VANCOUVER – The first thing Andrew Wilkinson did after winning the leadership of British Columbia’s Liberal party was pay tribute to the successes of former premiers Christy Clark and Gordon Campbell, reminding party members of their enduring values of free enterprise and fiscal conservatism.
Wilkinson’s old-school, stick to our roots message carried the day Saturday as he defeated five other candidates, including newcomers Dianne Watts and Michael Lee, who called for massive changes.
“We have to build on the past,” Wilkinson said Sunday. “We’ve got the heritage of having put together the values that have led to success in the past. Those are things to build upon not to discard.”
Wilkinson, 60, a doctor, lawyer and Rhodes Scholar, said the Liberals must unite and never forget the achievements of Clark and Campbell.
But he also said leadership candidates who called on the party to widen its support must also be heard after the Liberals lost its 16-year grip on power last year.
David Moscrop, a political theorist at Simon Fraser University, said the Liberals chose a new leader who appealed to their fiscal sensibilities and underlying belief the party brand will bring them back to power.
Wilkinson was a past Liberal party president and deputy minister under Campbell before being first elected as a member of the legislature in 2013.
Moscrop said Wilkinson, much like Campbell, has a blue blood reputation and just as the former premier, demonstrated the willingness to roll up his sleeves to accomplish difficult tasks.
Wilkinson, like Campbell, may not often be well-liked, but a record of success is powerful, he said.
“He reminds me of Gordon Campbell, but far less charming,” said Moscrop. “The X factor will be how he connects or fails to connect with the electorate.”
Wilkinson has much work ahead to shed his image as a leader who is more at home in a corporate or university board room than a small business or local coffee shop, he said.
Wilkinson said Saturday he is looking forward to debating the New Democrats in the legislature and asking questions to make “their skin crawl.”
But Moscrop said Wilkinson is up against a skilled populist in New Democrat Leader John Horgan.
“That’s going to be tough for him, because like John Horgan or not, he’s a remarkably charismatic guy,” said Moscrop. “If it’s a national debating championship, Wilkinson wins, but if it’s an election debate Horgan wins.”
Wilkinson said one of his first priorities as leader is ensuring the Liberals win the Feb. 14 byelection in the Kelowna West riding, vacated after Clark resigned from politics last summer.
Prior to his political career, Wilkinson worked as a lawyer in Vancouver and before that he was a doctor in different parts of B.C., including Campbell River, Lillooet and Dease Lake.
He served in a number of cabinet positions, among them attorney general, minister of advanced education, and minister of technology and innovation.
Wilkinson ran his campaign on four priorities: security, opportunity, prosperity and sustainability.
His promises included selling government-owned liquor stores, establishing a junior kindergarten pilot program, improving skills training for Indigenous youth, providing tax incentives to increase the supply of rental housing and taking regulatory steps that would allow municipalities to increase the supply of new housing.
Wilkinson immediately began to galvanize the party to fight a referendum this fall on proportional representation, saying it would benefit the NDP and Greens who support changing the province’s voting system.
Wilkinson, who gathered the five other leadership candidates and the Liberal caucus on the victory stage, said the party must unite to rebuild its strength.
Leadership candidate Michael Lee, elected as a Liberal last May, said the party needs to get back into communities with a more balanced message, one that goes beyond balanced budgets and triple-A credit ratings.
“Fiscal responsibility is always going to be fundamentally important to the B.C. Liberals,” said Lee. “I recognize that and I support that. But we just need to be talking about the future of this province, finding the right balance between the environment and the economy.”
The B.C. Liberal party is not affiliated with the federal Liberals. It describes itself as “a made-in-B.C. free enterprise coalition” that includes members of the federal Conservative and Liberal parties.