Twenty-five years ago, British Columbians went to the polls on October 17, 1991 and changed BC politics in more ways than one.
It was the election of Premier Mike Harcourt’s NDP government and only the second time in BC history that the NDP had gained power. The election was hugely significant for the NDP as they governed for a decade. But its longer-term impact was the realignment of the free enterprise vote in BC.
Gordon Wilson, BC Liberal leader in 1991 breakthrough election.
The Social Credit Party had governed for 36 of the previous 39 years, mostly with a Bennett at the helm. It had renewed itself during the first NDP term of office in the 1970s and emerged stronger under WR Bennett with a broader base of support. Bennett had revived the Socred coalition by attracting Liberals, Conservatives, and even an NDP MLA to run with him in 1975. The renewed coalition was maintained for three elections (1975, 1979 and 1983) in the most polarized elections in BC history. When the Social Credit chose a new leader in 1986, they chose Bill Vander Zalm. While he led the Socreds victory one more time, their coalition would unravel under his premiership.
Starting in the early 1980s, a small group of Liberals worked to revive the provincial wing. From virtually no candidates in 1979, they ran close to a full slate in 1983 under leader Shirley McLaughlin, with parachutes attached to many Young Liberals. They garnered about 3%. Most federal Liberals (and they were a vanishing species at that time) were supporting the Social Credit Party.
Undaunted, Liberals held a leadership convention in 1984 where former Member of Parliament Art Lee, the first Chinese-Canadian leader of a political party in BC, defeated Stan Roberts, who would go on to help establish the Reform Party of Canada. Lee would build a strong relationship with Liberal Party of Canada leader John Turner, who represented Vancouver-Quadra, and BC’s Iona Campagnolo who was president of the Liberal Party of Canada. “A Liberal is a Liberal is a Liberal” was a mantra I heard at my first political convention in 1985 as a keen 16-year old.
When Bill Vander Zalm called the October 1986 election, Art Lee fielded a team of candidates across the province. There was no TV leaders debate and little money so it was hard for Lee to make an impact. Rather, Vander Zalm’s charisma trumped NDP Leader Bob Skelly’s opening press conference flutter. The Liberals were squeezed out, but doubled their vote to about 7%. Hopes for a seat were dashed as they were shut out of the Legislature. Art Lee stepped down. On election night, BCTV cruelly reported that Art Lee was going to win his seat. Bedlam erupted at Liberal HQ. Out in Maple Ridge where I was stationed, we piled into cars and headed in for the ‘party’. Somewhere around the Sperling interchange, CKNW reported that someone had made an error and Art Lee was 5th! Cheers turned to tears at the Liberal election night party at the Plaza 500. I ran into my new friend Christy Clark there. We had joined the SFU Young Liberal Club that month.
By the time the BC Liberals got around to choosing a new leader on Hallowe’en Day 1987, there was only one candidate – Gordon Wilson. A political unknown to most, he had at least been elected to local office on the Sunshine Coast and put up a respectable showing there in the 1986 election. He was an outsider to the Vancouver-centric Liberal Party in BC. Yet he showed up and took on the mantle.
The focus for Liberals in BC during that time was federal politics with an election looming in 1988. While Wilson sought to get established, the Vander Zalm government started its meltdown. Ministers and MLAs would resign from cabinet and/or resign their seats. Around this time, a group of free enterprise supporters, mostly Liberals I think, sought to encourage Jack Poole (Chair of the 2010 Olympics) to take over the BC Liberal leadership as a response to the Social Credit implosion. While this is truly a story for another day, Poole would go through a due diligence effort, assisted by former leader Gordon Gibson, but ultimately decided not to seek the leadership. Gordon Wilson, who had reluctantly cooperated with the Poole potential candidacy, ventured forth unfettered when Poole left the scene. No one gave him much of a chance.
Wilson’s leadership in 1989 and 1990 could be described as persistent and tenacious, but also was met with setbacks. Byelection results were disappointing while the party was in a constant financial crisis. Federal politics intervened again as Jean Chretien succeeded John Turner in June 1990 after a lengthy leadership campaign. One issue where Wilson and Chretien had common ground was over the Meech Lake Accord. Wilson was as a strong critic and aligned with Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs and Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells on the issue. This was a very divisive issue within the Liberal Party of Canada, but Wilson made a name for himself on this issue. However, the relationship with the Chretien team would become increasingly uneasy.
