BY BILL PHILLIPS
More than 300 people jammed into the Coast Inn of the North ballroom Saturday morning to hear what the six Liberal leadership hopefuls had to say.
The six – Dianne Watts, Mike de Jong, Michael Lee, Andrew Wilkinson, Todd Stone, and Sam Sullivan – all staked out their positions in hopes of attracting northern B.C. Liberals to their camp prior to the February 3 leadership vote.
Watts, the former mayor of Surrey, pointed out several times that she had been “mayor of a city of 520,000 people,” but her main distinction from the other five is that she wasn’t part of the Christy Clark government.
After the other five listed several of the issues they wanted to bring forward as leader and/or premier, Watts all the proposals were great but then simply asked “why weren’t any of these in the party platform?”
The Liberals were criticized leading up to the May election for a stand-pat platform.
de Jong, the candidate with the most political experience, responded that many of the issue highlighted were not only in the Liberal platform, but in the budget.
Watts also questioned Wilkinson directly about the Liberals’ infamous second throne speech which, after it was obvious they were losing grip on power, mirrored the NDP platform.
“Was it a mistake and, if not, what two policies would you not support?” she asked.
Wilkinson indicated the change in party direction was not done with the MLAs’ knowledge.
“It was rude surprise to us that we had adopted a lot of ideas from the NDP and the Greens,” he said. “It became quickly known as the ‘clone speech’ … the throne speech got carried away. I do not think we should have gone down that path.”
He added the baseline for the party should be balanced budgets.
de Jong also reiterated, several times, his plan to decentralize government office. de Jong is campaigning, in the North, on relocating the province’s ministry of forests office to Prince George, which was challenged by Wilkinson who pointed out the idea has been floated out before.
“My question to Mike de Jong is, you were the forest minister so why didn’t it happen back then?” he said.
de Jong responded that it was almost exactly 13 years ago that the Chief Forester’s office was located in Prince George. Jim Snetsinger was district manager in Prince George and when he was elevated to Chief Forester, the decision was made to keep in Prince George.
“We began that process of moving people out of Victoria,” de Jong said. “Now it didn’t survive past my tenure as forest minister.”
He pointed to the BC Lotteries office in Kamloops and Kal Tire head offices in Vernon as examples of head offices that can be located outside the Lower Mainland.
However, it was Watts who took most of the heat when candidates were allowed to pose questions to each other.
de Jong asked Watts about a Lower Mainland issue and how it applies to northern B.C. – the NDP’s removal of polls on Lower Mainland bridges.
“We’ve already heard about how that is impacting debt load and the ability to build projects in the North,” he said. “It also means people in the North are subsidizing a bridge that they use very little … if you become leader and premier will you reinstate the polls?”
Like many politicians asked a ‘yes or no’ question, the answer is never quite so simple.
“I don’t think that the northerners should support the tolls on the Port Mann bridge – full stop,” he said. “But I also don’t believe the tolling policy of the previous government worked, it was antiquated. Tolling individual pieces of infrastructure is not the way to go. What you need to do is look at the entire system.”
She said there are transportation issues across the province that need to be addressed.
Lee then queried Watts about her time as mayor of Surrey, specifically rebuilding the Surrey city hall, which was budgeted at $97 million but came in closer to $138 million due, he said, to cost overruns.
“I’d like to know what you learned from that situation,” he said.
Watts was somewhat taken aback by the suggestion of cost overruns.
“There weren’t cost overruns,” she said. “We added a daycare, we also added additional parking which was a revenue-generating item. We also held onto the land and have leased that out, another revenue-generating item, we also expanded the park, another revenue generating item.”
Wilkinson then also queried Watts about her time as mayor in Surrey, specifically its high crime rate.
“When you were mayor of Surrey, Surrey started with the same level of criminal code offences, per capita, as the rest of B.C.” he said. “When you stepped down, it was 27 per cent higher than the provincial average.”
Watts responded that the city has a population growth of between 800-1,500 per month and much of the population is under 18.
“When you look at data, you can skew data any way,” she said. “You’ll find, if you look at a number of the criminal code pieces, that they went down and they went down significantly.”
Perhaps sensing that Watts was getting too much attention, Stone asked Wilkinson, a doctor, a question about mental health and opioid addiction and, in return, Wilkinson asked Stone, a tech CEO, a question about helping the tech sector.
Sullivan, the former mayor of Vancouver, pointed to both the rural and urban sectors of the province which the electorate was seemingly split on last election.
“These areas should not be a source of division, they should be a source of celebration,” he said.
Lee said the NDP is “taking apart the resource industry of the province.”
Stone praised Prince George for stepping us during the recent wildfires by taking in evacuees.
“Those are values of northerners,” he said. “Those are also values of the BC Liberal party. I want to take that spirit of Prince George and hard work of northerners to every corner of the province.”
If there was one issue that the six contenders reached consensus on, it was the NDP plan to hold referendum on electoral change. The NDP have committed to holding a referendum on proportional representation by the end of next year and all candidates are steadfastly opposed to changing the first-past-the-post system.