For a party that had grown tired and stale after 16 years in power, many B.C. Liberals saw their leadership contest as an opportunity to press the refresh button, to inject some life and vitality into a political institution that many saw as egregiously out of touch with the everyday concerns of a young and increasingly ethnically diverse populace.
So who did they elect this past weekend to champion that change? A wealthy, Oxford-educated, 60-year-old white guy whose greatest perceived character flaw is an aloof, aristocratic bearing and a propensity to come across as a condescending know-it-all. Other than that, Andrew Wilkinson is a fine fellow.
Mr. Wilkinson assumed the crown after five rounds of balloting, in the end narrowly beating out the only female in the race, former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts. A onetime advanced education minister (and briefly attorney-general), Mr. Wilkinson ran a feisty and dogged campaign, and likely helped his cause enormously with solid (and sometimes confrontational) performances in each of the all-candidates debates.
The man is quick on his feet, something that should help make for compelling political theatre when he takes his place in the B.C. Legislature this month as leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. He has already vowed to pepper the NDP government "with questions that will make their skin crawl." We can't wait.
Mr. Wilkinson had won the endorsements of 13 of his fellow Liberal MLAs, the most of any of the five candidates who held a seat in the legislature. That doesn't always guarantee success but it does say something about what others think of you and your abilities. There were those, however, who felt the party needed an outsider, someone not burdened by the political baggage accumulated after 16 years in power. And the only outsider was Ms. Watts.
She was first on the opening ballot, as many predicted, but her growth eventually stalled, which is also something many had forecast. It's remarkable she went as far as she did given how poorly she came across in debates and in interviews. Her lack of depth on policy issues was often cringe-inducing.
The biggest surprise of the race was rookie MLA Michael Lee, who had a compelling story to tell and was aided by a powerful and adept backroom. Less than 50 votes separated him from Mr. Wilkinson on the decisive fourth ballot. Had things gone the other way, Mr. Lee might be in charge of the party today, not Mr. Wilkinson.
The new leader does have his challenges ahead of him.
The NDP government has exceeded the expectations of many. And John Horgan, in particular, has impressed in his debut as Premier. The Liberals left behind a few messes – such as a public auto insurer that is in complete financial shambles – which the government will be able to rub in the face of the opposition for quite a while. Mr. Wilkinson said in his victory speech that the Liberals were the party "that does not spend our children's money." And yet, the record will show that the overall debt in the province increased significantly in the past several years. It will also reveal that the Liberals pilfered the accounts of Crown corporations to make their books look better than they might have otherwise.
I'm sure there were some eyes rolling when Mr. Wilkinson talked about giving young people "the real option to realize their dreams right here in B.C." This, coming from someone who was a minister in a government that mostly sat on its hands while house prices – aided and abetted by foreign investors and speculators – soared beyond the grasp of most young people living in the province.
No, it will not be easy for Mr. Wilkinson to shed that legacy. He may have to wait for the government to botch a few files for which he can make them pay, politically, before he begins making serious inroads with the public.
Nor will it be a simple task for Mr. Wilkinson to disabuse people of the notion he's someone who naturally walks with his nose in the air. Perhaps he shouldn't bother trying. He is who is. His résumé is impressive – a lawyer, doctor and Rhodes Scholar – and he should make no apologies for that. He will run a tight and efficient ship and not be especially kind or tolerant of avoidable mess-ups.
From here on, Mr. Wilkinson must demonstrate he was the right choice to lead a party through a period of profound change, with all the heartache and headaches that entails. With all the promise, too.