Would-be Liberal leaders need a plan to get out of opposition: Polak

By Shannon Waters October 14, 2021

Watching the inaugural BC Liberal leadership debate last month gave former Liberal MLA Mary Polak déjà vu.

“It was like a flashback to 2011,” she told BC Today. “Watching it felt like all these people think we’re still running to be in government, and we’re not in government right now, folks.”

Polak held a handful of cabinet posts after being elected in 2005 and served as Opposition house leader from 2017 until 2020, when she lost her Langley seat in the election. She is now an advisor with Maple Leaf Strategies, and she wants to see the current crop of would-be Liberal leaders get serious about how to get the party out of opposition.

“Clearly, if you have a party that is in its second term of opposition, a leader is going to have to do some work — I would think substantial work — on the party itself,” Polak said. “The way it’s structured, the data and the operations in terms of a campaign, and building support and a donor base and all those kinds of things.”

The first debate put no pressure on the candidates to put forward a practical path toward electoral victory in the next provincial election, an omission Polak called “ridiculous.”

“To me, it sounded like all the candidates were running to be premier, and I think that’s a really impractical way for us to look at ourselves right now, and it probably speaks volumes as to why we’ve continued to struggle,” she said.

The Liberals need “a more fundamental acknowledgement of where we are and what that means we need to do to move forward” than what the leadership race has seen so far, according to Polak.

Renewal has been the byword of the campaign to date, and while it is “very easy to say” there is a need for the party to refresh itself, Polak has yet to hear concrete details on what she sees as three crucial elements for a successful renewal.

One is structure — how the party builds its membership and donor base — and another is policy, something that has been addressed, at least vaguely, during the campaign so far. The third is identity, according to Polak — the kinds of people the Liberals are aiming to connect with and the candidates needed to do that.

“You have to have those three components. There is no one component by itself there that will do the trick,” she told BC Today.

Polak at the B.C. legislature during her time as MLA.

Show me how you would diversify the party

The Liberals’ need to diversify was acknowledged during the first debate, with most of the candidates mentioning it explicitly.

When Val Litwin asked Renee Merrifield — “the only woman on the stage” — to offer some insight on how to “attract and empower more women,” Merrifield told him the Liberals need to do more than engage with women and should be striving to “remove barriers for all British Columbians.”

“It’s really about creating a code of ethics and honour, and then enforcing it,” Merrifield said. “We can have the best strategy, but culture trumps strategy every single time.”

But Polak says the Liberals need a strategy to achieve that diversified culture.

“You can say all sorts of amazing things about wanting to elect more women, elect more BIPOC candidates — you can go down the list, but tell me what you’re going to do,” she said. “Do you oppose [candidate] quotas, do you support quotas? Do you move from being a party that nominates people to a party that appoints people? I don’t know how that would go over with the membership … it’s easy to say those things, but what do you intend to do to accomplish it?”

Polak — who currently serves as president of the Liberal Party’s Langley riding association — said she doesn’t have a horse in the race.

“I’m not attached to any campaign,” she said. “I’ve done that twice, I worked my butt off and so I think I’ve done my time.”

She was also emphatic that she has no intention of throwing her hat in the ring.

“God bless those who want to do it but never, never me,” she said. “If you count my school board days, I was in public life for 24 years — that takes its own toll and now I’m enjoying civilian life.”

Beyond practicalities and policy promises, Polak said the leadership candidates and B.C. politics watchers need to keep in mind that the race “is all about winning over the membership,” existing and new.

“However good your speeches or your debating skills, if you don’t have the horsepower to sign up the required number of members to beat the next person, then you won’t win,” she told BC Today.