Kelowna News

B.C. Liberal Party leader hopeful Renee Merrifield on leadership, taking hits and colouring books

Kelowna-Mission MLA Renee Merrifield.

After less than a year as an MLA, Renee Merrifield believes she’s the person to change the way politics and the Province of B.C. are run.

Elected for the B.C. Liberals in the super-safe Kelowna-Mission riding in the October 2020 provincial election, the rookie politician was appointed the party’s health critic during the darkest days of the COVID pandemic, then declared her desire to lead her party earlier this month.

READ MORE: Kelowna Mission MLA to make a run for BC Liberal party leadership

She doesn’t see her lack of political experience as any kind of barrier to becoming that leader.

“Politics is about who you are before, almost more than who you are when you get into politics,” she told iNFOnews.ca. “I think one of the dangers is that we have career politicians who don’t have real life experience, who don’t understand business and who don’t understand where people are at. I think that’s a bigger danger than not understanding how something runs within the legislative experience.”

It also means she doesn’t have the baggage of some of the other candidates for the party’s leadership that have been there longer. She would not give details but three of the five men she is running against, Kevin Falcon, Michael Lee and Ellis Ross, have all spent more time in the Legislature than she has.

While not criticizing their leadership abilities, she talked about how the decision to run came to her as she was driving back from the Legislature.

“If you want change – I’m not talking just about our party, overall our province, where we’re heading, how we’re actually moving forward together – if you want that change, I really felt I had to be a part of that,” Merrifield said. “If I’m not willing to stand up, if I’m not willing to use my voice, if I’m not willing to bring my experience and my knowledge and serve, I think that’s a missed opportunity to participate in the change that needs to occur.”

And while she talks about “participating in a conversation together” with her fellow candidate and not being negative like American politicians, she defends her criticism of, for example, Premier John Horgan for being on vacation during this summer’s devastating wildfire season.

“Somebody asked me what would you want him to do? Go and fight forest fires?” Merrifield said. “I really thought about that question. I thought, OK, as premier, I’m asking for this job, what would I be doing right now?

“I would be driving to wherever the evacuees were going and I would literally be sitting with them, listening to them, telling them it’s going to be OK. Like, honestly, you don’t need a camera. It’s just to be present as their leader. I just think of the times, as a leader, you just go and you just sit with everyone in that traumatic experience and you just empathize.”

She recalled being evacuated herself from her home in the Kettle Valley neighbourhood of Kelowna during the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire. It partially destroyed her house.

She can’t recall if Premier Gordon Campbell came to offer support at that time but recalls how “prominent” local leaders were there to show their support.

And, being the mother of a two, four and six-year-old, she can remember how touched she was by someone giving her children a colouring book.

“You don’t think about that but, when you’ve just run away from your house, you don’t pack a go bag full of colouring books.” Merrifield said. “It was just like, aaah, thank you.”

While there were suggestions, after the Liberal defeat last fall, that the party needed to focus on rebuilding in the Lower Mainland, being from the Interior – and the home of many past premiers from W.A.C. and Bill Bennett to a transplanted Christy Clark – she sees as a distinct advantage.

She said she’s had some leadership roles in 11 different businesses operating in all areas of the province so she understands both the urban and rural lives of residents and things like the lack of affordable housing in Prince George or Vanderhoof as well as in Surrey.

That’s the kind of experience she believes will get her elected as party leader and, she hopes, premier.

“I’ve been on the grassroots aspect of policy and politics for the last 25 years and I’m bringing that level of experience and that level of voice to the table and really looking at things holistically,” Merrifield said. “The other thing I bring is pragmatism. I’m a ‘get stuff done’ kind of person. For too long we’ve accepted that government works really slowly. I don’t believe it needs to. I think that’s just what we’ve accepted from government.”

She used the example of the province having a 10-year plan to have doctors do virtual visits with patients. When COVID hit, that was done in four days, she said.

And she’s fine with the media taking shots at her for things like presenting a petition from constituents opposing masks in schools, even though she said she disagreed with it.

READ MORE: Health critic Renee Merrifield presents anti-mask petition she says she doesn’t believe in

“There were a couple of things taken out of context for sure,” Merrifield said. “There were things misinterpreted for sure. But, the choices I made, I made them really out of respect for democracy and out of a desire to give voice to hope and to people in the Interior who were going through a difficult time.

“You’re going to take some hits if you’re doing a great job. I think I would be more concerned if no one took a swing because it would mean I wasn’t out there actually trying to benefit those that had entrusted me with their vote.”

READ MORE: Kelowna MLA, Liberal health critic made false claims about COVID-19

As for the future name of the party she hopes to lead, that’s up to the members but she clearly thinks it should change.

“I’ve learned over the course of your life that, when your culture fits your brand, there’s an authenticity that people can relate to and can understand,” Merrifield said. “Right now, I think there is a disconnect. I’m going to start with the inside. I’m going to start with the culture. I’m going to start with the values. I’m going to start with what we agree on and who we are and, I think, the name will come out of that."

The new leader will be elected Feb. 5.


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