COMMENTARY: How the Liberals roasted themselves in B.C.’s snap election campaign

When John Horgan and his New Democrats executed a near-flawless seizure of power in British Columbia three years ago, the vanquished Liberals gloomily took their seats on the opposition benches.

There was good reason for the Liberals to feel down. Ex-premier Christy Clark actually “won” the 2017 election, as her Liberals captured 43 seats in the B.C. legislature, while Horgan’s NDP took only 41.

But Clark could not survive. She won only a minority government, and that’s when Horgan made his move for power.

Horgan teamed up with the third-place Green Party and their three MLAs. With a combined 44 seats, the NDP-Green alliance toppled Clark’s Liberals on a dramatic non-confidence vote.

Clark asked Judith Guichon, the lieutenant-governor, to call another election. But Horgan was one step ahead of her again, negotiating a power-sharing deal with the Greens.

Armed with a signed agreement guaranteeing Green support in the legislature, Guichon invited Horgan to form a government, and Clark resigned as Liberal leader.

It was certainly a low point for the Libs, after 16 uninterrupted years in power had made them seem like a near unbeatable dynasty in B.C.

But, as glum and gloomy as the Liberals were, they still had cause for hope.

A leadership contest was bound to reinvigorate the Liberal party faithful. And the New Democrats were bound to blunder, as they had often done in the past when handed power.

With a limited shelf life for most minority governments, the B.C. Liberals could dare to dream of soon returning to power.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Now Horgan has called a snap election — breaking his deal with the Green Party to do it — and he seems poised to win a majority government on Oct. 24.

How did Horgan parlay his fragile minority into a huge lead in the opinion polls?

One reason is new Liberal boss Andrew Wilkinson has proven to be a stiff, uninspiring leader.

Watching Wilkinson on the campaign trail this week reminded me of that episode of The Simpsons when Mr. Burns ran for governor and could barely crack a smile for the cameras because his facial muscles had atrophied into a permanent frown.

Wilkinson seems unable to turn his own frown upside down as election day nears, and the Liberals could soon be into another leadership race if he loses and is forced to resign.

Some of this is not the Liberals’ fault. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have handed a natural advantage to incumbent governments across Canada, as people look to free-spending leaders to help them through the crisis.

But the Liberals in British Columbia have also committed many unforced campaign errors, the worst of which was a “virtual roast” of retiring Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan.

The Liberals held the event to honour the likeable 87-year-old, charging $100 for party members to watch it online.

But a leaked video of the roast showed Liberals making fun of the octogenarian politician’s friendship with young NDP MLA Bowinn Ma.

Liberal Jane Thornthwaite chided Sultan for “snuggling” with the 35-year-old New Democrat at a public event.

“Bowinn would be right next to him, cuddling, cuddling, a little bit of cleavage there, and Ralph would be enthralled!”

As she told the sexist story, other Liberals could be seen laughing on screen, including Wilkinson.

Ma eviscerated Wilkinson for not immediately calling out his MLA for the story (explaining, for the record, that she was not “cuddling” with the elderly Liberal, just sitting close to him because he’s hard of hearing.)

It took Wilkinson two days to issue an on-camera apology for the incident, during which he severely criticized Thornthwaite, his own MLA, guaranteeing lots of internal Liberal Party bitterness if he suffers what now appears to be an inevitable election defeat.

If the Liberals do lose, they will be forced to admit they partially roasted themselves, in what’s proven to be a fascinating snap-election gamble by the country’s sole NDP premier.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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