British Columbia

The BC Liberal Party

In 2001, the BC Liberal Party completed a remarkable comeback, emerging from nearly five decades of political obscurity to win nearly every seat in the British Columbia legislature in Victoria.

In 2001, the BC Liberal Party completed a remarkable comeback, emerging from nearly five decades of political obscurity to win nearly every seat in the British Columbia legislature in Victoria.

Under the leadership of Gordon Campbell, the party won the largest majority ever in B.C. politics, taking 77 of 79 seats. In 2005, the Liberals won a second, albeit smaller majority and returned to office with 46 seats.

Still under Campbell's leadership, the party is hoping to win a third mandate.

The history of the Liberals in B.C. stretches back to 1903, when the B.C. legislature first recognized political parties. The Liberal comeback was started in the late 1980s by then leader Gordon Wilson, who in 1987 took over a party that not won a seat in three consecutive elections and in 1991 became leader of the opposition.

First victories

An arm of the national Liberal Party for much of their existence, in 1903 the provincial Liberals won 17 seats, but lost to the Conservative Party.

In 1916,  Harlan Carey Brewster led the Liberals to their first election victory and formed the first Liberal government in B.C.

The Liberals governed B.C. for much of the 1920s and 1930s, with the Conservatives in opposition for all but one term.

In 1941, facing the rising popularity of the leftist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the Liberals and Conservatives formed a coalition to stave off the social democratic party that would later become the NDP.

Pushed out by Social Credit

The Liberal-Conservative coalition held off the CCF for 10 years, but fell apart in 1951, and the minority Liberal government called an election for 1952.

That election changed the face of B.C. politics when the B.C. Social Credit party, a coalition of grassroots factions with roots in Alberta, defeated the older parties and swept into power, while the NDP remained the official opposition.

For the next 20 years the Liberals never managed to win more than a handful of seats and Social Credit managed a remarkable 20-year stretch in power under the leadership of Kelowna hardware store owner W.A.C. Bennett.

Liberals return, to be wiped out

By the time the 1972 election was called, Social Credit was running out of steam, and the Liberals and Conservatives both had new young leaders.

Kelowna lawyer Derrill Warren headed the resurgent Conservatives and Victoria's David Anderson was the Liberal leader.

But instead of seizing power, the Liberal and Conservative resurgence split the right-wing vote and allowed the NDP, lead by Dave Barrett, to form their first government in B.C. history.

And while Social Credit formed the official opposition, the Liberals were left with five seats and the Conservatives two.

Bennett soon retired, and his son took over the Social Credit party. Bill Bennett recognized that a continued split in the anti-NDP vote could jeopardize his effort to defeat the NDP, and made overtures to the Liberal and Conservative MLAs before the 1975 election.

Three Liberal members, Pat McGeer, Alan Williams and Garde Gardom, and two Conservatives accepted Bennett's offer, won their ridings as Socreds in the 1975 election and became members of Bennett's cabinet.

As a result, the Liberals were walloped again in that 1975 election. Leader Anderson lost his seat, leaving only one Liberal MLA: Gordon Gibson Jr.

Things got worse for the party in the 1979 election when it was completely shut out, and it was the same story in the 1983 and 1986 provincial elections as the party virtually disappeared from B.C. politics.

The rebuilding years

Then in 1987, then-Capilano College instructor Gordon Wilson took over the Liberal Party of British Columbia, began a rebuilding program and severed ties to the locally unpopular federal Liberal Party and all other provincial Liberal parties across the country.

Wilson proved to be an accomplished debater, and scored well with TV viewers during the 1991 election leadership debate.

Meanwhile the governing Social Credit party was collapsing under the weight of repeated scandals after nearly four decades in power.

By the time votes from the 1991 election were counted, the NDP were back in power, while the Socreds were reduced to seven seats, and the revived BC Liberals, with 17 seats, formed the Official Opposition.

But there was soon dissension within Liberal ranks over Wilson's leadership, which came to a head over his affair with Liberal MLA Judy Tyabji. Both were married at the time.

In 1993 the unhappy Liberal party members forced a leadership race and Wilson was dumped for former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell.

Wilson and Tyabji left to form their own party, the Progressive Democratic Alliance and both ran in the 1996 election. Wilson won and Tyabji lost. Wilson soon joined the NDP government and later became a cabinet minister.

Campbell in Opposition

Meanwhile Campbell was working to rebuild the anti-NDP coalition by attracting supporters from the federal Liberals, Conservatives, Reform and Social Credit.

In 1996, it appeared that Campbell's work to build an anti-NDP coalition would pay off with a Liberal win. Campbell began the campaign with a comfortable lead in the polls over the NDP, led by Glen Clark.

When the votes were counted, the Liberals had nearly 42 per cent of the popular votes against the NDP's 39 per cent, but the NDP formed a majority government, having won 39 seats to the Liberals' 33.

The Liberals spent another five years in opposition.

Back in government

By the time the 2001 election was called, politics in B.C. had changed significantly, and Campbell was ready for a second chance.

The scandal-plagued NDP were on their third leader in five years, and in the final week of the 2001 election campaign, demoralized party leader Ujjal Dosanjh admitted he had no chance of winning.

Campbell and the Liberals were swept into office in a landslide, taking 77 of the 79 seats.

With only two seats, the NDP did not even have official party or opposition status in the legislature, even after picking up a seat in a byelection.

Meanwhile Campbell used his majority to push through substantial tax cuts his first year in office, followed by severe cuts to government departments and social services in his second year.

Second mandate

The cuts and layoffs deeply eroded the party's popularity, but by 2004, the government tabled a balanced budget, and with a second balanced budget in 2005 the party got a boost in popularity just in time for the spring election.

But the Liberals also faced a resurgent NDP under Carole James and when the votes were counted, Campbell's government was reduced to 46 seats, while 33 members took their places on the opposition benches.

Since the 2005 election the Liberals have lost one seat in a byelection, and three members to retirement, putting their seat count at 42 heading into the May 2009 election.

With files from Duncan Speight

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