With only two more debates left and just two months to go before the BC Liberal Party elects a new leader, the race to succeed Christy Clark is heating up among the candidates.
In what was the most feisty debate so far, the six candidates—Andrew Wilkinson, Dianne Watts, Todd Stone, Mike de Jong, Michael Lee and Sam Sullivan—squared-off for a fourth time Saturday in Kelowna.
And when the candidates had the opportunity to ask each other questions in front of a standing room only crowd in the ballroom of the Coast Capri Hotel, the sparks flew—especially between Stone and Watts.
Stone, the transportation minister in the last Liberal government, and the co-chairman of the Liberals election campaign in May, lit the fire when he accused Watts of “failing to deliver a plan on a single topic” after he asked her what she would do to help deal with the local issue of water governance in the City of Kelowna and she didn’t address the issue in her answer.
Stone released what he touted as his “bold vision for British Columbia” on Friday in Kelowna, a wide-ranging outline of what he would do on a number of topics if he were to win the Liberal leadership and the party forms the B.C. government.
During the debate he held up his plan and taunted her saying: “Here’s my plan—where’s yours Dianne? Show us the plan.”
Given her opportunity to ask Stone a question, Watts, zeroed in on why, as a minister, he supported building a second hospital in Surrey but as co-chairman of the Liberal’s election campaign in May, the project was not important enough to be included in the party’s platform. She also criticized him for not doing enough for transportation south of the Fraser River in the Lower Mainland when he was the minister. Watts feels transportation issues were key in the party losing many of the 11 seats it lost in the election.
Those losses allowed the NDP and BC Green Party to defeat the Liberals in a confidence vote in the legislature following the election and that ended 16 years of Liberal rule in B.C.
Later, in another exchange, when Stone accused Watts of opposing the former Liberal government’s plan to replace the George Massey Tunnel in the Lower Mainland with a bridge over the Fraser River—a proposal killed by the new NDP government—Watts responded telling Stone “that’s an absolute lie.” A visibly angered Watts stared down Stone, when the pair returned to their seats beside each other on stage and she loudly repeated the remark again.
But it was not just Watts got into it on stage with Stone.
He and former advanced education minister Andrew Wilkinson went at each other over their respective fiscal plans and the impact they would have on the B.C. budget. Wilkinson accused Stone of promises that would would result in a $13 billion deficit if Stone was to win the leadership and the Liberals were to form the next government.
Stone denied the accusation, saying his plan had been costed out and fit with a balanced budget.
At one point, the two men stood toe-to-toe on stage, arguing and talking over each other.
Wilkinson and Watts also sparred over who has travelled the most around B.C. and talked to British Columbians.
“I have have worked and lived all over British Columbia for years, so don’t lecture me Dianne,” Wilkinson told Watts at one point. “You’ve only done it for the last 2 1/2 months.”
The heated exchanges prompted candidate Sam Sullivan, a former mayor of Vancouver, to quip “the next debate will need a cage around us,” a reference to MMA caged fights.
The candidates responses were more measured when answering questions posed by moderator, Richmond-Queensborough Liberal MLA Jas Johal, about issues such as technology, health care, wildfire mitigation, housing affordability and winning back the confidence of voters across the province.
Former finance minister Mike de Jong said he believes the housing problems the province is facing is caused by a lack of supply and he would mandate municipalities to deal with building applications within 10 months of being made because now in places like Vancouver, applications can take years to make their way through city hall.
Lee said the party needs to to reconnect with urban and multi-cultural voters and he feels he’s the candidate to do that.
Sullivan said he would like to see elements of private health care introduced in B.C. where it would help the public health care system.
All the candidates expressed opposition to the NDP government’s planned referendum next year on proportional representation, saying it will take away rural B.C.’s voice in how future governments are elected.
Watts went so far as to say if the referendum—which will require a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one to pass—is not defeated, it would spell the end of BC Liberal Party.
Following the debate, some of the audience members said listening to the candidates helped them figure out who they may vote for in February. The party will name a new leader Feb. 3.
Jessie Fedorak, who travelled from Kamloops to attend the debate, said she liked what Stone had to say and felt he was the right man for the job, and at 45 was the right age to attract younger voters. Anne Marie Clancy of Kelowna said she liked Lee, feeling he could bridge the voter gap that resulted from the last election. And Delilah Michaud of Vernon, who was not willing to identify who she plans to vote for, said the debate helped narrow it down to three choices.
Both Clancy and Michaud said they were not impressed with Watts and have ruled her out because she seemed too focused on Lower Mainland issues.
Kelowna-Lake MLA Norm Letnick, who had said he would wait until after the Kelowna debate to decide who to support, said he plans to talk with his riding association before announcing his decision.
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