It’s a race even the contestants agree has not grabbed the public’s attention.
But the five men and one woman running for the B.C. Liberal leadership did their best to spice up the fight to succeed former premier Christy Clark Saturday when they took to the stage in Kelowna for the fourth of six leadership debates.
And it was clear who the target was.
Former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, who quit her job as a federal MP to run for Liberal leadership, faced the most questions when candidates were allowed to grill each other during the debate.
And, for Watts, it didn’t go well.
When it came to local issues she didn’t seem to have answers. When asked about bigger picture issues she continually fell back on her standard, albeit incorrect, line that the Liberals lost May’s election and she failed to muster much of a response from the large crowd that packed into the hotel ballroom where the debate was held.
Candidates Todd Stone and Andrew Wilkinson were by far the most aggressive when it came to not only making the case for themselves, but also challenging their opponents.
After one head-to head encounter between the two men, where the audience was treated to the pair loudly talking over each other while moderator, Jas Johal, a former television reporter turned MLA ,sat back and let them go at it, fellow candidate Sam Sullivan quipped “the next debate will need a cage around us.”
The others in the race, Mike de Jong and Michael Lee, got in on the action at times during the debate, but the sparks really flew when Stone, Wilkinson and Watts got up to speak.
With the clock ticking down on the race, all the candidates know the time is now to win the hearts and minds of B.C. Liberals across this province. The party will name its new leader in February.
So given the announcement by Premier John Horgan the next day about the timing of the Kelowna West byelection, February is shaping up to be a busy month in B.C. politics.
Horgan says he plans to send voters in the riding to the polls in early February in order to have the new MLA in the Legislature to vote on the budget later that month. But it could also be to deflect any bump in popularity the Liberals may get with the election of a new leader given the timing.
With the razor thin advantage Horgan has in the Legislature—thanks to the support of the three-member B.C. Green caucus—any edge he can find, he’ll take.
With the history the riding has of electing right-of-centre MLAs—after all, two Social Credit premiers and a Liberal premier have come out of the riding in the past—Liberals on Saturday were talking like a win for their candidate, Ben Stewart, is a slam dunk.
He’s clearly the front runner going in, given the history of the riding and the fact he has already won two elections there. Stewart served as MLA from 2009 to 2013 before stepping down to let Clark run in a byelection.
But in Cook he will face his most experienced opponent yet. Cook has one election under her belt having run against Clark in the spring and, unlike last time, she is now running for the party in power against an opponent who is not the premier or leader of the party.
So as voters in Kelowna West prepare to shiver their way to the polls in February, B.C. politics is just heating up.
Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.
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