The ‘activator’: Merrifield’s bid to build back the BC Liberals

By Shannon Waters August 6, 2021

Renee Merrifield is the first woman to enter the race to become the next BC Liberal leader and she is just fine with that — for now.

“I’m quite comfortable being the only woman,” she told BC Today in an interview. “I would love to see more — I would love to have it exactly reversed at some point where we have five women and one man.”

Overall, the six candidates to put themselves forward as potential party leaders represent an encouraging depth of diversity, according to Merrifield — a multi-decade age range and multiple cultural backgrounds between them.

“I really do believe that this is something that really accentuates the fact that the BC Liberals are working towards diversity and that diversity is possible,” Merrifield said.

With less than a year of political experience under her belt, the MLA for Kelowna—Mission decided to wait a while before entering the race.

“I wanted to make sure that I was the right person for the job and to make sure that I understood what the job entailed,” she said.

Merrifield is not someone who shies away from a challenge or jumping in at the deep end. She has served as her party’s health critic since securing her seat last fall after the party’s previous health critic — and fellow Okanagan MLA — Norm Letnick was appointed assistant deputy Speaker.

“It was like drinking from a firehose and trying not to drown,” Merrifield said of taking on the massive, complicated file as the province was working to crush a second pandemic wave.

“As I started moving forward and Covid really took on a life of its own — in terms of much more information, much more disparate views, and really people trying to figure out what’s next — I then said it was like wearing flip flops in sand and holding back a freight train to try and understand all of the information that was coming at me,” she told BC Today.

Recognizing she is “no expert” on health, Merrifield said she has been taking advice from her “own committee” to help her keep up. Overall, she believes B.C. has “had one of the best outcomes across Canada” during the pandemic and she’s not afraid to give credit where it’s due — primarily to the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“I give her huge, huge kudos and props and have all the way along,” Merrifield said, adding that Health Minister Adrian Dix also deserves praise for “how he conducted himself and and how he moved forward” as the pandemic progressed.

A holistic approach to parties, politics and policy
Merrifield eyed the political field for some time before becoming a BC Liberal MLA. In 2018, she was the first candidate to express interest in running for the federal Conservatives in Kelowna—Lake Country, although she did not succeed in getting the nod.

Asked whether she represents the right-leaning side of the BC Liberals’ big tent, she pushed back against being pigeon-holed.

“I would be very difficult to put into any one federal tent,” she told BC Today. “My heart is very much on my left, and my pocket book is very much on my right. I am someone who believes wholeheartedly in social support and social structures, but I’m also someone who believes that we need appropriate fiscal management.”

When it comes time to put forward policies, Merrifield does not intend to be bound by expectations but by experience. She says the delivery of policy planks is at least as important as their substance.

“I’m going to be bold, I’m going to be maybe a little bit different, but I honestly believe that it’s going to be how I communicate and if I’ve listened accurately, if I’ve heard people correctly and if I have reflected that in the policy choices that I put forward.”

If the Liberal Party is in need of a rebrand and some rebuilding, so is the province itself, according to Merrifield.

“B.C. is somewhat fractured — it’s become politically an ‘us and them,’ and many of the parties have taken approaches to divide rather than to unite,” she said. “I’m going to start with the party in terms of really creating a common vision, common values — I believe that there is more that we agree on than we disagree on.”

Merrifield sees her business background as an asset to reinvigorating and rebuilding the party.

“First and foremost, I’m an activator — I’m someone who gets things done,” she told BC Today. “Whether it’s taking something from nothing, whether it’s pivoting an organization that’s already going, or whether it’s taking things into a different direction and kind of gently realigning, for me there is an activation in that building. I think we can do things better.”

She ascribes to the four pillars of sustainability and believes B.C. is ripe for a holistic approach to policy, with social and economic goals informed by “environmental stability” as a recipe for success.

Her business background also informs her thoughts on whether the Liberals need a new name — a prospect she said is “putting the cart before the horse.”

“It’s like asking a woman what colour of lipstick she wants to wear,” she said. “A culture needs to be aligned with brands, and our culture is what we need to focus on — our values are what we need to focus on, our alignment is what we need to focus on.”

Once those questions have been settled, “then the brand will come out of that,” according to Merrifield.

“What we call ourselves will be evidenced by who we are,” she said.