If Dianne Watts wins the B.C. Liberal Party leadership this weekend, she would be the third consecutive leader who needs to move a sitting MLA out of the way to get a seat in the legislature.
The B.C. Liberal Party heads into its leadership vote with 42 MLAs getting ready to face 44 NDP and Green rivals, and a reinforcement expected on Valentine’s Day with the return of Ben Stewart to the Kelowna West seat he won handily in 2013.
Stewart stepped aside after former premier Christy Clark won a third majority government for the party, but lost her own seat in Vancouver-Point Grey. Stewart spent the next three years in Beijing as a special trade representative for B.C., a job created for him.
When Gordon Campbell won the leadership in 1993, it was Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Art Cowie who resigned, allowing Campbell to enter the legislature the following year.
Watts has a more difficult challenge, with none of the sitting MLAs supporting her leadership and rival candidates arrayed against her like a circle of musk oxen facing outward to repel a predator.
In an interview with Black Press, Watts confirmed that she will need to persuade a sitting MLA to make room for her.
“I will sit down with caucus and with the party and have those discussions,” Watts said. “I know that when Christy Clark was elected leader and the same thing with Gordon Campbell, neither one had seats. They dealt with the issue and I will do exactly the same thing.”
Except for MLAs with administrative positions in the legislature or the party, all B.C. Liberal MLAs have backed one of the other leadership candidates. The majority support the current Vancouver-Quilchena MLA, Andrew Wilkinson, who has led the attack on Watts’ lack of readiness to take over. He said the nearly six-month wait for a replacement for Clark shows the risk.
“John Horgan cynically waited until the very last minute to call the Kelowna West by-election,” Wilkinson told Black Press. “I would expect that he would do the same if a leader is elected who doesn’t already have a seat in the legislature.”
In the final leadership debate in Vancouver Jan. 23, Wilkinson asked Watts to name five steps that the party needs to take in February, then supplied the answers when Watts continued her strategy of sticking to generalities about the need for co-operation. Wilkinson listed getting Stewart elected Feb. 14, mobilizing opposition to the NDP-Green referendum on proportional representation, and appealing to all MLAs to put aside their leadership divisions.
In the same debate, Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone pressed Watts to make a commitment to run in the next B.C. election if she doesn’t win the leadership. Watts resigned her seat as Conservative MP for Surrey-White Rock and joined the B.C. Liberal Party for the first time last summer.
“Yes, absolutely,” Watts replied. “There’s lots of seats in Surrey. There’s lots of seats in the Lower Mainland, and you know what, we have to win those seats back.”
Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong was asked in the debate about his own defensive move, teaming up with Wilkinson to encourage their supporters to choose them for the top two spots on a ranked ballot.
In an interview, de Jong rejected the suggestion that he and Wilkinson are engaged in an anti-outsider strategy to deny Watts second-ballot support. It expresses mutual respect, and encourages party members to choose more than one candidate, he said.
“If people don’t make second choices, you could end up with a leader who has 30 per cent of the vote,” de Jong said.
On the subject of going into the legislature session on Feb. 13 without a leader present, he added: “It’s tough to lead the troops if you’re not on the battlefield.”
Stone declined to comment for this story.
A member of de Jong’s team earlier acknowledged that Watts is a front-runner, and that she and rookie Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee have led the field in signing up new members.
What remains to be seen is how many of those new members will register and vote Feb. 1-3, and how concentrated they are in the Lower Mainland. The party has adopted a points system to give rural constituencies the same clout as city seats, regardless of the number of party members.