British Columbia·Analysis

Wilkinson's family-first defence of candidate opposed to rainbow crosswalk creates new avenues for NDP attack

"I think it makes it very difficult for the Liberals to expand their base to a younger demographic, more urban demographic when he chooses to defend rights in that fashion," says political scientist Hamish Telford.

Liberal leader’s response to questions on LGBT issues won’t expand his party’s base, say experts

Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson on Oct. 4, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Political consultants call it "message control": the ability to say pretty much the same thing to any question about a specific hot-button issue, in the hopes that it goes away. 

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson is succeeding at saying the same thing about controversial candidates — but it's not helping with the other part of the equation.

"To be perfectly clear, I have gay members of my family. I have lesbian members in my family. I love them, I respect them," Wilkinson said on Wednesday, his first words after being asked if he supported Margaret Kunst, a Liberal candidate in the Fraser Valley who voted against a rainbow crosswalk during a recent Langley council meeting. 

An hour later in an interview with CBC News, Wilkinson was asked if he had recently spoken with Laurie Throness, another Liberal candidate in the Fraser Valley who advertised in an anti-LGBT magazine and has recently defended a magazine article on conversion therapy

"I talk to all of our candidates regularly," he said.

"I've made it very clear in every one of those calls: I have a gay family member, I have a lesbian family member. And I'm proud of them, I love them, I respect them."

At least four times in the campaign when he's been asked about the views of Kunst and Throness, Wilkinson has started his response with the sexual orientation of his family members, and avoided any reference to conversion therapy or rainbow crosswalks. 

He has always gone on to say that any B.C. Liberal candidate must agree there is no room for discrimination in British Columbia. 

But when that answer is given so often, it can appear less like a humanizing moment and more like a shield.

Laurie Throness has been a B.C. Liberal MLA since 2013. (John Lehmann/B.C. Liberal Caucus)

Fraser Valley politics

Political scientist Hamish Telford said Wilkinson's decision not to disavow Kunst and Throness is partly a political calculation, given the culture of the region and the B.C. Liberal Party's attempts to represent people on both the centre and right of the political spectrum.  

"The B.C. Liberal Party has social conservatives, and he's got social conservative candidates running in the Fraser Valley — which has a preponderance of social conservatives, and in particular evangelical Christians," said Telford, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley. 

Telford believes Wilkinson would have preferred different candidates, but the snap election made things more difficult.

"None of the parties really have time to engage in complicated nomination fights. That can be deeply disruptive in ridings in particular that the Liberals are going to consider pretty safe," said Telford. 

"I think [he made] the calculation it would be easier to ride out the storm, than to undo decisions that were made and find new candidates."

Township of Langley Coun. Margaret Kunst is running as a candidate for the B.C. Liberal Party in the Langley East riding. (Township of Langley)

NDP says it's an 'I've got friends of this colour' defence

But every day Wilkinson chooses an indirect answer is a fresh opportunity for the NDP to respond.

On Wednesday it was NDP Vancouver-West End candidate Spencer Chandra Herbert, one of the first openly gay MLAs in B.C.'s history.

"Anybody who's been a target of bullies will hear from people who didn't stand with them, saying, 'Well, I didn't stand with you, but I've got friends who are just like you, I've got friends of this colour … so just trust me, I'll look out for you,'" he said. 
  
"We know people who don't stand up with us, and for us, won't look out for us. Andrew Wilkinson can claim to have all the friends he wants, but if he's not there for us when they're bullied or attacked, he's not a friend."

Herbert's comment illustrates the difficulty Wilkinson is in: they don't give him any benefit of the doubt, and he risks alienating members of his own party if he directly disavows Kunst and Throness. 

At the same time, nobody forced Wilkinson to bring up his family members as part of his defence. 

And it's 2020, in a province where rainbow crosswalks are being approved in most big cities without major controversy. 

"I think it makes it very difficult for the Liberals to expand their base to a younger demographic, more urban demographic when he chooses to defend rights in that fashion," said Telford. 

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