AS THE RUMOR MILL CHURNS, A ONETIME LIBERAL GOLDEN BOY TRIES TO REASSERT HIS LEADERSHIP
AS THE RUMOR MILL CHURNS, A ONETIME LIBERAL GOLDEN BOY TRIES TO REASSERT HIS LEADERSHIP
As B.C. Liberal Leader Gordon Wilson prepared to meet with 22 provincial riding association presidents in Burnaby last week, a long-simmering crisis was coming to a boil. For weeks, Wilson’s leadership has been under intense attack from within his own party, brought on by his inability to quell published rumors that he is having an extramarital affair with Judi Tyabji, a 28-year-old member of the legislative assembly who he appointed house leader in November. The controversy has thrown the opposition Liberals into turmoil, with one MLA boycotting caucus meetings and caucus chairman Daniel Jarvis, who supports Wilson, wondering aloud whether the association presidents were going “to rape us or kiss us.” The evening ultimately provided Wilson with some badly needed relief: all but one of the presidents signed a pledge of allegiance to the leader. But still, the campaign from within did not let up. And just four days later, after a weekend meeting with his 16-member caucus, Wilson yielded. Reluctantly bowing to pressure, he removed Tyabji from her position. Said the embattled leader: “I’m respectful of the caucus wishes on this point and we’re going to proceed forward.”
It was an unexpected turn of events. After the Burnaby victory, a combative Wilson had declared “that the people at the grassroots level are saying, ‘Enough is enough. We elected this leader—let’s get on with the job.’ ” And just hours before the caucus meeting, he vigorously defended Tyabji, saying that he had no intention of firing her as house leader. Tyabji herself appeared shaken as she told reporters after the meeting, which she attended: “I honestly don’t know why there was a change made.” But the move could put Wilson on a better footing for the leadership review at the
Liberals’ annual convention in Vancouver, from April 30 to May 2. The party’s constitution stipulates that as few as 35 per cent of the delegates can force a leadership race. And until that matter is settled, Wilson and Liberals will be unable to turn their undivided attention back to the business of shadowing Premier Michael Harcourt’s 16-month-old NDP government.
But in Wilson’s remarks to Maclean’s last week made it clear that even Tyabji's departure from the house leadership will not totally resolve his critics’ doubts. Although thfi^44=. year^old Liberal leader has come under increasing pressure from within his party to put his personal life in order,
Wilson told Maclean’s that he plans to separate as early as this week from his wife of 21 years, Elizabeth.
The downward spiral in Wilson’s political fortunes has been as surprising as his earlier rise to prominence. In 1987, the former community-college teacher took over the leadership of a party that had assets of $79.60 and had not won a seat since 1975. But the Liberals benefited from the disintegration of the Social Credit party under then-Premier William Vander Zalm and from Wilson’s own populist appeal. When Harcourt’s New Democrats swept to a majority in the October, 1991, election, the Liberals—largely on the strength of Wilson’s vigorous performance in a televised leaders’ debate—vaulted into official opposition status, winning 17 seats to the Socreds seven in Victoria’s 75-seat legislature.
But while the rump of Socreds quietly labor to restore their credibility, the Liberals have been distracted by infighting and sniping at their leader. Wilson’s troubles began when he campaigned against last year’s ill-fated Charlottetown constitutional accord. In that, he was clearly in step with provincial voters, 68 per cent of which voted to reject the proposal, but it
brought Wilson into conflict with his thenhouse leader David Mitchell, a supporter of the accord. The rancorous argument over Mitchell’s right to break with the leader on the issue finally led to the house leader’s resignation from caucus—which he publicly called “dysfunctional”—to sit as an Independent.
But it was Wilson’s decision to replace Mitchell with Tyabji that created his gravest problem. The Indian-born Tyabji, who immigrated to Canada with her family at age four, was an environmental activist and longtime Liberal before being elected to the legislature in the 1991 election. But her elevation angered some other Liberal MLAs, who privately told the media that the young mother lacked the needed experience. They also began to float rumors that she and Wilson were having an affair—speculation that became public in January when Tyabji’s husband, 37-year-old supermarket clerk Kim Sandana, confirmed that the couple had separated after four years of marriage and were haggling over custody of their three children. Days after that announcement, there were published reports that Wilson and
Tyabji had gone on a skiing trip to Kelowna with some members of their families over the Christmas holidays.
As rumors of an affair seeped onto the front pages of B.C. newspapers, Wilson and Tyabji called back-to-back news conferences on Jan. 14 to deny the allegations. Wilson blamed the furor on a “cadre of pernicious malcontents” in the party, and called the allegations of impropriety “sexist.” Maintaining that he and Tyabji have been friends for five years, Wilson said, “If Ms. Tyabji were not an attractive 28-yearold woman, this type of association with the leader would not be an issue.”
Tyabji echoed that assessment. In an inter-
view with Maclean ’s last week, she attributed the rumors about an affair to Liberals who are unhappy with Wilson’s leadership. “It’s a fact that there are those out there using this as an avenue to make comments about Gordon Wilson’s leadership,” she said. As for herself, declared Tyabji, “What bothers me is the implication that because I am a young woman, I would be in that position for reasons other than competence. And yet no one is saying that I haven’t done the job.”
Initially, the firm public denials seemed to silence the whispers. But they resurfaced within days, when Wilson pointedly refused to rule out any future romantic involvement with Tyabji. “I am not going to give an unequivocal statement on that question,” Wilson emphatically told Maclean’s. “Because of the fact that I will very soon be separated and single, and that Judi may be separated and single, I am not going to say what may occur. If I was to give an unequivocal statement, one way or the other and didn’t live up to it, I’m sure it would be dragged out prior to the next election.” That argument has already spawned further problems for the Liberals. After Wilson met caucus members last month to defend his actions, Liberal MLA Gary Farrell-Collins resigned as party whip and as a member of the party’s senior strategy committee. “I told him he can choose to be premier or to have a relationship sometime in the future, but not both,” said Farrell-Collins. “I’m willing to walk to the edge of the cliff with him, but I’m not going to jump.” The dissatisfaction with Wilson has since spread from the caucus to some members of the party ranks. Connie Simpson, president of the RosslandTraü Liberal riding association, says that Wilson’s behavior demonstrates a lack of sound political judgment. “It’s a bit of a betrayal to watch the promise of a year ago just fritter away,” she said.
To retain his job, Wilson will have to convince B.C. Liberals such as Simpson that he deserves a chance to wrestle the premiership away from Harcourt. Tyabji insists that the controversy is indicative of a party going through “some very painful and public growing pains.” But the episode, with its flurry of
leaks and innuendo and its overtones of backroom intrigue, has already shown how unforgiving politics can be when it collides with personal lives. If people believe the rumors, Tyabji said, they will assume that, “I’m ruthlessly ambitious, I’m willing to sacrifice anything and to do anything to get ahead, and that I treat people like dirt.” Added Tyabji: “It’s a hurtful thing.” Like thousands of Canadians, Wilson and Tyabji now have to grapple with the emotional pain of marital breakdown. The difference is that they will do so under the relentless gaze of the public.
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