A B.C. Liberals’ leadership debate Sunday in Nanaimo underlined some of the different ways the party could be headed.
Six candidates – Dianne Watts, Mike de Jong, Sam Sullivan, Todd Stone, Michael Lee and Andrew Wilkinson – attended the forum at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre to talk about transportation, education and other topics.
As the party chooses a new leader, Wilkinson said the Liberals can be proud of their record of economic prosperity and balanced budgets in B.C.
“We’re going to see the NDP on a spending marathon in the years to come and we have to be a party to stand up for balanced budgets, stand up for fiscal responsibility and make sure we don’t spend money we don’t have,” he said.
Lee noted that the Liberals won only one seat on Vancouver Island and suggested the party underperformed in urban ridings, as well.
“It’s not because we don’t care. We just didn’t demonstrate it,” he said. “So issues around affordability, issues around transportation, we need to plan better and we need to articulate that better. That’s the reason we need a different approach. We’re not going to regain seats on this Island or in urban ridings just by talking about balanced budgets and a triple-A credit rating.”
Sullivan talked about privatization of liquor sales, some privatization of health care and even of education with talk of charter schools.
De Jong expanded on previously pitched notions of government decentralization.
“Where is it written in this age of technology that government must all be located in Victoria?” he asked. “Is it revolutionary to at least consider the possibility that the B.C. Ferries corporation could be headquartered in Nanaimo? We can do it with various departments of government.”
Ferries were an area of focus at Sunday’s debate and Watts said the fares are making the crossings unaffordable.
“When you look at the system and you look at how it functions and how it moves, we need to be making sure that we have affordability built into that entire system,” she said.
Stone, former transportation minister, said the ferry system wasn’t sustainable four and a half years ago.
“Because of tough decisions, because of sacrifices in coastal British Columbia, it is sustainable and fares can now start to come down,” he said.
Stone said he wishes to continue to reduce fares and said sports teams and school groups should get free ferry service, a concept Wilkinson questioned.
“My core principle as a B.C. Liberal is you don’t spend your kids’ money on operating costs today. You pay your own way,” he said.
Sullivan suggested B.C. could take the example of the Washington state ferries and look to reduce staffing on vessels to provide more service in other ways.
“I believe that a lot of the regulations are too tough…” he said. “I’d like to be able to challenge the federal regulators and see if we could get a much more effective, cost-efficient ferry service.”
Candidates were allowed two opportunities to directly question one another and Stone directed both his queries at Watts. First he said, “You talk about a new vision for British Columbia … but the details of that vision have been pretty limited,” and then suggested that she could have done more, as a Conservative MP, to help the B.C. Liberals in last spring’s election.
“I have to be honest. I didn’t really see that contribution from you and it could have made a difference. We might not be having this discussion today,” Stone said.
Watts replied that she “didn’t realize I carried that much power that if I had done more that we would have won, but thank you for that,” and said she did try to support provincial Liberal candidates in her federal riding.
De Jong left the debate early to fly back to his Abbotsford riding to attend a celebration of life for a police officer killed in the line of duty, Const. John Davidson, but as he left, de Jong said all of the candidates are good people and “it speaks well of who our party is.”
He said the B.C. Liberals’ path back to government will involve visiting every corner of the province and listening to people.
“And generate the ideas from within our communities and within our party and take that vision to British Columbia rooted in the free-enterprise principles that have made this party great and have made British Columbia the envy of Canada,” he said.
The party will choose its next leader the first week of February.