The BC Liberal leadership race came to the East Kootenay this weekend as Andrew Wilkinson stumped in Cranbrook to reach out and grow a base of support beyond Metro Vancouver.
Wilkinson, MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena, leaned heavily on his rural experiences growing up in Kamloops and as a practicing physician in the northern and southern interior of the province to connect with an audience at the Heritage Inn on Sunday evening.
“I’m telling anybody who will listen that I’ve got a pretty broad view of British Columbia and I’m trying to be a leader for all British Columbia, not just a certain zone or a certain sector, or even a certain part of the economy,” Wilkinson told the crowd. “Beyond that, I think I bring to this a pretty hard-nosed approach to a lot of issues. I’m very much a detail guy. My approach to things is to spend a lot of time listening before you start telling people how the world should work.”
Wilkinson, a former cabinet minister in the previous Liberal government, highlighted his background as a doctor and a lawyer, while laying out his vision for the future of the party and attacking the NDP-Green alliance, singling out their plans for electoral reform.
The crowd also got the chance for questions afterwards, with topics that included the Agricultural Land Reserve, the ban on grizzly bear hunting and the opioid crisis.
Wilkinson, who obtained his medical degree at the University of Alberta before switching careers and studying law in Oxford, England, and Dalhousie University, stressed the importance of government’s role in providing options for higher education, which creates paths to opportunity.
“That’s the core job of government — to make sure people are skilled up in the first place,” said Wilkinson, “secondly, they have the opportunities, once they’re skilled, to get out there and earn a proper living.”
Wilkinson’s family immigrated to Kamloops from Australia when he was four years old, as his father worked as a scientist for the federal government. His older siblings attended the University of British Columbia, however, he wasn’t able to follow in their footsteps as the family relocated to Lethbridge when he was 13.
He attended the University of Alberta studying medicine but was selected for a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England where he studied law. Returning to Alberta, he completed his medical degree and came back to British Columbia, working as a physician in Lillooet, Dease Lake and Campbell River.
Concerned with how the Social Credit government of the day in the 1980s was handling health care policy relating to physicians, Wilkinson left medicine and finished his law degree in Nova Scotia before coming back to the west coast.
He got involved in politics in the late 1990s, serving as president of the BC Liberal Party for three years and as deputy minister in two government ministries in the early 2000s.
While Wilkinson stumped for his leadership campaign, he also devoted a large part of his time attacking the NDP government and their plans for proportional representation, calling it ‘a stealth campaign to undermine our democracy’.
“They say make every vote count, so it’ll be directly in proportion to the votes,” said Wilkinson. “But there’s a great big catch to that. Proportional representation means that you’ll have mega-ridings. On Vancouver Island, instead of having 15 ridings, you’ll have two. In the north, instead of having 10, you’ll have one. In this area, you’ll have the four Kootenay ridings, throw in some Okanagan ridings and on that basis, you’ll go to the ballot box and choose maybe four names out of seven who would be your representatives. They may all live in Kelowna. You don’t elect your MLA any more.”
Wilkinson added that proportional representation opens up the door for the proliferation of fringe political parties, which can lead to power sharing agreements made behind closed doors in order to form government.
He also criticized taxpayer subsidies for political campaigns that were contained in recent legislation banning union and corporate donations, while also taking issue with the government moving the mandated election day six months further down the calendar, extending the term to a four and a half years.
While Wilkinson played up his rural credentials, he represents the riding of Vancouver-Quichena on the north bank of the Fraser River in the heart of the Lower Mainland. However, the path to regaining a Liberal government majority doesn’t mean focusing on the urban areas of the South Coast, he said.
Wilkinson pointed to the last provincial election and the ridings of Courtney-Comox and Maple Ridge-Mission; with margins of victory for NDP by 189 votes for the former and 325 votes for the latter.
“That tells you quite a lot about the distribution of the close ridings in this province,” he said. “They’re all over the place and swing ridings are what it’s going to come down to.”
Wilkinson also has the support of Bill Bennett, the long-time MLA for Kootenay East who retired before the last provincial election, but signed on as a co-chair of Wilkinson’s campaign bid.
Bennett said he believes Wilkinson will be the next premier of the province.
“I like the fact that Andrew is honest, he’s direct, he’s very rational in terms of solving problems,” said Bennett. “He’s always the smartest person in the room wherever I am; I think that’s an important attribute for a leader.
“He’s also very strong on the social side, he has a very robust social conscience, so you have a combination of somebody who is very strong on business and the economy, but somebody who understands the challenges that lots of people in the province have and that they need our help, so it’s a wonderful combination.”
In terms of issues brought forward by local constituents, the the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) attracted attention from landowners who have been frustrated that they can’t do what they want with their land because of restrictive conditions set out by the Agricultural Land Commission.
The former Liberal government attempted to address the issue by creating a two-zone system; Zone One being the Vancouver Island, South Coast and the Okanagan, while Zone Two consists of the rest of the province.
Both zones have a list of priorities that the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) considers when property owners apply for land-use changes.
The main bone of contention is that while some land in the East Kootenay included in the ALR isn’t suitable for agriculture, those property owners have a hard time getting approval from the ALC for other land uses that may not directly involve farming or ranching.
Wilkinson said a proper wildlife management plan is needed in the place of a blanket ban on hunting grizzly bears and told the audience that he hunted mule deer in his youth in Kamloops.
On the issue of the opioid crisis, while the rise in fatalities are being blamed on the use of illicit drugs that are tainted with fentanyl, Wilkinson says there are more factors to consider, namely the acceptance of overprescribing painkillers like Oxycontin for pain relief.
When he was practicing medicine 30 years ago, Wilkinson said painkillers like Oxycontin were used sparingly as a short term solution for temporary pain relief. Now, doctors are increasingly prescribing the drug to manage chronic pain, which is leading to higher rates of opioid addiction, he added.
“In the last three years, there’s been a move to try and wind that down, but we’re going to live with the consequences of that for a long time to come,” Wilkinson said.
The results of the provincial election in May returned a Liberal minority government to the legislature, who captured 43 seats, with 44 the threshold for a majority. The NDP won 41 seats and the Green Party won 3.
However, a power-sharing agreement between the NDP and the Greens ousted the Liberals from their minority position in June.
Wilkinson attributes turnover in power as a result of the Liberal Party preaching 30,000 feet in the sky about debt-to-GDP ratios and balanced budgets instead of listening to what people are going through in their daily lives.
“The NDP talked to people in their living rooms about what mattered and they talked about bridge tolls and child care and things that really hit people’s pocketbooks,” Wilkinson said. “If you look at the zone where we lost the nine or ten seats, that’s exactly where they’d be affected by those issues.
“Young families, people who commute across the Fraser River on toll bridges, and that message worked. So obviously the NDP were more attuned to what was going on in people’s households than we were, and that’s got to change.”
Wilkinson is one of seven candidates and six MLAs who are vying to succeed former premier Christy Clark as leader of the BC Liberal Party. Party members will select a new leader during a leadership vote on Feb. 1-3, 2018.