VICTORIA — Former MLA Jane Thornthwaite’s scathing allegations that B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson was a sexist bully is just the tip of the iceberg over how some women have been treated in the official Opposition.
Thornthwaite’s story, published Saturday in a Vancouver Sun op-ed , has shed light on the sexism of Wilkinson and some of his senior male advisers toward some female staff and MLAs.
“We will not be able to attract more women or diverse voices to the B.C. Liberals while MLAs or staff are bullied or marginalized based on gender,” she wrote.
Thornthwaite accused Wilkinson of a double standard for publicly criticizing her over sexist comments she made about NDP MLA Bowinn Ma in a video that was leaked during the campaign, but saying almost nothing for months as male MLA Laurie Throness repeatedly defied the party on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
While some Liberal loyalists have dismissed her criticism as sour grapes from a losing candidate, there are a handful of current and former staffers and MLAs who have also experienced sexism and bullying behaviour by both the leader and some of his male staffers that went on to serve in senior positions in the ill-fated election campaign.
Retired Liberal MLA Tracy Redies, a former CEO of Coast Capital Savings and the current head of Science World, backed Thornthwaite’s assessment.
“The large majority of people in the B.C. Liberal caucus and party are people who believe in diversity and respect the opinions of others,” she said. “That said, I did see what Jane Thornthwaite alluded to. Going forward, the (B.C. Liberal) party needs to think about how it ensures that diversity and the respect for a wide range of opinions is embedded in the DNA of the organization regardless of who leads the party.”
The double-standard for women is a wider problem in society, but political leaders should try to be role models, said Redies. There also needs to be more of an emphasis on making the legislature reflect the diversity and inclusion of society, and not a place where bullying, intimidation and personalizing of issues becomes the norm.
“That tends to deter many capable, and diverse candidates from serving and I think that is ultimately the biggest problem for politics,” said Redies.
Not all the women affected by Wilkinson’s leadership style are able to speak publicly, because to do so in the small world of B.C. politics is to find yourself blacklisted for life.
But others tell a story about female staff and MLAs who found themselves belittled or criticized by Wilkinson in staff meetings and caucus meetings at a level rarely, if ever, directed at men.
Take, for example, Wilkinson’s practice in meetings of abruptly calling out “pause!” and raising his left hand whenever someone said something he didn’t agree with.
The ratio of women to men “paused” by Wilkinson in mid-sentence so that he could unload his disagreements and criticize their position was, reportedly, in the realm of 10 to one. It was part of a pattern of dismissive gender-based language and overly critical treatment of women compared to men. And it was so obvious and embarrassing that on more than one occasion Wilkinson was later encouraged to apologize to the women who were his targets.
Then there were the caucus meetings, in which some old white male MLAs were allowed to monopolize time on pet projects or personal rambles, but during which certain women, such as Thornthwaite, were cut down publicly and sharply by their leader.
At one point in the past year, there was talk of a group meeting by some female MLAs with Wilkinson (minus his staff) to address the growing concerns. But it never happened.
The resulting work environment in the official Opposition sounds like it was toxic. It’s not surprising then that some senior male Liberal staff, perhaps emboldened by their boss, exhibited their own troubling behaviour toward female staffers as well.
Then again, not all women who worked and served under Wilkinson agree with Thornthwaite’s critique. Wilkinson hired a female chief of staff just before the election and has long-employed a female deputy.
Even if the allegations are as bad as they seem from the outside, the counterpoint from party loyalists appears to be: Who cares? Wilkinson is on his way out. The party was eviscerated in the election. Bringing this all up now just embarrasses what’s left of the brand.
All of which is true. But the B.C. Liberals have indicated they plan to do a thorough bit of soul-searching as they rebuild and revitalize. If the party is truly serious, it should also take a hard look at the lingering sexism left in Wilkinson’s wake and what it has meant for the MLAs and staff who experienced it.
All of this internal discontent is building towards the next Liberal caucus meeting on Nov. 25. There, Wilkinson and the remaining 27 Liberal MLAs will have it out once and for all about when he intends to step down and who should be interim leader.
Some Liberals are concerned that Wilkinson and his staff may try to hang on for the winter session of the legislature that Premier John Horgan is expected to call in December. He could justify that position by saying only he and his team have the experience necessary to run the opposition under such a rushed timeline.
But increasingly, most MLAs just want Wilkinson gone as soon as possible. With good reason, it seems.
If you’re wondering how Wilkinson, trained as both a doctor and a lawyer, could exhibit such behaviour towards women as the leader of a major political party in the year 2020, consider former U.S. president Barack Obama’s comments to The Atlantic in an interview Monday promoting his new book, A Promised Land, in which he points out that politics by leaders at the highest levels are still, in many ways, reflections of the insecurities people developed in high school.
“You’re in high school and you see all the cliques and bullying and unfairness and superficiality, and you think, ‘Once I’m grown up I won’t have to deal with that anymore,’” Obama told the magazine.
“And then you get to the state legislature and you see all the nonsense and stupidity and pettiness. And then you get to Congress and then you get to the G20, and at each level you have this expectation that things are going to be more refined, more sophisticated, more thoughtful, rigorous, selfless, and it turns out it’s all still like high school. Human dynamics are surprisingly constant.”
Wilkinson declined to comment on Tuesday. He has not spoken publicly since a 97-second resignation speech on Oct. 26 in which he took no questions.