Liberal Party


LIBERAL PARTY was one of the two dominant political parties, along with the CONSERVATIVE PARTY, in BC during the first half of the 20th century. It faded as a political force following the 1952 provincial election and did not regain a significant amount of electoral support until 1991. It returned to dominance in 2001 when it won a landslide election victory over the NDP.

The party emerged formally at a 1902 convention, and in an election the following year legislators in BC began identifying openly with particular parties. Prior to that time MLAs had divided themselves into shifting factions held together by personal relationships and self-interest rather than policies and/or principles. This arrangement proved highly unstable and party labels were accepted in an attempt to bring a semblance of order to government. The first Liberal leader was James A. MacDonald, a corporate lawyer from ROSSLAND, who led the party with little success until he resigned to become BC Chief Justice just before the 1909 election. He was succeeded by John OLIVER, but when Oliver lost his seat in 1909 the party drifted without a leader, and with only two, then one, then no MLAs. Harlan BREWSTER took over in 1913 and led the Liberals to a stunning victory over a tired Conservative government in 1916, beginning 12 years of Liberal Party rule under Brewster (1916–18), Oliver (1918–27) and J.D. MacLEAN (1927–28). During this period, electoral support for the Liberals peaked at 50% of the popular vote, an all-time high. The Liberals finally lost power in the 1928 election; having lost his own seat, the uncharismatic MacLean resigned as leader and was succeeded by House Leader Duff PATTULLO in 1930. Pattullo managed to lead the party back to power in 1933 and thereafter moved it steadily leftward in response to the Depression and in an attempt to undercut support for the new CO-OPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH FEDERATION. Liberals were reduced to a minority in 1941 and at a special convention voted to form a COALITION GOVERNMENT with their Conservative rivals. Pattullo did not agree; he resigned and John HART took over as party leader and premier at the end of 1941. Because they held the most seats, the Liberals remained the senior partners in the coalition, naming the premier and senior cabinet ministers. When Hart resigned in 1947 he was succeeded by Byron JOHNSON, who remained premier until 1952. By this time coalition partners were divided on more and more issues and many Liberals began to believe the party could succeed electorally on its own, so no one objected when the coalition broke up. What few had counted on was the sudden appearance of SOCIAL CREDIT, which emerged from the 1952 election with more seats than any other party. The Liberals, who had effectively been in power for two decades, were reduced to 6 seats. It turned out that the 1952 election was a watershed for the party as it did not form another government during the 20th century. Byron Johnson lost his seat, so E.T. Kenney filled in as the party House Leader until Arthur LAING took over as leader in time for the 1953 election. Laing, who served from 1953 to 1959, and his successors Ray PERRAULT (1959–68) and Pat McGEER (1968–72), managed to garner about 20% of the popular vote in successive elections, but none could muster more than a handful of seats in the legislature, as the middle-of-the-road Liberals were eclipsed by the bitter polarization between Social Credit and the CCF-NDP. The situation worsened during the 1970s. Under David ANDERSON's leadership (1972–75) the Liberals managed to hang on to 5 seats in the 1972 election, which was won by the NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY; but the Liberal Party was devastated by the defection of 3 of its MLAs to the Socreds in 1975. Clearly Social Credit was the "free enterprise" alternative to the NDP and most of the Liberal electorate deserted the party. In the subsequent 4 elections the party managed to elect only one MLA, Gordon Gibson, who took over from Anderson just before the 1975 election. Gibson was followed by 3 equally unsuccessful leaders: Jev Tothill (1976–81), Shirley McLoughlin (1981–85) and Art Lee (1985–86). In 1987 the party acclaimed Gordon WILSON as new leader. Wilson made a remarkable impression during the 1991 election campaign and the party staged a surprising comeback, winning 33% of the popular vote, 17 seats and official opposition status in the legislature. Wilson was unable to consolidate this success, however. Weakened by personal scandal and party infighting, he was forced to step down and in 1993 lost the leadership to former Vancouver mayor Gordon CAMPBELL. Under Campbell the party actually won a plurality of the popular vote in the 1996 election but with 6 fewer seats than the NDP it had to be content to continue in opposition. The Liberals then staked out a position on the centre-right of the political spectrum, advocating tax cuts, government downsizing and balanced budgets while maintaining social spending, and in the 2001 election it swept to an overwhelming victory and formed a government for the first time since 1941. The Liberals were re-elected with a reduced majority in 2005 and again in 2009. Shortly after the 2009 election the Campbell government introduced a Harmonized Sales Tax, combining the federal GST and the provincial sales tax. The new tax seemed to go against promises that had been made by the Liberals not to introduce such a tax and the public was outraged. Using the Recall and Initiative legislation, anti-tax activists were able to force a referendum on the issue. Meanwhile, Premier Campbell's personal popularity plumetted and in the fall of 2010 he announced his resignation. In February 2011 the Liberals chose a new leader, and new premier, former education minister Christy Clark, who led the party to an upset victory in the 2013 election. Ms Clark's popularity did not hold, however, and in the 2017 election the Liberals were replaced as the government by a coalition of the NDP and the Green Party. A new leader, Andrew Wilkinson, took over the party but in October 2020 Premier John Horgan called a surprise election and the NDP won a solid majority of seats. In the aftermath of the election, Andrew Wilkinson resigned as leader.