30 years later: The Election that Changed Everything

British Columbians went to the polls on October 17, 1991 and changed BC politics forever.

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 more profound impact was the realignment of the free enterprise vote in BC.

oct-17-1991-liberal-leader-gordon-wilson-on-the-campaign.jpg
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 to 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 (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, at the Empress Hotel, as a keen 16-year old.

When Bill Vander Zalm called the October 1986 election, on the heels of a very popular Expo 86, Art Lee managed to field a team of candidates in most ridings across the province. There was no TV leaders debate and little money so it was hard for Lee to make an impact. The Liberals placed their hopes on winning one seat – the Leader’s.

Bill Vander Zalm’s charisma trumped the NDP and its faltering leader, Bob Skelly, who famously fluttered at his opening press conference. 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 in Vancouver. Out in Maple Ridge, we piled into an old black Lincoln 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 old Plaza 500. I ran into my new friend Christy Clark at the wake. We had joined the SFU Young Liberal Club that month.

Art Lee decided to move on from his unpaid, under-resourced, and under-appreciated leadership. 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, though he wasn’t going to get much help from the city folk.

The focus for most 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 with moderates fleeing. Ministers and MLAs would resign from cabinet and/or resign their seats. Around this time, a group of free enterprise supporters encouraged prominent developer Jack Poole (later the Chair of the 2010 Olympics) to take over the BC Liberal leadership as a response to the Social Credit Zalmplosion. While this is truly a story for another day, Poole would go through a due diligence effort, assisted by former leader Gordon Gibson, and organizers Colin Hansen and David McPhee, 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 strongly believed that the Party should split into separate federal and provincial political parties. 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 John Turner and his commitment to BC. 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. The advantage of the Liberal brand, especially once it was detached from the federal wing, was its ability to push out from the middle in both directions.

Thus, a core group of party supporters decided to give it one last push. It was felt 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. There were some good recruits like Linda Reid who would become the longest serving women in BC history, business executive Fred Gingell, young pilot Gary Collins who won in Fort Langley, and author/executive David Mitchell who had some media cachet. Clive Tanner had served as an MLA in the Yukon and Val Anderson was a former party president and United Church minister who was well known to Liberals. But we had many gaps. My volunteer job was to find candidates with my pal Christy, to fill out the slate. 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. We met with candidates in hot tubs, recruited mustard manufacturers, dragooned university friends like Karen Bill and Kimball Kastelen, and found the lonely Liberal outposts in places where they had been in hiding. Clive is probably still paying off the bill from his car phone, a real novelty in those days.

We ended up with candidates in 71 of 75 ridings. That was enough to argue that Gordon Wilson should be on the debate. We were shut out of the debate initially 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 win the fight. I found out we had made the debate when I was in Rogers Pass recruiting a candidate. Yes, our candidate was living in Rogers Pass, at the Glacier Park Lodge. She was a wonderful candidate and did respectably in Columbia River-Revelstoke, though our local Golden Liberal wouldn’t help sign the nomination papers in public – “Someone could lose their job by signing these”.

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 it beforehand, 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 full impact of that line when it was delivered, 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 narrow hallway backstage – “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 won her TV debate, and rose 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. Then, as now, BCTV (Global) led the evening news ratings, but back then it dominated the entire news landscape as well. Anchor Tony Parsons would come on at 6pm and announce the new numbers in their daily poll and, after the debate, the Liberals spiked up. The nightly polls were a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each good poll begat higher polling numbers the next time. As we rose, the Socreds were 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 whole shebang. 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 actually 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 can safely say that many of our candidates would not have survived a modern-day social media screening process.

Vaughn has been around a loooooong time

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 warmly by a receptionist (best practice) and quickly self-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 would happen, I didn’t know. I would have been happy with four seats. That was always our dream, to just get a toehold. It was quite something to consider our party’s dismal history, and the prevailing conventional wisdom that we had no chance, then use our eyes and ears to understand what was happening right in front of us. It was hard to believe.

In the final week of the campaign, Christy and I transitioned over to Gibsons 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 taking in the results, soon to jump a plane to Vancouver to celebrate with a lot of long-suffering and delighted Liberals. 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, until then.