I was part of a group that believed, for some years, that the Party should split into separate federal and provincial political parities. The “BC Liberal Party” needed to be strictly provincial and put BC first on issues. During the Turner years, the party membership did not want to make the move, in part out of respect for Turner. However, by 1991, the provincial wing believed it was in their political interests, and the federal wing believed it was in its financial interests. At a convention in Spring 1991, the parties decided to split. This was a defining moment in BC political history. Had this not happened, the BC Liberal Party could not have emerged as a “big tent” political party. It was hard enough to attract non-Liberals to the BC Liberal Party in the 1990s, but it would have been impossible if the provincial party was not independent.
There is no greater boost for an opposition party than an imploding government. With many Socreds absolutely ruling out going to the NDP, and some NDP voters open to a liberal option (as they would never go Socred), the opportunity presented itself.
A core group of party supporters decided to give it one last push. If we couldn’t break through this time, there was no hope for the BC Liberal Party ever. We had no money and not much of an organization. But we did have a leader who was quick on his feet and would work day and night to succeed, and we started to draw some candidates that helped with credibility. My volunteer job was to find candidates with my pal Christy. There were good, young candidates in some places, like Speaker Linda Reid who was elected 25 years ago and ever since, and Gary Collins who won in Fort Langley. But we had many gaps, so when it came to candidate recruitment, I would find them, Christy would close them. During this time there was an epic road trip, borrowing Clive Tanner’s van, to Prince George, the Cariboo, Kamloops, and the Okanagan. Again, this is truly a story for another day.
We ended up with candidates in 71 of 75 ridings (I’m still mad about Prince George). That was enough to argue that Gordon Wilson should be on the debate. Of course, we were shut out of the debate because the NDP and Socreds didn’t want us there. So we launched a protest and had picketers in front of the CBC building. The pressure built and the network capitulated. We could not have asked for a better scenario – to have to fight to get on the debate and then to win the fight.
On debate night, party president Floyd Sully invited me to go to the CBC studios with him and be part of the team with Gordon Wilson. We showed up in his dressing room. I will never forget how calm he was. He was walking around, shirt off, listening but focused – his mind was elsewhere. Very calm. He had experience as an actor, which likely helped his preparation. I’m sure we were chattering away with miscellaneous advice that was completely off point and I’m sure he disregarded it. His media aide, John Stewart, prepared for the onslaught as there was a much bigger media hoard back then. Though the media didn’t know then that Gordon Wilson would be the story of the night and the election.
We watched the debate in the dressing room while it took place down the hall with no audience. When Premier Rita Johnston and Mike Harcourt were squabbling back and forth, Wilson nailed them: “This is a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the Province of British Columbia”. Boom! I don’t think the media realized the impact of that line but they did realize that Wilson had made an impact. We were giddy in the dressing room. Floyd and I sprinted down the hall to the studio. I remember passing Mike Harcourt in the hall, “Hey, how are you” I think he said. Disciplined, cheerful, seemingly unruffled. Rita Johnston didn’t look too happy. Wilson was surrounded in the studio. He would never turn down a media interview after begging for attention for years. We were excited.
I had had this feeling once before when I helped the Manitoba Liberals in the 1988 election – the feeling of everything coming up roses. Sharon Carstairs had risen from one seat to almost win the election, settling for 20 and preventing Gary Filmon from forming a majority. Could this be the same? It was definitely on my mind that we could get on a roll, big time. There wasn’t a lot of time left in the election either.
Floyd and I thought we should head back to Party headquarters at 210 West Broadway. The office was closed so we walked in and our six-line switchboard was lighting up like a Christmas tree. We took calls, offers of help, crazies, you name it. We had finally been noticed.
An interesting thing about the 1991 campaign was that BCTV commissioned and ran nightly polls. While it continues to lead the ratings now as Global, back then it really dominated. Tony Parsons would come on at 6pm and they would announce the new numbers in their daily poll. The poll was probably a methodological disaster, but once the debate happened our numbers spiked. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each good poll begat higher polling numbers the next time. As we rose, the Socreds became doomed. The Socred coalition was built on winnability. It became clear within days that the Liberals would be the party that would challenge the NDP.
As we headed into Thanksgiving weekend, there was a real likelihood we could win. The momentum seemed unstoppable. I remember talking on the phone with Clive Tanner, who was running in Saanich North & the Island and would win decisively. We speculated about forming government. At that point, Clive, who was in the bathtub, contemplated electrocuting himself.
The NDP appeared to get a grip and turned their guns on us. Glen Clark showed his fangs and attacked our platform. A hastily organized press conference where Gordon Wilson and Floyd Sully (who had run and served as Finance critic) costed our platform was necessary. Vaughn Palmer provided a dose of the first scrutiny our campaign had had. Up until the final week, no one thought we had a chance so no one cared if our plan made sense or who our candidates were. I think I can safely say that many of our candidates would not have survived a modern-day social media screening process.
