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Gordon Wilson’s debate triumph in B.C.

The Story


This leaders' debate was supposed to be a clash between the NDP's Mike Harcourt and Social Credit's Rita Johnston. But Liberal leader Gordon Wilson surprises everyone by getting in the best shots. In this television clip, Wilson scolds the loudly bickering Harcourt and Johnston. "This reminds me of the legislature and here's a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia," Wilson says. 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC News
Broadcast Date: Oct. 8, 1991
Guests: Mike Harcourt, Rita Johnston, Gordon Wilson
Reporter: Cecilia Walters
Duration: 3:42

Did You know?


• Seat totals in the Oct. 17, 1991, British Columbia election:
- New Democratic Party: 51
- Liberal Party: 17
- Social Credit: 7

• Eleven other parties failed to win a seat.

• Not winning the debate was one of the few flaws in what was considered a great campaign for NDP leader and new premier Mike Harcourt. The former Vancouver mayor vowed to forego class warfare in favour of consensus and co-operation.

• Harcourt hammered Social Credit on past scandals and flew TV crews over massive forestry clear-cuts to show the effect of Social Credit's lack of controls on logging practices.

• Wilson, whose party held no seats, was never touted to win the 1991 British Columbia election. His debate performance, however, is credited with lifting the Liberals to official Opposition status. Liberal support surged from 12 to 28 per cent overnight.

• CBC Television had initially decided not to allow Wilson to participate in the debate because his party held no seats. CBC reversed its position after Wilson and his supporters picketed the Vancouver station.

• Eight months before the election, Wilson's Liberal party voted to formally cut its ties to the federal Liberal party. Since taking over the provincial party in 1987 Wilson had chafed at the ties to Ottawa, disagreeing with the federal party on a host of issues including the Meech Lake Accord. The British Columbia Liberal Party remains a separate entity.

• Rita Johnston became Canada's first female premier in April 1991. Social Credit had chosen Johnston over front-runner Grace McCarthy to replace Bill Vander Zalm as party leader and premier. Catherine Callbeck of Prince Edward Island became Canada's first elected female premier in 1993.

• In the 1991 campaign, Johnston tried but failed to paint Harcourt's NDP as tax-and-spend throwbacks to the 1970s, when Dave Barrett's NDP government lasted only three years.

• The 1991 election marked the end of Social Credit as a political force. The party had governed B.C. for all but three of the previous 39 years. In a commentary for CBC Television, former Social Credit cabinet minister Jim Nielsen argued the party started to unravel in 1986 when it chose Bill Vander Zalm as leader. Thanks to the resulting scandals, he said, Rita Johnston didn't have a chance.

• To hear from candidates for the Family Coalition Party, the Libertarian party and other so-called fringe parties, go to the clip Fighting for attention in '91.
• Harcourt resigned as premier in November 1995 to take responsibility for Bingogate, a scandal involving the proceeds from charity bingos being diverted to NDP accounts. Harcourt was not involved in the diversion but became the focus for public anger over it.

• In 1993, Gordon Wilson lost the Liberal leadership after enduring criticism over his affair with Liberal MLA Judy Tyabji. He formed the Progressive Democratic Alliance and later became a cabinet minister in Glen Clark's NDP government.

• The 1991 campaign ended with 75 MLAs elected in 75 ridings. Thanks to electoral reform, the vote marked the first time in B.C. history the province did not have ridings represented by more than one legislator.

• Along with electing a government, British Columbians voted in favour of setting up a process by which constituents can recall a sitting MLA. The voters also approved a system for bringing citizen initiatives before the legislature or to a province-wide referendum.


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