Why Andrew Wilkinson should not be underestimated by progressive British Columbians
There's a common knock against new B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson.
It goes something like this.
"He reeks of the West Side of Vancouver. He's too snobbish. He's too corporate. He's too smug. Premier John Horgan will make mincemeat out of Wilkinson in the 250 area code. It's going to be like the rugby coach against the charmless headmaster of a private school."
Any New Democrats who think like this do so at their peril.
This weekend, Wilkinson proved that he can defy the oddsmakers, just as he did when he snatched the B.C. Liberal nomination in Vancouver-Quilchena from former NPA councillor Suzanne Anton.
He accomplished that even though Anton was an experienced politician and a favourite of then party leader Christy Clark.
Wilkinson wasn't supposed to win the B.C. Liberal leadership either, according to many pundits.
But they underestimated his work ethic and his knack for dog-whistle politics, which was also the calling card of an even less charming politician, Stephen Harper.
I'll spend a moment explaining the phrase dog-whistle politics because it's central to understanding why Wilkinson shouldn't be easily dismissed.
This term describes political messages that might mean one thing to the population as a whole but something different for a targeted group.
Harper, for instance, used it effectively when he would talk tough on crime.
To the general public, he was perceived as a politician who thought there were way too many loopholes for criminals. Fair enough. Some agreed, some disagreed, but it wasn't necessarily a voting issue to them.
But being tough on crime was also a coded message to Christian fundamentalists in his party that he was prepared to inflict Old Testament punishment on wrongdoers and really make them suffer.
That helped Harper offset the anger that the evangelicals felt toward him for not restricting access to abortions. It kept the base on-side.
Harper also sent out messages to specific ethnic groups.
He would hobnob with Bollywood film star Akshay Kumar to appeal to voters who traced their roots back to India and particularly to the state of Punjab.
Another example of dog-whistle politics? Harper used to restrict access to the mainstream media but make personal visits to newspapers targeting minority communities. He made them feel special, even inviting them on his foreign junkets to their countries of origin.
And Harper shut down diplomatic relations with Iran in part to appease subgroups of domestic voters, be they dissident Iranian expats or strong supporters of the state of Israel.
He also positioned himself as the most pro-monarchist politician since John Diefenbaker, appealing to older, British Empire-loving voters uncomfortable with the changing face of Canada.
Harper wrote a book about hockey to pander to hockey fans. He portrayed himself as a devotee of military history to reach out to military families. It went on and on and on.
Harper's successor, Justin Trudeau, also plays dog-whistle politics in his outreach efforts to his base, which includes the LGBT community, female voters, and minority communities.
During the recent B.C. Liberal leadership race, Wilkinson demonstrated his skills in this area by pandering to key subgroups, including journalists, rural voters, and the province's wealthiest residents. I'll have more to say about that later in this article.
Wilkinson offered a two-track message
Wilkinson was the B.C. Liberal leadership candidate with seemingly the least in common with Christy Clark.
Whereas she was an outsider with only one B.C. Liberal MLA supporting her leadership campaign, Wilkinson was a former party president with more than a dozen caucus members on his side.
In other words, he was the ultimate insider: a throwback to the Gordon Campbell era.
Whereas Clark was a university dropout, Wilkinson had degree upon degree, having been a Rhodes scholar, a lawyer, and a doctor.
Whereas Clark thrived on guile and charisma, Wilkinson talked about addressing real issues, like opiate addiction, high housing prices, and public transit.
People might not agree with all of his solutions, such as reducing municipal liability and advocating a "massive increase" in housing supply. But party members sensed that he's a serious man willing to grapple with the toughest issues facing the province.
In other words, he was the anti-Christy Clark for a party seeking change. Yet he also claimed he was ready to govern, unlike other "change" candidates such as Dianne Watts or Michael Lee.
In comparison, Watts came across as a lightweight and perhaps more like Clark than the insider she should have feared the most.
One commenter on this site referred to Wilkinson as Gordon Campbell 2.0, but I would argue that he's more than that.
Like Campbell, Wilkinson will be a favourite of the downtown Vancouver business community.
They both were backed by some of the province's wealthiest residents, including developer Peter Wall.
It was amusing to watch the B.C. Liberals gathered in Wall's downtown Vancouver hotel last night and hear Wilkinson repeatedly mention in his speech what had happened "in this room" in the past.
It was a subtle shoutout to one of his primary benefactors. It's also one of many examples of Wilkinson's propensity for playing dog-whistle politics, in this case to a billionaire real-estate tycoon.
One can only imaging the smug satisfaction that Wall felt seeing his protege play up the historic importance of his hotel.