It was clear that it would be quite a party that night. While Wilson made his way to the celebration, a crew of us from the Sunshine Coast were taken on a chartered boat from Gibsons 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 CBC the next morning about the “two gorillas” that brought the skinny, bookish professor, Gordon Wilson, into the frenzy.

As I walked in, I encountered a gruff old guy named Dick Kirby who was from Oak Bay. He was the most hard-working, dedicated volunteer you would ever find. At that moment I saw everything we had accomplished on Dick’s face – a sense of elation, satisfaction, and emotion.  It brought it all home to me suddenly because I knew how hard he and others had worked and the example that they had set for others.  The moment has always stayed with me because it was the essence of politics as we would like it to be.   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. Emerging parties that surprise in a 28 day writ period must evolve in order to consolidate their gains.

The BC Liberals had to decide what they wanted to be if they wanted to govern. They would go through a tough process between 1991 and 1993, when they elected Gordon Campbell to succeed Gordon Wilson. They would go through another tough process between 1993 and 1996 when they failed to win. Idealism crashed on the rocky shores of reality. They would go through a brutal five-year process from 1996 to 2001 when the heat was cranked and the NDP tanked. The NDP would wait until the fifth year of the mandate to go to the polls and the electoral buzz saw. It was a long decade and a transformative evolution for the BC Liberals.

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.

The Party changed and evolved. It became a successful, regionally-balanced, modern political party that took a big-tent approach. It was a successful vehicle for the mainstream – winning the popular vote in six consecutive elections between 1996 and 2017. The 1991 election put Liberals back into the free enterprise coalition. While some would argue they were always there during the Social Credit years, by the mid 1980s, they had withered away. The realignment put Liberals back in the centre of the coalition, and by 2001, it was becoming truly balanced with most conservatives and former Socreds signing on.

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.

Yet, time caught up with the BC Liberals. By 2017, the Party was long past its scrappy origins and frenetic early years in government. Governmentitis crept in. Baggage accumulated. The extremely narrow margin in Comox that divided power from defeat ended a remarkable era for the BC Liberals – a rise from the ashes that begun on Hallowe’en night 1987 with Gordon Wilson taking the stage as leader, and ending in Penticton in July 2017 when Christy Clark took a walk on the beach and put a cap on it. Four years in the wilderness, ten striving years in opposition, sixteen years in power and four mandates.

Ironically, in the aftermath of 2017 and 2020 elections, the BC Liberal Party’s biggest challenge is to retain and recruit Liberals. It has come full circle.

All three of those BC Liberal leaders from 1987 to 2017 – Wilson, Campbell, Clark – taught 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 behind the headlines that made it possible. It was quite a journey that would have ended early had it not been for the remarkable results of October 17, 1991.

6 Comments

  1. Great article Mike. Sets out good guidance to the current BC Liberal leadership candidates. No one can waltz into the leader’s job. The winner will have to work tirelessly to energize volunteers, recruit and inspire great candidates and give hope to voters. Not any easy task. Which of the six, or possibly seven leadership candidates has the stamina and jam?

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  2. Hi Mike.

    If you ever want to see some photos from the Wilson era and the change to Campbell, contact me. I was asked by a few candidates in early 90’s to take photos including that convention that changed the leadership.

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  3. Beautiful piece Mike McDonald thank you. I think a good lesson from it all is that It does take a village and when the villagers feel left out, unimportant and only useful at election time, they stop giving it their all. Sadly I don’t see much public confidence or support in how the political wing of government functions. There’s a lot of “here we go again” out there and that creates apathy and disillusionment… Plato, Aristotle and Socrates would not be amused! As for your article, you covered all the basis exceptionally! Thank you.

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  4. Great look back at that era and election, thanks Mike. I recall it vividly, being involved in the 1980’s and 90’s–at the 1984 Convention with Art Lee (and John Turner), and the subsequent conventions in ’85, ’86, 87 with people like Dove Hendron, Rick Antonson, Grant Burnyeat etc. I was campaign manager for candidate in the Fraser Valley in ’86 (tripled our vote total from previous election..) and in ’91 was on campaign team that helped elect an MLA in a former Social Credit stronghold. What a ride that was! Thanks for the look back and at how the Liberal party unfolded after those years.

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