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Andrew Wilkinson celebrates after being elected leader of the BC Liberal Party in Vancouver on Feb. 3, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The new leader of the BC Liberals, a party with almost half the seats in the provincial legislature, says the NDP government has needlessly plunged the province into a trade war with Alberta by opposing the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Heading into the legislature as the successor to former party leader and premier Christy Clark, Andrew Wilkinson contends that the conflict between the two provincial NDP governments will be "front and centre" as he leads the BC Liberal caucus in the House later this month.

"The NDP is picking an unnecessary fight with our neighbours and with the federal government and we will be pointing that out as strongly as possible," the onetime advanced-education minister said on Sunday, a day after he won the leadership of the BC Liberals with 53 per cent of the vote, fending off a strong fifth-ballot challenge from former Tory MP and Surrey mayor Dianne Watts.

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At issue is BC NDP opposition to the pipeline expansion, and their proposal to halt any increase in diluted bitumen transport while a scientific panel studies whether the heavy oil can effectively be cleaned up after spills into water bodies. Alberta, eager to get oil products to markets, has responded by suspending electricity-purchase talks with British Columbia. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has said further measures against its western neighbour are likely.

The BC Liberals, an informal coalition of federal Liberals and federal Tories with no official ties to either national party, have 41 of the 87 seats in the B.C legislature. They won a plurality of the seats in the 2017 election, but were ousted from power last summer as the NDP formed a government with Green support.

Mr. Wilkinson says the minority government hinging on an "unstable arrangement" between the NDP and Greens means his party has to be ready, on short notice, for an election. "When that happens is an open question," he said.

Mr. Wilkinson, at 60 the oldest of the candidates for leadership, comes to his new role with a mix of high-powered academic, professional and political experience.

The former Rhodes Scholar trained and practised as both a doctor and lawyer. Mr. Wilkinson, a former BC Liberal party president, entered elected politics in 2013 by winning the riding of Vancouver-Quilchena and served in various cabinet roles, including advanced education and a month-long stint as attorney-general.

He was also a deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs in the office of former premier Gordon Campbell.

Mr. Wilkinson said the current Alberta-B.C. feud would not have arisen had the NDP government "not stepped in the manure by going into a space that is beyond their jurisdiction."

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Premier John Horgan, who campaigned on a policy of opposing the Trans Mountain expansion because of spill concerns, says he is acting in a principled manner to protect B.C. interests. Alberta's Ms. Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have said Ottawa has approved the project so it should proceed.

"The bottom line in intergovernmental and interprovincial relations is 'Don't pick fights with your neighbours, and don't pick fights with the government of Canada' because they can make your life miserable," Mr. Wilkinson said.

The government of Ms. Clark set five principles for approving pipeline projects, including a fair share of benefits to B.C. and world-class spills response, and had approved the project.

Mr. Wilkinson has spoken of the need to broaden his party's base, echoing the views of the five other candidates in the leadership race. Former cabinet ministers Todd Stone, Mike de Jong and Sam Sullivan, rookie MLA Michael Lee and Ms. Watts, who was not a member of caucus, also ran for the leadership.

In a recent debate, Mr. Wilkinson said the left and social media had painted the BC Liberals as a "callous, indifferent, downtown nasty party that doesn't care about our most vulnerable citizens."

While Mr. Wilkinson said introspection is part of any campaign review, he was not necessarily criticizing Ms. Clark.

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"Christy had a particularly engaging personality and a real understanding of the sentiments of people all over B.C. It's my task to go and do my very best to learn from her experience," he said. "I have got a lot to learn from her."

In the last days of the race, Mr. Stone's campaign acknowledged that nearly 1,400 new memberships it signed up were disqualified by the party after it discovered missing e-mail addresses. Prior to that, four of the six campaigns – including Mr. Wilkinson's – had raised concerns about the Stone campaign memberships with the party.

On Sunday, Mr. Wilkinson said it was time for a meeting of the candidates that would include talks about the membership process. "If there are some process questions that arise from that conversation, I am sure we will be looking at them in the near future," he said, adding that he thought the party response to concerns on the issue had been "appropriate."

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