Wilkinson is also capable of zig-zagging politically, like Campbell did with his call for a new relationship with Indigenous people or with his introduction of a carbon tax.
Those moves helped the B.C. Liberals win the 2009 election. And they came even after Campbell had gone to court to fight the Nisga'a treaty and was proceeding with a massive roadbuilding program.
This political messaging conveyed to the electorate that the B.C. Liberals had learned from their past. And it kept the NDP out of power for four more years.
In Wilkinson's case, the zig-zagging is reflected in this statement: "My idea is to get out there and show we are a more thoughtful and caring party than we have been in the past."
He's focused on addressing overdose deaths, promising to cut them in half, as a manifestation of how he will rebrand the B.C. Liberals.
At the same time, Wilkinson trumpets traditional "B.C. Liberal values" such as balanced budgets and free enterprise.
The phrase "B.C. Liberal values" might strike many voters as an oxymoron, but Wilkinson still brazenly employs these words to appeal to the party faithful.
He even made a deal with the tight-fisted former finance minister, Mike de Jong, to support one another on the second ballot. This occurred even though de Jong's values, as finance minister, didn't include offering much of a hand up to the poor.
It's a two-track message aimed at expanding the B.C. Liberals' appeal to its nonsupporters while nodding and winking to the party's base that nothing substantial will change.
Wilkinson regularly dishes out praise to the media
Over the years, there have been a handful of B.C. politicians who were truly masterful in their handling of the media.
Near the top of the list was former legislature speaker John Reynolds, a former radio talk-show host. He knew better than most how to dribble out tips and compliments to remain in the good graces of reporters.
Attorney General David Eby is another politician who makes some journalists feel special by bestowing public praise on them.
Ujjal Dosanjh was another. One of his tricks was to hold news conferences on weekends. He would call on the federal government to do something outside his provincial jurisdiction and lap up news coverage on slow media days.
During the recent B.C. Liberal leadership race, Wilkinson started playing dog-whistle politics with the media, too.
Scanning Wilkinson's Twitter feed, I was struck by the number of positive references to journalists.
Wilkinson's not stupid: he knows that Twitter is the social-media tool of choice for reporters and columnists. So this is the ideal spot to sprinkle these messages.
For example, when CBC News fired legislature reporter Richard Zussman for cowriting a book with the Vancouver Sun's Rob Shaw, Wilkinson leapt to his defence. Then he dropped in a thank you to the Globe and Mail's Gary Mason for sharing the story.
Zussman, now the legislature reporter for Global B.C. News, no doubt appreciated the support from a provincial political heavyweight.
Wilkinson also lavished praise on Spice Radio founder Shushma Datt on her birthday.
He made a big deal out of his visits to other media outlets, including the Victoria Times Colonist and radio station AM 1320.
When Wilkinson was a litigator, he had to convince judges and juries that his clients, often doctors, weren't liable for civil wrongs. Or at the very least, he had to arrange settlements to minimize the damages.
This required being extremely skilled in the art of persuasion. He has far more practise in this area than most politicians.
One way to bring the media onside and persuade them of the rightness of your cause is to make them feel important. So he puffs up their egos.
Wilkinson, more than any other candidate in the recent B.C. Liberal leadership race, employed dog-whistle techniques over Twitter to pull this off. The public didn't notice but the individual journalists surely did.
It's a sign that under his leadership, his party is likely to become more adept at doing this type of thing in the future.
The NDP will no longer have the field to itself, as it has during Rich Coleman's tenure as interim leader of the B.C. Liberals, in having a good relationship with the media.
Country doctor or downtown litigator?
But Wilkinson's greatest messaging did not concern billionaires like Peter Wall or journalists or in multiple recognitions of various religious groups.
It came in positioning himself as a country doctor who has the best interest of rural residents in mind.
"I grew up in Kamloops without a lot of money," he declared over Twitter. "Was a young doctor in rural B.C. Like no other candidate on this stage, I have lived north of Cache Creek. I know what it's like on the ground across this big beautiful province of ours."
It was astonishing how little time Wilkinson spent talking about his extensive experience as a litigator in downtown Vancouver. He downplayed his lengthy career as a partner in legal factories like Harper Grey Easton and McCarthy Tetrault, preferring to focus on his younger days as a practising physician.
"I've delivered a baby in Campbell River," he noted. "I've flown in a medivac from Dease Lake. I know this province. I can unite it."
It was dog-whistle politics of the highest order, making him seem just like those folks living in Quesnel, Prince George, and Williams Lake.
If Premier John Horgan thinks he can swoop in and capture these communities with Wilkinson as the B.C. Liberal leader, the NDP is going to have to come up with a marketing plan to counter Wilkinson's small-town-doctor talk.
