British Columbia·Analysis

A 'wacky time of life': B.C. Liberal leader rejects opportunity to take back words on renters

Only Andrew Wilkinson can explain why he used the words he did. But despite ample opportunity, he didn't want to take them back.

B.C. Liberal leader played into the worst perceptions of his party — and when provided a do-over, didn't.

Andrew Wilkinson celebrates after being elected leader of the B.C. Liberals in January 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The leader of the B.C. Liberal Party wanted to chat about renters. 

A day after Andrew Wilkinson, in prepared remarks in the legislature, called renting "kind of a wacky time of life," and "a fact of life that's a rite of passage," he decided to phone the CBC reporter (raises hand) whose tweets about it had gone viral.

The 20-second segment raised predictable outrage among expected demographics for self-evident reasons. 

Now, when a politician is in hot water on social media, they usually only speak out if they want to double down on their original comments, or express some regret for what they said. 

Wilkinson did neither. 

"Most of us have a bouncy time in our early 20s, and that's what I was referring to by saying it's a wacky time of life," said Wilkinson, who wasn't in Victoria on Thursday and thus unavailable to the gaggle of reporters that would have otherwise pressed him. 

"The goal is to have enough rental housing, so you can find a more stable situation in their later 20s as they go into their adult life."

Four times, I asked Wilkinson if he regretted his characterization of renters.

Four times, he declined to directly answer. 

"We have to make sure that there's enough rental supply that people can have legitimate choices and maybe they'll find a place they're prepared to live their entire life. That's got to be the goal of government."

But what was the goal of Wilkinson's comments? 

Renting in your 20s vs. any other time

If you search for a thread in Wilkinson's comments, it's that his description of renting as "part of growing up and getting better" was intended to apply only to people just out of high school and starting up the chain of professional life.

"Finding a rental with the right roommates is the goal," said Wilkinson, who talked about the many dicey rental homes he found himself in in his twenties, including having to bolt from a place with a dodgy roommate within a month of moving in. 

"Sometimes, you don't get the right roommates, and you find yourself in unstable situations, and you've got to make sure there's enough rental supply for those people to actually have the choices to improve their situation when it's not working out."

That may be a typical situation for people in their 20s. 

But it doesn't account for seniors.

Or the working poor.

Or young couples who are putting off children because finding a two-bedroom rental anywhere near their work or social circle is impossible. 

For all of them, renting is anything but "a rite of passage" as Wilkinson put it — something he seemed to concede. 

"Unfortunately, in Vancouver and other parts of British Columbia, it's highly unlikely that people will move from rentals to home ownership because of the price of housing," he said. 

So did that mean he regretted his word choice, I asked? 

"Well, we all have to focus on making sure that the government of British Columbia provides the people of British Columbia by increasing the supply of quality housing in the rental market," he said.

Jessica Archibald was one of many renters CBC News spoke to who didn't understand Wilkinson's comments. "There's an implied judgment of people who are still [renting], like 'you haven't grown up, stop complaining about it.' It's a fact of life that most people can't afford to buy a home here," she said. (Sean Holden/CBC)

Perception problem

But let's not focus on that. Let's focus on why Wilkinson's remarks in the legislature, just 20 seconds long, reverberated so quickly. 

First, the leader of the opposition is wealthy: he's a doctor and lawyer, who represents people in Vancouver's richest neighbourhoods. He has crisp white hair, looks good in a suit, doesn't suffer fools gladly and speaks in a patrician accent. 

This creates, to put it mildly, perception issues. 

Second, British Columbia is in a housing crisis: the vacancy rate across the province is 1.4 per cent, Vancouver is considered the second-least affordable city in the world, and you could fill a phone book with the number of stories media have written about the situation in the last five years.

And yet, Wilkinson called the never-ending existential crisis a generation of young British Columbians face as they attempt to transition from renters to owners "a wacky time of life, but it can be really enjoyable," right as his party is in the middle of a campaign to recruit fresh blood and younger candidates

Only Andrew Wilkinson can explain why he used the words he did. 

But when given the opportunity to clear things up, the only thing he made clear is he still didn't quite get it.  

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

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

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