A ‘not boring’ Liberal leadership debate

By Shannon Waters September 30, 2021

Tuesday night saw the six people hoping to be the next BC Liberal Party leader spar on stage for the first time.

Candidates fielded questions from party supporters, as well as each other, and made their case for why they should be the one to lead the Liberals into the next election during the 90-minute event.

Vancouver—Langara MLA Michael Lee put the party’s current position bluntly. “Over the past five elections, we’ve lost over 40 per cent of our total vote share,” he said. “We’ve made inconsistent and half-hearted efforts to broaden our appeal, and the results speak for themselves.”

Lee cast himself as the party’s “best opportunity” for “building new bridges to new and diverse voters all across this province.”

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross hyped his personal ability to change — as he did with his views on resource development — and to boot the NDP out of a riding it had held for most of the two decades preceding Ross’ election in 2017. “I beat the NDP in 2017 and 2020, and I could do it again and I will do it again,” he said.

Kelowna—Mission MLA Renee Merrifield warned that “the NDP are formidable” and the Liberals need “new fresh ideas … a higher level of unity, greater diversity … bolder position of strength and vision than we have ever seen before” in order to beat the governing party — a package Merrifield pledged to deliver.

Former BC Chamber of Commerce CEO Val Litwin — who has described himself as “the outsider who wants to call people into the party” — pulled a metaphor from the tech sector to introduce himself.

“We’re a proud party with a phenomenal history, but today, we are out of date and behind the times — we need to update the operating system right now,” he said, asking viewers to consider whether some of the other candidates might be “running on the old operating system” while he is “ready to upgrade.”

Renewal was also a central point for Gavin Dew, who referenced his experience running political campaigns and “building up the next generation of leaders for the past 15 years.” The youngest candidate in the race warned that the party “can’t move forward unless [it leaves] the past in the past where it belongs.”

Contrast that with former BC Liberal cabinet minister Kevin Falcon’s pitch, which emphasized that BC Liberal governments “got the big things right.”

“But over the past decade, we also missed major opportunities to boldly address issues like low-cost child care, housing affordability, mental health and the environment,” Falcon said. “These are the things that the next leader must champion if we were to win back the seats in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island.”

An image of the leadership candidates shared by the BC Liberal Party.

Competitors question Falcon’s commitment during first leadership debate

One segment of the debate gave the candidates an opportunity to question their opponents, and half the stage took aim at Falcon’s decision to not run in last fall’s election.

“How can party members trust that you’re willing to put in the work to restore trust?” Lee asked Falcon, noting that the former cabinet minister is still working for a property development firm.

Falcon fell back on his record as a former MLA and cabinet minister. “They can look at my record,” he told Lee. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve bled for this party.”

Falcon dodged when Lee re-upped, asking Falcon to commit to running as a candidate in the next provincial election even if he is not elected the party’s next leader. “Michael, you haven’t resigned as an MLA either, right?” Falcon said.

Ross was not impressed with that tactic. “I don’t expect my colleague to resign as an MLA — I expect him to stay here and put his name on the ballot,” Ross said.

Falcon cited family considerations as a reason for not running in the last election, which also didn’t fly with Ross, who pointed out he also has a family and did not “abandon them to do this job.”

When it was her turn, Merrifield also took a swing at the race’s perceived frontrunner for supposedly failing to live up to comments he made during the party’s 2011 leadership race.

“In 2011, you promised to run again if you didn’t win, but you broke that promise,” she said. “So my question to you is threefold. Why didn’t you run in the last election for a seat? Not for leadership, for a seat? Will you run if you don’t win this leadership race? And if so, which riding?”

Falcon disputed Merrifield’s framing of his statement during the 2011 leadership race, saying he “did not foreclose the opportunity of perhaps running again in the future.”

Renee Merrifield, Val Litwin and Gavin Dew hold a cookie at a post-debate gathering in Dew’s home (via Twitter).

Heavy on NDP policy-bashing, light on solutions, expert says

Candidates took aim at a range of NDP policies — from shortcomings on housing affordability to strangling child care providers with red tape to struggling to address low vaccination rates in some parts of the province — but did not provide much in the way or concrete solutions, according to Simon Fraser University political science lecturer Stewart Prest.

“Winning trust is a fine goal, but how to do that is the real question,” Prest said. “Winning votes in cities is a good idea, but how?”

He evaluated the debate as “strong on aspiration” but “short on ideas” about how to achieve those goals, such as attracting underrepresented demographics — like young people, women and people of colour — to the party.

“A few big ideas stand out — for instance Litwin’s suggestion to have the province step in on municipal housing is definitely bold, if complex to implement — but even on something like housing, [there was] lots of ‘we need to increase supply and make homes more affordable,’” Prest said.

Frontrunner Falcon has yet to meet his foil, per Prest. “We wait to see who emerges as the leading opponent—and whether the fault line is one of substance or style,” he said.

As for what the governing party might be thinking following the first concerted presentation from their main competition?

“The NDP probably isn’t too fussed by what they saw last night just yet,” Prest said. “The candidates have a ways to go.”

Dew offered his own opinion on the opening debate during his closing remarks: “Well, that was not boring, folks.”