Martyn Brown: The B.C. Liberal leadership review—who should quit?

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      (Part One of a four-part series on the B.C. Liberal leadership contest.)

      Who should quit the B.C. Liberal leadership race?

      To many Straight readers, that question likely screams its own answer: all six of the contestants should quit at once and hang their heads in shame.

      To many Liberals, the answer to who should throw in the towel before the February vote is equally simple: anyone who is obviously destined to lose.

      I tend to agree. But the answer is also a strategic concern and a subjective assessment of who should win the contest and of how to help make that happen under the party’s balloting process.

      Winning the contest doesn’t mean that any leader is necessarily well-suited to the task at hand. Namely, unifying the party, excelling in opposition, and defeating the GreeNDP’s campaign in 2018 to win the vote on proportional representation that will take place next November.

      Because if PR passes, the Liberals can kiss their hopes for government goodbye.

      They will be consigned to opposition for many years to come, no matter whom they select as their leader.

      They will have no chance of electing a majority Liberal government under that electoral system that is systemically designed to produce only minority governments.

      In the near term, at least, the Liberals would be consigned to at least another eight years in the wilderness of opposition, with virtually no chance of winning the next election, now set by law for Saturday, October 16, 2021.

      The GreeNDP alliance would once again form a minority Horgan government, just as surely as the Liberals’ second-straight electoral loss would savage today’s anything-but-liberal party.

      That near certain loss in 2021 would force yet another leadership contest to replace the party’s two-time loser, who first lost the battle on PR and then predictably lost again to the NDP, who again won a minority government with a little more help from their Green friends.

      Worse, any system of PR will splinter Today’s Liberals into any number of ideological factions. Especially if it elects a leader who won in part through aggravating the party’s internal divisions.

      Yes, I am referring to Dianne Watts, the Liberals’ presumed frontrunner who, if elected, would only perpetuate the party’s disaster movie that has been running nonstop since May 9.

      The party faithful have already had a glimpse at the trailer of what a Watts era might look like, and it’s not a pretty picture.

      You think Geostorm was awful? If Liberals really want to see carnage in 3-D, stay tuned, because unless they resolve to shut the Watts “alien attack” down before it destroys their blue planet, it is coming to a theatre near them.

      Shades of Christy Clark? So far, no B.C. Liberal MLA has endorsed Dianne Watts.
      Dianne Watts

      The “dark horse” strategy is a poor gambit for also-rans

      Winning this Liberal leadership contest isn’t at all like playing the dark horse odds in a standard leadership convention.

      Gone are those days that lent themselves to grand gestures, whereby the candidates at or near the bottom drop off the ballot and cross the floor to one of their competitors, in the hopes of creating momentum and perhaps salvaging their own future if that candidate is elected.

      Momentum in the moment of the vote count is not relevant in this leadership contest; any momentum that might affect the vote can only be generated before the one-and-only ballots are issued and marked by eligible voters.

      Moreover, this leadership contest is not a universal ballot that entails new rounds of voting until someone emerges with the most votes.

      Let’s remember how the B.C. Liberals’ preferential ballot will work, which ironically is also predicated on a form of proportional representation, at the local level.

      All eligible voters are entitled to cast one ballot that also provides them the option to rank the six candidates in order of preference.

      To provide equality of voting power to all of the province’s 87 constituencies, 100 points are assigned to each of those ridings. Those points are proportionately distributed to reflect each candidate’s relative number of votes and then tabulated provincewide. The winner is the first to win a majority of those 8,700 total available points (i.e. 4,351).  

      If no candidate succeeds in the first vote count, the candidate with the fewest points gets dropped from the next count. The second preferences indicated on the ballots for that losing candidate are then reallocated to the surviving contestants and a second round of point-counting ensues.

      That process continues, with the bottom performer dropping off with each new count, until one candidate gets the most points.

      There is one vote, with one preferential ballot—not multiple votes, cast through individual new ballots. As such, there are really no “rounds” of “balloting”, as the Liberals’ voting process is so often misleadingly characterized by the media.

      There is one vote, with one ballot, that gets proportionately translated into a set pool of points that are equally allocated to each of the 87 ridings, regardless of how many or how few eligible voters reside in those constituencies.

