B.C. Liberals can announce leadership winner, court rules

Delaying tonight’s (Feb. 5) announcement of the B.C. Liberal Party’s new leader would not be in the public interest and delay the party’s work on the upcoming Throne Speech and budget, a B.C. Supreme Court judge says.

The B.C. Liberal Party can announce the winner of its leadership vote tonight (Feb. 5), a B.C. Supreme Court judge says.

A petition to the court, filed by party member Vikram Bajwa, suggested the leadership race could be tainted by voter fraud. He wanted the court to halt the process until an audit of their membership was completed.

Justice Heather MacNaughton disagreed: “One member’s dissatisfaction should not uphold the process.”

Bajwa asserted his rights to a properly done vote could be harmed without a delay, but Justice Heather MacNaughton said the rights of the party’s other 43,000 members would be harmed if the announcement were to be delayed.

MacNaughton noted that Bajwa is a long-time party member, and there was “no suggestion that Mr. Bajwa brings the petition with any ulterior or malintent” in his petition.

Bajwa wanted MacNaughton to delay the announcement of the vote’s winner for 15 days until his petition could be heard in full by the court in the next two weeks.

MacNaughton said it is impossible to know “at this stage” of any irregularities that could affect the result. She called his challenge “speculative” and noted that delaying the process could open the door to more such actions in the future.

Speaking to Glacier Media, Bajwa said the decision is “a step in the right direction. This will open the party to more transparency.”

He said any challenges to the vote result will have to come from the candidates.

“I have done my part,” Bajwa said. “We have set the ball rolling.”

Party lawyer Andrew Nathanson told the court on Feb. 4 that the party needs to have a new leader announced to function properly for replying to the February Speech from the Throne and subsequent budget, as well as to announce a shadow cabinet.

MacNaughton agreed there is also a high public interest in having a new leader in place.

“He is not the arbiter of these matters,” MacNaughton. “He is the only one complaining.”

Nathanson said the Liberals would lose political momentum in the democratic process without a new leader at the helm. “This is not a trifling thing,” he said. “This injunction invades free speech, and it should not be permitted.”

“There is no evidence from the party that Shirley Bond can’t continue as interim leader,” Bajwa’s lawyer Greg Allen Allen countered. “We’re two years away from another election.”

However, the petition asserts a membership audit must be completed. Some leadership campaigns have found 33-50 per cent of memberships need to be examined. The petition alleges that the party has not been transparent about the audit’s result with its members.

“No evidence has been provided to support this alarming allegation,” Nathanson said of the percentages.

The petition said a Jan. 5 letter from leadership candidates shows members with residential addresses in parking lots, on a forestry road, or sharing email or phone numbers—but at differing addresses. The petition said that some people contacted by campaigns didn’t know they were party members, what the party was or that a leadership vote was happening.

Allen told MacNaughton that votes by illegitimate party members would cancel out those of legitimate ones. He said international students had been signed up, and even foreigners could become party members.

And that, Allen said, disenfranchises legitimate voters, something he claims is a violation of a contractual obligation the party has with its members. Bajwa believes it strips democracy away from party members.

“This is not somebody who is trying to upset the apple cart,” Allen said, noting Bajwa has been addressing his concerns about the audit to the party and leadership camps since November.

“The membership doesn’t even know the audit even exists,” Allen said.

He said announcing a new leader, having the audit results come through, and then possibly disqualifying the winner could bring the party into disrepute.

Nathanson styled Bajwa as “self-appointed auditor” and “guardian of democracy.”

And he called the petition “an exercise in prior restraint of political speech” based on speculation and said there is no entitlement to know how the audit is proceeding.

Nathanson said Bajwa seems entitled to a perfect election.

“There is no such thing,” he said, adding Bajwa was asking for little more than a gagging injunction on senior party officials. And, that he said, creates a group within the party who knows who the new leader is while the rest of the party does not.

Voting in the race began Feb. 3, with results expected Feb. 5.

MacNaughton said if there are concerns with the race outcome, Bajwa has other challenge options, noting that a significant vote for one candidate could make such a challenge moot.

Party director of communications David Wasyluk said the petition will not affect the voting process for members.

“The matter to be determined in court this week will be whether the party Executive and/or the leadership committee or chief returning officer can be prevented from announcing the results of the leadership race pending audit steps sought by the claimant member,” Wasyluk told Glacier Media.

And, Wasyluk said, “the party believes that the leadership election organizing committee, the party, and the chief returning officer have taken reasonable steps to determine voter eligibility by reviewing and auditing party memberships.

“The party is confident in that review process,” he said.

The contest replaces leader Andrew Wilkinson, who resigned after the October 2020 election. Bond has served as interim leader since.

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