British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. Liberals try to create 'new normal' of politics during COVID-19 recovery

In the middle of a pandemic, who wants to see politicians engage in traditional games of partisan finger pointing and over-the-top attacks?

Few want partisan fights — but there are differences on economic policy and an election looming

B.C. Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson says the party will continue to prepare for the upcoming provincial election, and will likely hold virtual nomination meetings in the months ahead. (CBC News)

In the middle of a pandemic, who wants to see politicians engage in traditional games of partisan finger pointing and over-the-top attacks?

Pretty much nobody. 

It's why political mudslinging has all but disappeared in British Columbia over the last two months, with opposition and government MLAs co-hosting virtual town halls across the province to talk about the government's response to COVID-19. 

But as the province begins its reopening strategy, the opposition B.C. Liberal Party is in the same place as a lot of British Columbians: figuring out how they can get back to what they were doing before — though perhaps in a more limited and less boisterous way.  

"I said very publicly that we need to fight the virus not fight each other," said leader Andrew Wilkinson. 

"We also have to get our economy back into shape and get people having some optimism and confidence in their lives."

To that end, in the days after the government announced its restart plan, Wilkinson put out two releases that were mildly critical of the government's economic response to the crisis — but still more critical than anything he's said in months.

With an election less than 18 months away, the opposition party needs to find a way to present an alternative vision of British Columbia. 

Finding that balance during COVID-19, however, is easier said than done. 

Horgan up in polls 

For starters, Premier John Horgan has never been more popular, according to a new poll by Innovative Research Group. 

The poll found 54 per cent of people have a favourable impression of Horgan, compared to just 16 per cent who have an unfavourable opinion. In addition, 74 per cent of people said they are satisfied with the performance of the B.C. government at the moment, compared to 21 per cent who are dissatisfied. 

That shouldn't be surprising: with COVID-19 related deaths lower per capita than any other province or U.S. state with at least five million people, Horgan is well positioned to get a popularity boost — even though he's taken a less visible role than Health Minister Adrian Dix and Chief Health Officer Bonnie Henry.  

Even if B.C. wasn't doing as well, University of the Fraser Valley political scientist Hamish Telford said this type of crisis tends to benefit incumbent governments.

"In moments of crisis, there is sort of a rallying around the flag," he said. 

"We will see criticisms from the opposition become sharper, but I don't think there is much public tolerance for politics as normal."

B.C. Chief Health Officer Bonnie Henry provides a COVID-19 update on May 5. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

No attacking Henry

It means that for as long as COVID-19 is the most pressing issue to most British Columbians, Wilkinson will focus less on health guidelines, and more on economic recovery.

"Health should never be ideological. It should be based on what's good for the people of British Columbia and we believe we've taken that path in the last two months," he said.

"[But] we believe there's a critically important need to give confidence to small businesses," bringing up the fact many of them are considering closing, or have already closed. 

To that end, Wilkinson is pushing for a two- to three-month suspension of the PST as a way to stimulate spending. 

Telford said a business-first approach makes sense ideologically, but there's also an element of realpolitik.

"I think the B.C. Liberals will avoid directly criticizing Dr. Bonnie," he said, alluding to the immense confidence that most British Columbians appear to have in the public health officer.

"If the public sees that they are making constructive criticism, that will put them in good stead."

And that criticism will be coming: the Liberals plan to continue selecting candidates for the next election with virtual nomination meetings, and the legislature will resume sitting in about six weeks.

Just like everything else in B.C., politics will have a phased-in approach over the next few months — which likely means the ideal situation for Wilkinson and the Liberals is still a long way off.

"Right now, the public is not even thinking about them," said Telford.

"And under the circumstances, it's almost the best that the opposition can hope for."
 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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