      Think of it as disproportional, proportional representation: a fitting oxymoron for the liberally conservative B.C. Liberal party.

      Note as well, the number of total points province-wide is not proportional to the number of votes that are cast in aggregate.

      Theoretically, a handful of ridings in Vancouver, Surrey, and the Fraser Valley could easily account for the most votes, provincewide; but translated into points, it really doesn’t matter how many members any riding has. The only thing matters is the proportion of the votes cast that each candidate gets.

      In any given riding, even 10,000 votes would only be worth 100 points—the same as a riding with a fraction as many voting members.

      That severely limits the ability of any candidate to dominate the process with mass sign-ups that might otherwise overwhelm the competition or diminish regional relevance under a purely universal ballot system.

      It also massively advantages the contestants who can win the most points in the most ridings. Which may well produce a different “majority points winner” than a purely universal voting system would yield, where every vote is equal, regardless of where it is cast.

      B.C. Liberal leadership candidate Todd Stone is supported by six MLAs and 12 former MLAs.

      The upshot is that under the Liberals’ voting system, the individual voting members living in the party’s weakest ridings are disproportionately more powerful than those who live in the strongest ridings.

      Strategically, the easiest way for any leadership candidate to outperform the competition and the pundits’ expectations of how they will fare in the first count is to sign up new members in those low-member ridings.

      It is much easier to gain needed provincewide “points” by signing up members in those ridings, to obtain a proportionately larger share of votes, than it is to sign up the hundreds or thousands of members that might be needed to achieve the same outome in a Liberal stronghold.

      That aside, to win the most points, any candidate needs strong regional support and strong growth potential in round of vote-counting as a widely embraced second-choice alternative to the other contestants.

      December 29 is also the last day for new party members to become eligible to participate in the leadership vote.

      It will take place through an online voting system, supplemented by a telephone voting option, over three days, beginning February 1. The ballots will be counted on Saturday, February 3—the day before the Super Bowl.

      As Todd Stone's countdown clock graphically reminds anyone interested in joining the party to help select the next Liberal leader, “time is running out to have your say!”

      Indeed it is. The clock is ticking and it seems all candidates are finding it a challenge to sign up new members.

      Look at the candidates’ videos, and you will see the face of change and growth that has not happened. Most of the faces are white, male, older boomers and retirees.

      Yes, those promotional videos typically feature the candidates’ supposed support from other demographic constituencies.

      But they are hardly a shining testament to the party’s strength among women, millennials and Gen Xers, or ethnic communities—Asian and South Asian especially.

      Membership sign-ups are tepid at best, which will make this Liberal leadership contest very different from the last one that elected Christy Clark.

      As Andrew Wilkinson recently admitted, “It is going well, but I think there has been a realization for all the campaigns that there has not been the level of sign up there was in 2011 because that was the race to select a Premier. None the less we have lots of interest in it and the usual politically engaged folks are heavily involved and people are signing up all over the place.” 

      The prospect of choosing the most powerful politician in the province is always a powerful inducement for new party members, especially those with vested interests.

      It makes even the dullest leadership race somewhat exciting, since anything the candidates say and promise might become instantly relevant if they take the top job that includes the keys to the premier’s office.

      Not so, with choosing the leader of a deflated opposition party. Particularly one that just got deservedly booted from government and has little hope of returning to power anytime soon.

      The way this Liberal leadership race is shaping up looks like a classic rock act whose glory days are well in the past.

      I’m thinking, Bob Dylan, circa Blonde on Blonde.

      Which in this case, is more like bland on blonde, with five middle-aged men all trying to catch the Rainy Day Woman who now wants to lead the party she snubbed when its life was on the line last May.

      “Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine” was Dianne Watts's tune then, only eight months ago, when the likes of former Liberal cabinet minister and Surrey-Fleetwood MLA, Peter Fassbender, were gently cooing, “I want you”.

      Today, even with Watts in the race, it’s Highway 61 Revisited, with so-called “retreads” like Mike de Jong, Andrew Wilkinson, and Todd Stone all trying to convert their folksy shtick into new rock star status that ain’t happening. 

      Sam Sullivan, anybody? On his own.

      Michael Lee? A complete unknown. 

      Dianne Watts? No direction, home. Like a rolling stone. 