Around that time, I was driving up Kingsway in Vancouver and came across Glen Clark’s campaign office. I walked in to collect some brochures. I was greeted by a receptionist (best practices) and was quickly identified as “undecided”. I was directed to a table of brochures and within 20 seconds I had Glen Clark interrogating me. “Hey, how are you? Undecided? Want a coffee?” Here he was in a safe seat and he was working for every vote. Of course, I folded like a cheap lawn chair from Zellers. I confessed my true identity and Glen switched gears to quiz me on Floyd Sully, who he debated on finance issues. “What’s he like? He seems intense.” Etc. In any event, that gives a glimpse how hungry the NDP were.
We had come from zero to somewhere. By the time Election Day arrived, I don’t think we thought we were going to win. But I did think something would happen, but how much, I didn’t know. I would have been happy with four seats. That was always our dream, to just get a toehold. It’s quite something to look at history and conventional wisdom then use your eyes and ears to understand what’s happening right in front of you.
In the final week of the campaign, Christy and I transitioned over to the Sunshine Coast to help the leader with his local campaign. He had to win and we were there to help. On October 17th at 8pm, we watched the first tranche of early results in Sechelt where it looked like we would be Opposition and would eclipse the Socreds. Gordon Wilson was up in Powell River. By the time the votes were all tallied up, we won 17 seats and 33% of the vote. We won historically liberal seats on the North Shore and west side of Vancouver, but we also took Saanich North, Richmond, South Delta, South Surrey, most of the Fraser Valley, and Kelowna. Places where Liberals had no business winning, usually.
It was clear that it would be quite a party that night. While Wilson flew down to Vancouver to address supporters, a crew of us from the Sunshine Coast were taken on a chartered boat over to Horseshoe Bay. It was a calm, warm night, cruising on moonlit waters before everything would change.
Volunteers from West Van picked us up in station wagons and drove us to the Villa Hotel in Burnaby. It was electric. My best friend Iain, who is a big guy, was drafted to bring Wilson into the room with another big guy, Jim. Peter Gzowski would comment on the “two gorillas” that brought the skinny, bookish professor, Gordon Wilson, into the frenzy.
There was a grumpy old guy named Dick Kirby who was from Oak Bay. He was the most hard-working, dedicated volunteer you would ever find. I will never forget walking into that ballroom and seeing Dick and everything we had worked for was in his eyes. When you are part of an underdog team that overcomes the odds like that, it is a really special bond. But when you add in the unselfishness of a guy like Dick Kirby, it is a joyful moment. I will never forget that.
That’s where the story should end. It’s a good story.
Euphoria doesn’t last. Hard political choices are ultimately made. Organizations that can skate by for 28 days cannot sustain years of grinding unless they change. The BC Liberals had to decide what it wanted to be if it wanted to govern. It would go through a tough process between 1991 and 1993, when it elected Gordon Campbell to succeed Gordon Wilson. It would go through another tough process between 1993 and 1996 when it failed to win. It would go through a brutal five-year process from 1996 to 2001 when the NDP tanked, but waited until the fifth year of the mandate to go to the polls. It was a long decade. During that time, a modern political party was built one meeting at a time, one chicken-dinner fundraiser at a time, one local parade at a time, one vote at a time. The old saying comes to mind – the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition. The hard work paid off with the greatest election win in BC history when the BC Liberals won 77 of 79 seats in the 2001 election.
Since 1991 the Party has changed and evolved. It has become a successful, modern political party that has taken a big-tent approach. Gordon Wilson created the opportunity. Gordon Campbell built the foundation, in painstaking fashion, and cemented it as the free enterprise coalition through eight grinding years in Opposition and three successive winning elections. Christy Clark renewed it and earned her own term, tapping into the 1991 experience, knowing that conventional wisdom can be defied, that the ultimate connection for leaders is with the voters, not the intermediaries, and that believing in oneself and the team around you is essential.
All three BC Liberal leaders – Wilson, Campbell, Clark – also teach us that it’s bloody hard work to create, build, and renew. I’m honoured to have served all three. And I’m honoured to have worked alongside those beyond the headlines that made it possible. It’s been quite a journey.
Former MLA Wilf Hurd, who was elected in 1991, recently put an anthology of recollections together that marked this historic election and how it happened – “On the Edge of the Ledge – Rise of the BC Liberal Party 1986-1991”. Vaughn Palmer reviewed it here.