Waters: Few show up to hear B.C. Conservative leadership hopefuls

Kelowna leadership debate between Dan Brooks and Rick Peterson draws just 30 people.

During Friday night’s debate between B.C. Conservative Party leadership hopefuls  Dan Brooks nd Rick Peterson, Brooks blamed the media, in part, for not paying attention to the leadership race.

He made the comment in front of barely 30 people who showed up at a small hotel meeting in Kelowna to hear him debate Peterson in the second of five scheduled head-to-heads between the pair prior to the party electing a leader in April 12.

The B.C. Conservatives say they have 160 members in the Kelowna-Mission riding alone, not to mention the other two Central Okanagan ridings—Kelowna-Lake Country and Westside-Kelowna. And then there are the other nearby ridings in the North and South Okanagan. But only 30 people showed up to hear the next leader of the party.

If B.C. Conservatives themselves don’t care about the race for leader, why would anyone else?

The turnout, and Brooks’ comment, show how far the party’s fortunes have tumbled since the heady days just a few years ago when former federal MP John Cummins returned from Ottawa to lead the B.C. Conservatives. At one point, the party had 23 per cent support in the polls. But by the time last year’s election rolled around, the B.C. Conservatives were reduced to also-ran status, with a paltry five per cent of the vote. Cummins could place no better than a distant third in the Fraser Valley riding where he ran.

Brooks and Peterson are trying to change that. But both are coming from very different positions.

Brooks, 38, is a former guide-outfitter, who runs a resort outside Vanderhoof and admits he’s a rural guy. He sees the strength of the party in rural B.C. and says it should build on that. He says he’s being realistic when he says the party will not likely form government for at least two to three elections because it has a lot of work to do. He doesn’t like the “old guard” and says they don’t like him. He’s passionate. Three years ago he fled the B.C. Liberals over a land dispute with the government concerning his resort.

Peterson, 59, is an investment banker from the Lower Mainland. He says he not only knows, but also has what it takes to gain support in and around Vancouver. He claims to know the North and the Interior from his work raising capital for business ventures there and would bring a more professional approach to the party while reaching out to hear what the grassroots have to say.

A former reporter and columnist for the Edmonton Journal, Southam News and the Wall Street Journal, he feels he has what it takes to present a media-friendly face for the party. And, unlike Brooks, he feels the party can not only increase its support dramatically over the next three years, it can form the government in 2017.

Both men acknowledge the infighting that helped kill its chances in last year’s vote.

During the debate, the pair laid out their very different approaches, took swipes at each other, but in the end both said they would work with the other if they lost.

A successor to Cummins will be named April 12 in Richmond. But in the eyes of B.C. voters, will it matter in three years time?

What Friday showed was the B.C. Conservatives have a long way to go to even be part of the conversation when it comes to politics in this province.

With Brooks and Peterson, it would appear that work is underway.

But that’s what was said about Cummins when he took over leadership of the party. And we all know how that went.

Al Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.

awaters @kelownacapnews.com