VANCOUVER—The escalators sit still and a single person nibbles on a snack at the café in the lobby of the Sheraton Wall Centre in downtown Vancouver.
Royal blue carpets and chic lighting adorning the barren corridors only accent the sense of loneliness. The hotel feels more like the Overlook in Stephen King’s 1977 novel “The Shining” than it does an upscale downtown hotel in 2020.
Two floors below the lobby, at the end of another long hallway, is a giant room with a handful of B.C. Liberal campaign workers. Only half the lights in the room are on and hand sanitizer bottles are placed around the tables.
This is campaigning during COVID-19, and it’s for an election B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson says he didn’t want NDP Leader John Horgan to call.
“We all know that he had a very stable agreement for another year with the Green party,” Wilkinson told the Star while sitting at a lone banquet table in an otherwise empty ballroom. “But for purely self-serving reasons, he’s decided to trigger an election when most people are worried whether they’ll have a job by Christmas.”
Wilkinson, who has worked as both a doctor and a lawyer, was first elected in 2013 and won a leadership contest in 2018 following the resignation of his predecessor, Christy Clark.
Under Clark and Gordon Campbell before her, the B.C. Liberals ran the province for 16 years. But weeks after the 2017 election that saw them fall two seats short of a majority, the NDP and Green party joined forces, toppled the Liberals and convinced then Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon to let the NDP form government instead.
That agreement held until the day Horgan called the Oct. 24 election, a move that Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau was quick to criticize. Furstenau slammed Horgan, saying she had told him days earlier there was no chance his government would be toppled by the Greens.
This election, said Wilkinson, suggests the NDP is more concerned with trying to form a majority government before the realities of a second wave of COVID-19 become apparent than it is about public safety.
“The whole phenomenon of calling this unnecessary election reeks of opportunity by the NDP,” he said.
Wilkinson also noted that the elderly and others at greater risk from COVID-19 infections might tend to avoid crowds at polling stations. “We actually wonder if the NDP called it intentionally to try to suppress the vote,” he said.
Days later, in an interview with the Star, Horgan dismissed the suggestion. He said no one calls an election if suppressing the vote is their aim. He has insisted the election is needed to stabilize government for the rough year ahead.
Wilkinson and the Liberals have a major hurdle to leap if they hope to retake the reins in B.C.: A recent Angus Reid poll put the NDP 16 percentage points ahead of them in public support. However, the same poll also said just half of voters are “absolutely certain” of which party will get their vote.
(The online survey of 801 members of the Angus Reid forum was conducted Oct. 14- 15. The pollster said for comparison purposes, such a sampling would usually have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)
B.C. isn’t the only province to hold an election during the pandemic. Saskatchewan residents will go to the polls Oct. 26, and New Brunswick held a provincial election Sept. 14. But British Columbia has millions more residents than either of those provinces, and more confirmed cases of COVID-19.
To reach voters, Wilkinson said his party is mostly opting for phone calls rather than door-knocking in a campaign that has already seen more than 700,000 requests for mail-in ballots.
But communicating with voters may not be the biggest obstacle for Wilkinson and the B.C. Liberals to overcome.
After the Star’s interview with Wilkinson the campaign hit some turbulence when, Thursday, incumbent MLA Laurie Throness resigned following outrage at comments he made at an all candidates debate. Throness likened free birth control to eugenics, prompting backlash from his own party members, including Wilkinson.
The B.C. Liberals had already had a tough week after comments made by Liberal candidate Jane Thornthwaite about the “pretty” appearance of an NDP MLA during a roast of retiring Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan were deemed sexist. Wilkinson also apologized for the comments, but many felt it came too late.
As well, the party remains tied to the provincial housing crisis that took off during its last term in office, and by inquiries into the money laundering experts say helped fuel it. Under the Liberal government, housing prices went up more than 50 per cent, cooling only in 2016 with the introduction of a foreign buyer’s tax.
Getting the public to forget those skyrocketing housing prices may be a daunting task, but Wilkinson believes the NDP is also vulnerable on that front.
“We need to look at the NDP record on housing, with prices up five per cent in metro Vancouver in the last year, 10 per cent for condominiums,” he said. “This is part of their apparently brilliant scheme to increase affordability.”
Wilkinson wants to eliminate the speculation tax brought in by the New Democrats, which applies to empty homes that are not being rented out. Instead, he’s advocating for a tax on flipping presale condos that he says will help combat the ongoing affordability crisis.
Unlike the New Democrats, the Liberals support the controversial Trans-Mountain pipeline. Wilkinson said the opposition to the project has harmed relations between B.C. and Ottawa.
Another omnipresent issue in the province has become even more of a political hot button in 2020: the opioid crisis and homelessness in the province’s major centres. Tent cities have popped up over the last few years in Vancouver’s suburbs, as well as in Victoria, Nanaimo and Kelowna.
But the province’s largest city remains the centre of the crisis, most notably in Strathcona Park. This year, hundreds of people have moved into the green space a few blocks from the city’s Downtown Eastside, creating what some describe as an open drug market that is fuelling crime.
Wilkinson said the solution is to use the health-care system to get assistance and treatment for tent-city residents with mental health issues. He has also pledge to hire more police.
“The obvious answer is you don’t treat schizophrenia by giving people a tent. You don’t treat brain injury by putting them in an empty motel,” Wilkinson said.
“We’ve got to start treating medical problems as medical problems and stop treating them as some kind of ideological situation that requires an ideological answer.”
The housing situation was made worse for many by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the province has dedicated $5 billion to fighting its economic effects.
But Wilkinson said Victoria must do more to help with tight financial times and his campaign promised to eliminate the provincial sales tax for a year, a move his competitors quickly slammed as financially irresponsible and likely to lead to spending cuts.
Wilkinson said such criticism is based on “false assumptions,” and he wouldn’t not make spending cuts to fund the promise.
“There will be no cutting of services in the near future because people sleeping in cars in the park near my house need rent supports and they need social services,” he said.