MP Dianne Watts’ decision to forsake federal politics for a run at the provincial leadership of the BC Liberals – announced Sunday – will mean a vacancy in representation for the South Surrey-White Rock riding that will likely last months until a byelection is called.
The Conservative MP – elected to federal office two years ago following her 10-year stint as Surrey mayor – confirmed to Peace Arch News Monday that although she is not required to resign her seat in the House of Commons to seek provincial leadership, her resignation is “imminent.”
That won’t trigger an immediate byelection, however.
According to Elections Canada, a process of formalities – including notifying the Chief Electoral Officer of a vacancy in the House by the Speaker – is necessary before the Governor in Council (essentially the government) is authorized to set a date for a byelection.
“There’s a six-month window in which a byelection can be called,” Elections Canada spokesperson John Enright told PAN, noting the date set cannot be earlier than 36 days after the Chief Electoral Officer issues the writ for the byelection.
“More often than not, the byelection does fall within the 180-day period,” he said.
Jerry Presley, Conservative riding president for South Surrey-White Rock, said Watts’ announcement came as no surprise.
“We’ve talked about it and it’s so exciting as a possibility for her and for British Columbia as a whole,” he said, adding that local Conservatives support her move “absolutely.”
“The feedback we’ve received has been all positive,” he said.
Presley said there are no obvious candidates at present to run in Watts’ place.
“Maybe some folks will decide to give it a shot once the byelection date is announced.”
Former federal Liberal candidate Judy Higginbotham, who came within 500 votes of beating Watts for the seat in 2015, said she would not “rule out the possibility” of running again.
“(Byelections) don’t happen very often,” she told PAN. “We’re looking into what the process will be and what support Ottawa will offer… in this riding the demographic has changed considerably – it’s on the radar for a change to a (federal) Liberal riding.”
Meanwhile, Watts says she doesn’t see any conflict between federal conservative political values and her quest to helm the provincial BC Liberal party.
In her announcement at an invitation-only event at the Guildford Sheraton in North Surrey Sunday, she attacked the current NDP-Green partnership in B.C., saying it is time to “bring our province back from a coalition government that is not only unstable, but determined to raise taxes, gut our natural resource sector and drive jobs and investment out of this province.”
In an interview the next day, Watts also described the BC Liberals as a coalition.
“The BC Liberals are a coalition of people from across the political spectrum,” she said. “That includes people who are small ‘l’ liberals and big ‘l’ Liberals, and small ‘c’ conservatives and big ‘c’ Conservatives, and everything in-between.
“I don’t like identity politics. In doing work like this, you always find commonality – there’s always room for consensus and compromise. Identity politics is always divisive – although it works well for other politicians criticizing your policies.”
Watts said she didn’t make the decision to seek the BC Liberal leadership – which will be settled by a vote of party members Feb. 1-3 – without first consulting her support base among local Conservatives.
“The very first thing I did was to talk to quite a few of my constituents,” she said.
Watts said she “had overwhelming support to move forward” and she said she will not get involved in the campaign to replace her.
Watts said her effective resignation will be announced “shortly.”
Watts is far from the only BC Liberal leadership candidate. So far MLAs Mike de Jong, Mike Bernier, Sam Sullivan and Andrew Wilkinson, and consultant/campaign manager Lucy Sager, have announced bids, and others are said to be mulling the prospect.
Watts laughed when reminded that she was quoted after her election to federal office in 2015 as saying “I never have a Plan B.”
“I don’t have to resign my seat as a member of Parliament (to run for the BC Liberal leadership),” she noted, “but, for me, I have to go all-out. It’s important for me to devote 100 per cent of my time to it. It did not feel right, for me, having one foot back in Ottawa. I have to dedicate myself to it 100 per cent.”
– with files from Katya Slepian