Although still an unofficial candidate, Aaron Gunn’s announcement of entry into the BC Liberals’ leadership race has stoked an ideological identity crisis within the party.
A conservative political commentator with over 100,000 social media followers, Aaron Gunn has drawn criticisms which the BC Liberal Party must address at the risk of dividing its own membership coalition of federal Liberal and federal Conservative voters.
Prior to Gunn’s announcement, the governing BC NDP released a statement denouncing his leadership candidacy as a demonstration of the BC Liberals’ continued embrace of “candidates with harmful and discriminatory views.” BC NDP MLA Dan Coulter, among others, demanded that the BC Liberals disavow Gunn, specifically over “anti-2SLGBTQ+ views.”
Gunn confirmed that he would allow people like former BC Liberal MLA Laurie Throness and former BC Liberal candidate Margaret Kunst to run for the party, despite their expressed anti-2SLGBTQ+ views.
“Yes. I believe in being tolerant and accepting of those with socially conservative views,” Gunn told Vancouver Is Awesome. “But everyone in caucus must treat everyone else with respect.”
Gunn’s views have raised concerns about the BC Liberals.
According to the BC NDP, “no BC Liberal leadership candidate has said that they would preclude candidates with anti-2SLGBTQ+ views like Laurie Throness and Margaret Kunst from running under their leadership.”
Kunst was permitted to run for the BC Liberals in the 2020 provincial election. She lost amidst growing calls for the party to remove her as a candidate. Meanwhile, Throness “resigned voluntarily” from the party, mid-election. Then-BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson accepted the resignation but did not confirm if he would have ousted Throness from the party otherwise.
BC Liberal leadership candidates might be deliberately avoiding the issue in order to not alienate socially conservative party members. The BC Liberals’ internal review of the 2020 election acknowledged the belief that these voters are necessary for a winning coalition.
Nevertheless, Gunn’s presence is pressuring the BC Liberals to explain if candidates like Kunst or Throness can still run for the party, even if that means “making room for transphobic and homophobic views.”
Notably, Aaron Gunn is not an official BC Liberal leadership candidate yet. He “fully expects” to be confirmed given his “mainstream conservative views” and the BC Liberals’ “professed objective to ‘attract the broadest possible range of candidates.'"
He leans on this reasoning to explain his opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, including vaccine passports.
Gunn maintains that he is vaccinated, encourages others to get vaccinated and believes in the scientific consensus on the vaccines’ efficacy. However, he is concerned about the “morality, effectiveness and constitutionality” of vaccine mandates.
He claims that his position is “identical to that of Erin O’Toole and the Conservative Party of Canada,” which he notes won the popular vote in the last federal election.
This is the identity crisis that faces the BC Liberals.
For a “big tent” party of federal Liberal and federal Conservative voters, the BC Liberal Party must decide how much their coalition accepts social conservatism and, more broadly, Conservative Party of Canada positions.
According to Gunn, the BC Liberals courted him to run under their banner in 2020. He suggests that if he were prevented from running as a leadership candidate, then the BC Liberals “would be sending a message to hundreds of thousands of British Columbians that they no longer have a place in this party.”
As the BC Liberal Party seeks renewal and change through a leadership election, confronting a fundamental tension between its socially moderate and conservative membership base — which the party itself acknowledges — is no easy task.
Aaron Gunn’s bid to become the leader of the BC Liberals on February 5, 2022 does not make that task any easier. But his campaign is highlighting this task’s necessity.