How to beat Wilkinson
The NDP won the 1996 election by portraying then B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell as a stooge of the business community.
In menacing black-and-white NDP attack ads, Campbell was characterized as a sinister man in a suit.
These ads resonated because Campbell was being funded by all the corporate heavy hitters in Vancouver at that time. He was presented as a corporate shill ready to slash taxes and cut back on education and health services to serve his wealthy benefactors.
Wilkinson, too, had some rich supporters, but we're not going to know who they were until he reveals who financed his campaign.
Under party rules, candidates were allowed to spend up to $600,000. Under the Election Act, Wilkinson and the five others must file disclosure statements within 90 days after the vote.
This will reveal who backed Wilkinson's campaign and make it easy to link him to Big Business and possibly Big Pharma and Big Oil in the same way that Campbell was tied to the corporate community in 1996.
Then the NDP research team can start combing through files in B.C. Supreme Court for legal cases in which Wilkinson defended doctors accused of malpractice.
It shouldn't be hard to find examples of former patients suffering from serious medical conditions who feel they were treated badly by the system.
These former patients might be more than willing to share their troubling recollections of what it was like facing Wilkinson in court.
While in opposition, the NDP generated tremendous public outrage at the B.C. Liberals over their treatment of health researchers fired by the Ministry of Health. The suicide of one of those researchers made the Christy Clark government look positively monstrous in the eyes of some British Columbians.
There's no reason to believe that there aren't sad tales of former patients who may believe they were shortchanged as a result of Wilkinson's legal advocacy for wealthy doctors when he was at Harper Grey Easton.
Then there's the question over the identity of Wilkinson's corporate clients when he was at McCarthy Tetrault. We didn't hear a lot about them during the B.C. Liberal leadership race.
Unearthing some of these clients' names and their most pressing concerns could counter Wilkinson's efforts to frame himself as the good-hearted rural emergency doctor who was so greatly devoted to patients.
It would likely put a harder edge on the tough-minded Wilkinson as he sets out to become B.C.'s next premier.
Wilkinson, like Campbell, might also have more trouble appealing to female voters than Christy Clark had. That's in part because it's harder to relate to Wilkinson on a personal level.
The new B.C. Liberal leader is smart enough to recognize this political liability.
He's going to make sure that an experienced female MLA and strong supporter like Mary Polak will be put in the spotlight with a major critic's position.
The NDP can anticipate this. So B.C. political junkies shouldn't be surprised if the governing party ramps up efforts to remind voters of any political skeletons that she and Wilkinson's other female endorsers might have in their closets.
The two Andrews are another issue
The next challenge for the New Democrats will be to keep B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver from falling under Wilkinson's spell.
The two Andrews are birds of a feather, sociologically speaking. They're both extremely well educated and represent two of the wealthiest and most well educated constituencies in the province.
In fact, Weaver once described Wilkinson as a "first-rate appointment" to head the Ministry of Advanced Education. There's a kinship between them.
Should the referendum on electoral reform fail, there is a reasonable chance that Wilkinson could employ his considerable skills as a persuader to try to bring Weaver around to supporting more B.C. Liberal private member's bills.
That could cause problems for the NDP minority government.
The best way to prevent this from occurring would be for the electoral-reform referendum to pass. That will require the NDP government to devote enormous political capital on this issue.
Beyond that, the NDP's goal must, at every opportunity, make Wilkinson appear to be the chippy corporate litigator rather than the kind-hearted rural doctor.
That's because in the eyes of the public, lawyers are far less popular than doctors.
Lawyers and especially corporate lawyers are perceived by some to be greedy, arrogant, partisan, and more interested in the welfare of their clients than the good of society.
Wilkinson was a lawyer for a much longer period than he was a practising doctor. He abandoned medicine because he preferred law and politics. There's a lot of money in practising law.
The rural doctor stopped being a rural doctor the moment he moved to Vancouver many, many years ago. But tales of young sacrifices can hold a powerful sway on the imagination, as any masterful persuader knows.
Wilkinson's political mentor, Gordon Campbell, talked a lot more about his days as a young Canadian University Services Overseas program volunteer in Nigeria than he ever did about his life as a real-estate developer.
Similarly, Wilkinson speaks far more often about his days in the boonies of B.C. than all the time he spent in shiny downtown Vancouver office buildings dealing with contracts, notices of civil claim, and affidavits.
It's good politics but in the language of lawyers, it's not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
There are additional truths out there. And if the NDP brings them into the light, the jury will remain out on whether Wilkinson will indeed become B.C.'s next premier.