British Columbia·Video

Why the B.C. Liberals are sometimes liberal and sometimes not

While the names of the parties have changed, B.C. politics have been defined the same way for over 75 years.

A short history lesson for those confused why they're different from every other Liberal party in Canada

A short history lesson for those confused why they're different from every other Liberal party in Canada 3:23

If you've lived in British Columbia for your entire life, this article probably isn't for you.

But if you're new to the province, or live elsewhere in Canada, it's a political question you'll inevitably ask: why do people argue over whether the B.C. Liberals are liberals or conservatives?

According to Google search data, the third most common question people ask about the B.C. Liberals is: "Why are conservatives called B.C. Liberals?" and a number of columns and articles have been published on the topic in the last month. 

But the reason the B.C. Liberals are an amalgam of people who support the Liberals and Conservatives federally — without a fixed ideology in B.C. beyond "free enterprise" — has less to do with them and more to do with the NDP. 

Because while the names of the parties have changed, B.C. politics have been defined the same way for over 75 years. 

Blocking the NDP

"The primary dynamic in B.C. politics goes back to the second World War era," said David Mitchell, a historian who has written multiple books about the province's political history.

The first era of political parties in British Columbia saw the Liberal and Conservative parties trade places in government, much like at the federal level. But when the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — which changed its name to the NDP in 1961 — began to rise, the two establishment parties decided to combine forces in a coalition government.

"It was ostensively to have a united war effort, but the reality was the Liberals and Conservatives, the old line parties of that day, bandied together to prevent the CCF ... from forming the government," said Mitchell. 

The coalition ruled B.C. from 1941 to 1952, but when it broke up because of infighting, the Social Credit party under W.A.C. Bennett upended the old order and quickly usurped them as the dominant choice for non-NDP supporters. 

Former British Columbia premier Bill Bennett was one of four Social Credit premiers who led B.C. for 36 of 39 years between 1952 and 1991. (The Canadian Press)

"Social Credit then became the small-c coalition of the centre-right,"  said Mitchell. "The old Liberals and Conservatives stayed on, but they became minor fringe parties for a couple generations."

First led by W.A.C. Bennett and then by his son Bill, the Social Credit Party ruled B.C. for 36 of the next 39 years.

But by 1991 and with an election looming, the party was mired in scandal, and voters and businesses who didn't have a home in the NDP began looking for a new option. 

Enter the Liberals

"The NDP had come to government in 1991 for the second time, and if not Social Credit, what was going to be the united non-socialist, non-social democratic alternative?" said Mitchell.

Mitchell himself was one 17 MLAs elected under the B.C. Liberal banner in that 1991 election. The formerly fringe party had formally split from the federal organization prior to the election, and became the official opposition primarily through the strength of leader Gordon Wilson's campaigning.  

WATCH: Gordon Wilson's famous 1991 debate performance

In a campaign turning point, the Liberal leader puts the NDP and Social Credit front-runners in their place. 3:42

"The Liberals re-emerged as a force in the opposition, but was not yet that vehicle. It took a few years for them to emerge as the single, centre-right alternative," said Mitchell. 

It happened over the course of many years for a variety of reasons: the election of Gordon Campbell as leader, the complete collapse of the Social Credit party, and the failure of other options like the Reform Party and Progressive Democratic Alliance to make inroads.

But by 2001 they were the preferred option for all non-NDP voters, and won a historic 77 and 79 seats in B.C.'s legislature. 

"The Liberals were anything but Liberal in the large L, centre-left sense ... but it became uniquely in the British Columbia context: necessary to become the single vessel to serve as an alternative to the NDP," said Mitchell. 

The party's name is the Liberals, but they're really the third iteration of what has been the dominant group in B.C. for decades: the sometimes right-wing, sometimes-centrist, always against the NDP, free enterprise party. 

It may be why longtime B.C. residents accept the difference with ease. But it doesn't make it any easier for outsiders to intuitively grasp. 

"When people think of Liberals in British Columbia, they need to check their biases about what is a liberal," said Mitchell.

"To be a liberal in B.C. is a very different thing indeed."