Perception problem - The Orca

Perception problem

Rob Shaw 2

The BC Liberal health critic is facing calls to be removed. Even if it’s just a series of misunderstandings, the problem is that in politics, perception is everything.

Interim BC Liberal leader Shirley Bond has an important choice to make in the two short weeks before the fall session of the legislature begins: Whether or not to keep health critic Renee Merrifield in her job.

Bond is under rising pressure internally to shuffle her out, after a series of controversies that have allowed the BC NDP easy shots at not just Merrifield, but the larger BC Liberal caucus over whether it supports Dr. Bonnie Henry’s public health orders to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

On the one hand, there are those who think it’s untenable for the BC Liberals to return to the legislature with Merrifield in the role, because her missteps leave her unable to question Premier John Horgan or Health Minister Adrian Dix without significant pushback, which will then drown out whatever point Merrifield is trying to make, or at least distract from the issue she’s asking about.

“The first priority for the future BC Liberal Leader is to remove Renee Merrifield as health critic,” tweeted former BC Liberal MLA Jas Johal, now a CKNW radio host. “We are in the midst of a once in a century pandemic, and she has failed in that role.

“We need an effective opposition, and her performance fails to meet the public’s expectations, and that of her colleagues.”

It’s an opinion shared by some others within the BC Liberals as well, who intend to make the case for change to Bond directly before the legislature resumes Oct. 4.

On the other hand is Merrifield herself, who says her past controversial statements have been taken out of context and who is appealing to her critics for reconsideration.

“I would ask they look at all of the things that we, and I say we very intentionally, as a caucus, and I as their health critic, have accomplished,” she said in an interview.

“The good work we’ve done in helping British Columbians receive the absolute best care possible. And through one of the most difficult time frames in history. At my core, I am who I am. I’m someone who cares. I care about people. I care about British Columbia.”

The tipping point for some appears to have been a dispute between Merrifield and Global BC’s Keith Baldrey on Twitter Tuesday evening over whether the BC Liberals support Dr. Bonnie Henry’s new mandatory vaccination requirement for health care workers.

The BC Nurses Union opposes the move, saying it will mean the termination of some nurses during a staffing crisis.

“Does your party back mandated vaccines for health care workers?” asked Baldrey. “Yes or no?”

It was a simple question. But Merrifield rejected the premise. Instead, she engaged in a back-and-forth exchange that made her appear unable or unwilling to publicly support Dr. Henry’s decision in the kind of clear and definitive way many expected.

“I back having a plan to make sure drawing a line in the sand doesn’t affect British Columbians that depend on our health care system, especially in rural BC,” replied Merrifield.

“I back doctors. I back nurses. I back patients. I have little time for clairvoyance.”

She accused Baldrey of asking the “wrong question.”

“While you obsess over the position of the opposition party on an issue that’s already been decided by government, I obsess over staffing levels at our hospitals and care centres,” she wrote.

“Keep your eye on the ball Keith.”

Former BC Liberal Health Minister Terry Lake waded into the dispute as well, with a warning to Merrifield.

“You cannot care for patients if you put them at risk by carrying the virus,” he replied to her on social media. “You cannot support your colleagues by making them sick. Vaccines save lives.”

By the next morning, the BC Liberals had to issue a statement clarifying Merrifield’s comments, and the question of whether the party supported Dr. Henry’s public health orders.

“Yes, our caucus supports public health orders, including this one,” said Bond.

“As we have throughout the entire pandemic, we support the important work of Dr. Henry and public health officials while continuing to ask questions on behalf of British Columbians about an announcement that raises anxiety for many.”

Other candidates in the party’s leadership race also distanced themselves from Merrifield.

“As a former Health Minister, I fully support Dr. Bonnie Henry’s public health orders, including the recently announced vaccine mandate for all healthcare workers,” tweeted Kevin Falcon.

“Given the unusual circumstances of this #pandemic, I support mandating COVID-19 #vaccination for our province’s valued health care workers,” tweeted Val Litwin.

Merrifield, the MLA for Kelowna-Mission, is also running in the party’s leadership race. It’s true there may be some jockeying and score-settling in comments from the other campaigns.

But it’s also not the first time the BC Liberals have had to defend Merrifield’s comments.

She came under fire last December, after liking tweets that attacked Dr. Henry by suggesting she was allowing children to be infected to help develop herd immunity against COVID-19 for the community. She apologized directly to Henry.

In April, she claimed vitamin D would “help fight off COVID-19” in a Kelowna publication.

In June, she tabled a petition in the legislature on behalf of a group of parents opposed to masks in classrooms, some of whom equated the issue to child abuse. After a backlash, she belatedly said she didn’t agree with the petition’s stance but felt obligated as health critic to table it.

On their own, each gaffe could be considered minor. But compiled together, they make it easy for her critics to question her judgement, and easy for the BC Liberals to be made to appear like they aren’t supporting Dr. Henry, or the science around COVID-19, but instead catering to the crackpot crowd of conspiracy-theorists.

“Shirley Bond refuses to denounce these dangerous positions from her handpicked spokesperson on health issues,” NDP MLA Kelli Paddon said Wednesday.

“Renee Merrifield needs to be removed from her position as health critic immediately. We support every action taken to make our hospitals safe during this pandemic, why won’t the BC Liberals?”

The BC Liberals can expect much more of that, and even sharper criticism from front-bench cabinet ministers, once the legislature returns.

Merrifield argues she’s received plenty of positive feedback for other things she’s done as opposition health critic, and has tried to work hard in the role.

“Do I feel like I’m getting a fair shake?” she asked. “It depends.

“I think some people have really seen and witnessed just what the role of opposition can accomplish with someone who can ask tough questions and press government in ways that are necessary for the best results.”

But as dozens of past premiers, cabinet ministers, and MLAs will tell you: Perception is everything in politics.

The moment you have to clarify your comments, you’ve already lost. For late-night social media comments, even more so.

The moment your gaffes open up a window for your colleagues to be attacked, your party has lost too.

Bond shares responsibility for the problem. She handed the top critic role to a rookie MLA with no experience in provincial politics, and tossed her into the political deep end during a public health crisis in which everything she said was going to be put under a magnifying glass and held to a higher standard.

Now Merrifield is running in the leadership race, adding a further wrinkle to everything she does.

Some are telling Bond she made a mistake.

It’s unclear whether Bond believes this, or whether she’s listening.

We’ll see what the leader does next.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.