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OPINION: B.C. Liberals may be travelling a rocky road

As the B.C. Liberal leadership race lurches into action – the first candidates’ debate was this past weekend – it is worth remembering that such contests can be more divisive than not.


As the B.C. Liberal leadership race lurches into action – the first candidates’ debate was this past weekend – it is worth remembering that such contests can be more divisive than not.

And that is a particularly relevant point for the party to dwell on, as it can be more difficult to keep the “free enterprise coalition” intact when it is not in power.

A number of party veterans I’ve talked to are somewhat worried about the party’s long-term prospects of stability.

First of all, the leadership race will pit liberals against conservatives and put on display all the tension that exists between the two sides of the coalition. Former Conservative MP Dianne Watts, for example, will undoubtedly hear criticism of her lack of roots in the party while her supporters may argue it’s time for a true conservative to take the helm.

The party’s Hail Mary of a Throne Speech in the summer infuriated some conservatives in the party. Now leadership candidates may be pressured to disown a speech they voted for just a few months ago, which may undoubtedly cause some discomfort.

Then there are potential money problems.

The party is in debt, and its days of attracting gobs of corporate cash are all but over. In a matter of days, only individuals will be able to contribute money to political parties, and those donations will be capped at just $1,200 a year.

The fact is the NDP does far better with attracting smaller, individual donations. The B.C. Liberals have let this kind of fundraising slide because of the big money coming in from corporations. They are now trying to fix things but it may a little late in the day to have much impact.

The loss of power may also make fundraising more difficult. Giving money to an Opposition party may strike many as a pointless exercise, with little bang for the buck.

Now, the NDP government has tabled legislation that gives political parties a taxpayer-funded subsidy (which would give the B.C. Liberals and the NDP about $2 million a year to start with). This will undoubtedly be an issue in the leadership race as so far one candidate – former transportation minister Todd Stone – has promised to refuse the subsidy if he wins, which may put pressure on other candidates to follow suit.

Then there is the matter of that looming referendum on whether or not B.C. should adopt some kind of proportional representation voting system. Such a move likely poses the biggest threat to the coalition, which could naturally break apart along liberal and conservative lines.

Again, what has kept the coalition intact for decades (with the odd hiccup) is the prospect of holding power. And a PR system will most assuredly mean no party will command a majority in the legislature, thus endangering the very foundation of the coalition’s existence.

Finally, as time goes by and it becomes apparent that the NDP is going to be power for the next four years, some B.C. Liberal MLAs may begin to chafe at the frustration of being in opposition and toy with the idea of splitting from the party.

There is a new rule about to take hold that stipulates that to qualify for official party status in the B.C. legislature a party must hold just two seats, down from four.

Will two (or more) B.C. Liberal MLAs split off and form, say, the B.C. Party or some other such entity and enjoy the financial gains that would come their way? As a result of the change, each Green Party MLA will receive a personal salary boost of between $10,500 (for the caucus whip and house leader) and $26,470 (for the party leader).

That kind of financial payoff may eventually look fairly enticing for any B.C. Liberal MLAs unhappy with what’s going on in their party, especially if the leadership race opens up any wounds.

As the race develops, it may be challenging for the B.C. Liberal party, used to holding political power for so long, to keep a lid on any frustration and discontent.

Last weekend’s debate was well attended and by all accounts the crowd was enthusiastic. Let’s see if that enthusiasm is still there four years from now.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.