone should win the BC Liberal leadership vote.

Instead Stone underperformed on the first ballot, garnering 17% compared to frontrunner Dianne Watts 24.5%, a surprising Michael Lee just behind at 22%, Wilkinson at 18%, Stone at 17%, Mike de Jong at 16% and Sam Sullivan at 1.8%.

After that Stone sank like his namesake, exiting with 20%.

What happened?  How did Wilkinson jump from 18% first ballot support to 53% in the fifth and final vote?  And will the BC NDP risk underestimating him?

First - credit Wilkinson for manufacturing a narrow win by doing all the little things right.  Known as a cold fish, snarky speaker and exuding all the charm of an undertaker, Wilkinson set about to change his public image and persona.

Rather than talking about being both a medical doctor and lawyer as well as a Rhodes Scholar, Wilkinson talked about delivering babies in Campbell River, growing up in Kamloops without a lot of money and living north of Cache Creek.  

Smart positioning instead of talking about being smart.  Identifying himself as a doctor - one of the most trusted occupations in our society.  Making people forget he represents uber-rich Vancouver Quilchena riding by referencing where he grew up.  

Charlie Smith, editor of the Georgia Straight, points this out in a new article today rightly warning the BC NDP to not underestimate Wilkinson. 

At the same time, Wilkinson has a serious challenge - keeping the fractured party together - which he acknowledged bluntly in his victory speech.  And that is doubly difficult for a guy who only got 18% of BC Liberal members to make him their first pick for leader. 

Unlike me, Smith was one of the few who correctly called Wilkinson the winner well in advance of the lengthy voting yesterday, saying on December 29 that: 

"Andrew Wilkinson will win the B.C. Liberal leadership race
The MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena is not the most dynamic speaker. And his name recognition with the public is still quite low. But the former B.C. Liberal party president has run the most effective campaign to replace Christy Clark."

All true.

Second - and perhaps most importantly - Wilkinson spent a lot of time sucking up to the BC Liberal caucus, including before the May 2017 election. 

That was evident when Wilkinson emerged with by far the most MLA endorsements - 13 - far more than the seven Todd Stone and Mike de Jong each had - and the bit 0 for either Dianne Watts or Michael Lee or Sam Sullivan.

BC political observers have seen former BC Premier Christy Clark win the 2011 BC Liberal leadership with just one MLA endorsement - the hapless Harry Bloy - and presumed wrongly that endorsements don't matter.

This contest proved they do and that Clark's win without caucus support was an anomaly.  What's more, that failure to convince sitting MLAs to back her leadership bid nearly cost Clark the premiership when the government ran into serious trouble and BC NDP leader Adrian Dix looked easily positioned to win the 2013 election. 

With the BC Liberals unique 100 points per riding voting system, a rural riding with 200 members is of equal strength as an urban riding with 5,000 members - each is 100 points.

That meant local MLAs had more influence on the results - and Wilkinson had more of them.

As for Stone - the twin troubles of the ICBC "dumpster fire" and his campaign being forced to admit 1,349 membership sign ups were disqualified for irregularities - and under the auspices of AggregateIQ - the controversial firm connected to Brexit issues in the United Kingdom vote that is under investigation by the Privacy Commissioner there - was simply too much to overcome.  

With the BC Liberal Party to date not releasing actual vote counts and the participation rate of the 60,000 members it is impossible to know exactly how close things were or whether a small number of votes could have tipped the scale in a different direction.

But with most leadership contests in recent years showing turnout of around 55% - see the Alberta United Conservative Party and federal Conservative party leadership votes - if only 33,000 BC Liberals voted, and given the closeness of the first ballot, it's easy to see that Stone could have indeed been a real contender if not beset by both problems.

And in my own defence - I did correctly predict outsider Dianne Watts would finish in second place - and that an insider would win.

I also wrote this yesterday before the vote: "But Wilkinson should still do well and in an ideal situation become the alternative final ballot choice to Watts - or Stone."

So while I will endeavour to do better on the prognosticating in the future, I did clearly foresee a possible Wilkinson win over Watts - as actually happened.

And that's not bad for predicting a multi-candidate race with up to 60,000 voters in a political party I don't support! 


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