      The other three? They’re invisible now. They got secrets to conceal. 

      Go to them now, they call you, you can’t refuse. When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose. 

      Such is their sorry plight, almost five months into the Liberals’ leadership race.

      Fact is, no one has captivated broad public attention, or added many new followers to their decidedly limited fan bases.

      Therein lies the problem for all of the leadership candidates, and the opportunity that remains for all but two of them—namely, Sam Sullivan and Michael Lee.

      They have nearly run out of time to sign up new members, and their message has not resonated widely enough for any of them to outweigh the competition in the hunt for votes and points beyond their common home base of Vancouver.

      Yet in this voting process, virtually any of the other four truly competitive candidates could win with support that is a mile wide and an inch deep. 

      If Sullivan and Lee see the writing on the wall and admit to themselves that they really stand no chance of winning, they should quit now, or at least before the vote takes place. 

      That is, if they want to contribute to any of the remaining candidate’s leadership momentum.

      Ex-education minister Mike Bernier sure gave Mike de Jong’s candidacy a boost when he pulled out of the leadership race to endorse the Liberals’ 23-year veteran MLA.

      Lucy Sager’s decision to withdraw and lend her invisible support to Dianne Watts did not give the latter’s candidacy much of a meaningful lift. But both Sullivan and Lee could give any of the four remaining candidates some momentum by quitting the fray and offering their endorsements.

      Andrew Wilkinson has the support of the most members of the B.C. Liberal caucus, but that's no guarantee of success.

      Endorsements have limited “pulling power”

      Under the Liberals’ voting process, caucus endorsements are more useful as a gauge of the candidates’ internal support than they are an indicator of their odds of winning.

      The fact that none of the sitting B.C. Liberal MLAs has seen fit to back Watts has done little to hurt her chances, much to the chagrin of her competitors. But it should be a red flag for all Liberals of the challenges her leadership would pose for caucus unity.

      Truth be known, endorsements are always welcome, but are usually overrated. They don’t necessarily translate into votes cast through secret ballots.

      As things stand, Andrew Wilkinson has the most caucus support, with 13 sitting MLAs and two former MLAs supporting his candidacy.

      Todd Stone and Mike de Jong each have six sitting MLAs supporting them, with 12 former MLAs endorsing Stone and six former caucus members backing de Jong.

      Each of those candidates has won the respect and support of a significant number of past and present peers. That is a credit to their likeability, skills, and perceived winnability.

      Yet history shows, such endorsements are not indicative of who will win, as Christy Clark proved in spades. Her lonely caucus endorsement was from the now disgraced ex-MLA Harry Bloy.

      A trip down memory lane is order for all Liberals who really want to ponder on the relevance of endorsements, or lack of same.

      In the party’s 2011 leadership race, George Abbott claimed the support of 21 sitting MLAs and another seven former B.C. Liberal MLAs.

      He finished third, behind both Clark and Kevin Falcon, who had 17 caucus members and two former caucus colleagues in his leadership camp.

      The last-place finisher was, Mike de Jong, who did not have a single sitting MLA in his corner, though he was endorsed by 15 former MLAs.

      Why did de Jong fare so poorly in 2011 with that group of caucus colleagues, among which he had many fans and admirers?

      I submit it is largely because de Jong is the only one of the bunch who refused to start organizing his leadership bid before there was even an opening.

      While Abbott and Falcon were both whispering sweet nothings in their colleagues’ ears, agitating for Campbell to quit and/or locking down their pledged support for whenever that day arose, de Jong remained trustworthy and true.

      That loyalty is commendable and is a credit to his integrity. But then as now, it put de Jong at an early disadvantage. Behind the scenes, the other leadership hopefuls were actively campaigning for the top job while their sitting leader was on the ropes.

      How did the candidates’ caucus endorsements work out at the ballot box, in 2011?

      Most notably, de Jong didn’t even finish first in his own riding on the first vote count that knocked him out. Christy Clark did.

      Mike de Jong's late start hampered his chances in the 2011 B.C. Liberal leadership contest.

      In fact, of the 42 sitting Liberal MLAs who endorsed any candidate, including themselves, someone other than them got the most votes on the initial vote count.

