Aaron Gunn would be the end of the BC Liberals. That’s not speculative; Gunn intends to change the BC Liberals’ name and much more. He repeated this during his official leadership campaign announcement on Saturday. Although not greenlit as a candidate yet, Gunn has the intentions and support to shake up and break up the BC Liberals.
The Victoria-raised Gunn is not shy about calling himself a “small-c conservative”. His strident right-wing politics stand out on the NDP’s Vancouver Island stronghold. Unlike other BC Liberal candidates who doggedly avoid the culture war, Gunn is on its frontlines. He protested the 2018 removal of Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue from Victoria city hall, he was “cancelled” by the University of Victoria in 2020, and has provided unfavourable ongoing coverage of the activists at Fairy Creek.
BC Liberal establishment figures like Mark Marissen have scorned him. Marissen has a long history of campaigning for both the federal and BC Liberals and is former BC Liberal premier Christy Clark’s ex-husband. Despite the BC Liberals’ reputation for being the province’s centre-right party, many federal Liberals like Marissen support it. Joyce Murray once sat as a BC Liberal MLA and now sits as a federal Liberal MP and cabinet minister in the Trudeau government.
The party exists as a détente between federal Liberal supporters like Marissen and Tory supporters like former deputy premier Kevin Falcon. Falcon even endorsed Maxime Bernier in the 2017 Conservative leadership race. The coalition’s uniting purpose is keeping the NDP out of power in BC and it has failed at it for two consecutive elections.
Despite Falcon’s previous enthusiasm for right-wing figures like Bernier, the BC Liberal establishment is desperate to shred the evidence of conservative politics that goes beyond tax cuts and deregulation. Mark Marissen contended that the unabashedly right-wing Aaron Gunn has no place in the BC Liberals.
It makes sense for the enfeebled BC Liberals to shun the Gunn candidacy. The party teeters on the brink of becoming a rump in the legislative assembly. The frail free-enterprise enthusiast coalition of conservatives and centrists cannot coexist with Gunn at the helm. Much of Gunn’s media output consists of interviewing federal Tories and attacking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. BC Liberal supporters with connections to the federal Liberals like Mark Marissen will be in an impossible position.
The BC Liberals hemorrhaged votes in the last election. Polling websites give the NDP a 99-100% chance of winning the next one and few people would dispute that likely result. The BC Liberals are a complete and utter mess with no clear direction beyond being broadly pro-business and opposed to the NDP. Aaron Gunn’s candidacy promises a return to conservative politics that has not existed since Premier WAC Bennett. Gunn mentioned Bennett (16:14) as an inspiration in his Saturday speech.
More British Columbians voted Tory in the last federal election than any other party. Gunn is friendly with the Tories and could bring in a string of endorsements from Tory politicians and even public figures like Conrad Black, whom he interviewed among many more.
BC Liberal candidates signed up around 30,000 new members to vote in the party’s last leadership election. Gunn has 80,000 followers on Facebook alone. For establishment figures like Mark Marissen, and MLAs running for leader like Michael Lee and Ellis Ross, their nightmare is Gunn’s supporters flooding the BC Liberals with new memberships to vote for him.
Gunn’s campaign is unmistakably a takeover attempt. Renaming the BC Liberals is just cosmetic. Aaron Gunn would end the “free-enterprise coalition” and turn it into a party by and for conservatives. Roughly 800,000 votes are needed to win a provincial election in BC. About 740,000 British Columbians voted Tory in September’s federal election. Gunn’s ambitions for an explicit right-wing alternative to the NDP are more feasible than the BC Liberals want to admit.
If the BC Liberals approve Gunn’s candidacy, he has a good chance of winning and effectively destroying the party. If the party doesn’t greenlight Gunn, they risk losing thousands of right-wing votes to a splinter campaign. That contest is years away and Gunn has ample time to build a breakaway movement. The choice and predicament is the BC Liberals’ fault alone for failing to offer a compelling alternative to voters. They roll the dice either way. The NDP probably doesn’t mind.
Geoff Russ is a writer and journalist who has had his reporting featured in The Source, The Spec, The Tyee and The Times Colonist.
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