      In Vancouver-Langara, for example, Clark finished first. The MLA for that riding, former minister Moira Stillwell (an outstanding individual) had dropped out of the leadership race and supported Abbott. Yet Abbott finished third.

      Some 13 ridings in all voted against their MLA’s preferred candidate to choose Clark on the first vote count—a trend that only intensified on the second count.

      On the final vote count, between Clark and Falcon, the former won more votes than the latter in three of the ridings whose MLAs had endorsed him.

      Is it any wonder some MLAs are a bit gun shy about endorsing any candidate, at the risk of appearing organizationally weak or unrepresentative of their constituents’ wishes?

      The lesson is, don’t put too much weight on endorsements in trying to fathom how people will vote. Not many MLAs’ “pulling power” is as advertised or assumed.

      It can be a humbling experience for any MLA who imagines their own opinion is worth more than it actually is, even with their own local supporters. 

      So, then, back to the original question: with all that in mind, who should drop out of the race?

      The bottom two contestants should quit while they are ahead

      Certainly, I think that Sam Sullivan should drop out now, and save himself the nonrefundable $25,000 “final candidacy fee” that all candidates must pay the party by December 29. 

      Poor Uncle Sam stands about as much chance of winning the leadership as the odds of Donald Trump quitting Twitter or saying something honest.  

      Sullivan’s odds are not good, to put it mildly.

      The Liberals won’t pick a failed mayor of Vancouver who wants to bring back the HST as his unique appeal to win back lost supporters. Apparently, he learned nothing from that debacle, which cost Gordon Campbell his job and nearly decimated his B.C. Liberal government.

      Nor will they choose someone whose failed record as the NPA’s “eco-density” champion got him dumped by his own party as mayor.

      That plank in Sam’s shaky platform would futher alienate Metro Vancouver Liberal voters, especially those who already feel threatened by the prospect of higher densities in their tony neighbourhoods.

      Sorry, Sam, but your goose is cooked.

      Michael Lee is only a slightly better longshot.

      He, too, would do well to quit the race now, save himself some money, and give up on his quixotic game of “survivor”.

      He won’t outwit, outplay, or outlast the competition—especially if Sullivan quits the contest, as I expect he will.

      If that happens, Lee will immediately have a target on his back as the weakest player. He will be the first one to have his torch snuffed out at the Liberal leadership “tribal council”.

      His greatest strength is also his biggest weakness: he was only elected last May and can claim to be something of an “outsider” and a fresh face.

      By the same token, his weak name recognition, low media visibility, and shallow regional support network have made it even tougher for him to sign up the new members he would need to leapfrog his better-known competitors.

      Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee's charisma deficit has seriously undermined his chances.
      Andrew Wilkinson

      There is no evidence that he has been successful in that regard, outside of Vancouver.

      Plus, as a sitting member who also voted in the legislature for Christy Clark’s disastrous “clone speech”, Lee is hardly inoculated from the “insider” tag that Watts has been driving as a wedge issue, to separate herself from the only ones who can beat her—de Jong, Stone, and Wilkinson.

      Don’t get me wrong. I have been impressed by Lee and his campaign, which has been expertly run and presented.

      In my estimation, he had the strongest launch by far of any of the candidates, with its large crowd of young, enthusiastic supporters who were broadly representative of Vancouver’s population.

      Lee’s appeal to diversity, inclusion, and rejuvenation has been welcome and compelling. He is obviously a smart cookie, who is intent on offering his party a more contemporary and urbane alternative than the other candidates can and will.

      Like most of the others, however, he lacks real vision that might generate broad appeal or win the hearts and minds of rural British Columbians especially.

      He is also challenged as a communicator, and boring as all get out. He is still getting his “sea legs” in the legislature, as a rookie that comes across as just that.

      His grasp of policy is as thin as his parliamentary skills are weak. An orator of consequence, he is not. He is the play without the passion or substance needed to win the hearts and minds the audience the Liberals need to be successful

      Horgan would eat him for lunch if he was the one leading the Liberals’ battle against PR, which I will argue in my next installment is the fight they need to win, to have any hope of forming the next government.

      Like Sullivan, Lee should quit while he is still ahead—especially if he really wants to help that cause under a leader who is best up to the challenge.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at