Martyn Brown: The B.C. Liberal leadership review—why not Dianne Watts?

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      (Part three of a four-part series on the B.C. Liberal leadership contest.)

      In the last article, I argued that the top strategic consideration in choosing the next B.C. Liberal leader is the party’s need to defeat proportional representation.

      The ballot question that should drive their decision is this: who is the best leader to fight and win next year’s vote on PR that is so crucial to winning any future election?

      All of the other considerations are secondary, including who would make the best premier, who might beat the NDP under our existing electoral system, and who can best represent “change”.

      As it happens, the answer to that ballot question is also the best answer to the Liberals’ prayers in 2021.

      Liberals need to ask themselves, what skills and qualities do they need in a leader, to win that fight for all the marbles next year—which will forever determine how their votes will count?

      Passion. Political smarts. Policy knowledge. Media savvy. A common touch.

      A natural communicator and campaigner who knows how to get attention.

      Someone who can keep the caucus and the party focused, strong, and united.

      Someone with a seat in the legislature.

      A streetfighter who can really take it to the NDP, with quick wit, humour, and cutting efficiency.

      A leader who can synthesize the complex issue of PR into simple sound bites.

      A leader who can reshape the dry-as-toast issue of electoral reform into an emotional cause célèbre.

      Someone who can motivate people to get off their butts, fill in a ballot, and vote in that mail-in referendum process.

      Which brings me to Dianne Watts, who is not that leader.

      The trouble with Watts

      Whatever other gifts she stands to bring to the Liberal party that she only joined to lead, Watts is not the new face that Liberals really need.

      In this case, whether they know it or not, the change that all Liberals really want actually starts with preserving the electoral status quo.

      As I will argue in my next installment, “change” itself is dependent on many things, of which a “new face” is only one.

      Even on that account, “old faces” can be reintroduced as “new faces” to the extent that they were previously unknown to most voters, or to the degree that those individuals’ unrecognized strengths are newly revealed.

      Just ask John Horgan. Or for that matter, Christy Clark. They were both so-called “retreads” when they won their party’s top job.

      They both went on to defy most pundits’ expectations and win enough seats to form governments. Albeit in Horgan’s case, with the support of the B.C. Green party.

      In the present context, what the Liberals require to fight and win the strategic battle on PR is not an inexperienced outsider, but rather, an experienced leader with a seat in the legislature and all of the skills to wage a successful campaign.

      Watts was made for local politics. In Surrey, specifically.

      Like Doug McCallum before her, whom she consigned to oblivion after his three terms as mayor—same as her—Watts was long-touted as a “star candidate” who might one day rule B.C. 

      Her political success as mayor was hard-won, well-earned, and mostly irrelevant to the challenges now facing the B.C. Liberal party.

      The argument that she can “win Surrey” for the Liberals in 2021, justified or not, says nothing about her ability to win a provincial campaign on PR in 2018.

      It is also suspect, based on Watts’ anemic performance as federal Conservative in South Surrey-White Rock. She barely won that Tory stronghold by 1,439 votes in 2015, two short years ago, when she hoped to emerge as a major player in Stephen Harper’s government.

      Her drawing power, even in her own backyard, is questionable and overblown.

      She entered the leadership contest with a big lead in the polls. She hopes that relative provincial popularity and name recognition will convince her new party that she is the best candidate for the job she seeks.

      I wouldn’t bet on it. Watts has already shown that as “star” prospects go, she is not in the same orbit that Christy Clark illuminated with her charisma, telegenic appeal, and megawatt smile.

      Suffice it to say, without the prospect of power that Clark had, or the deep party roots and fan base she had in 2011 after her stint as a popular hotline host, Watts is not attracting the same notice or growth.

      She looks more like a dark star that has somehow trapped her own light.

      If she does win, you can bet that the happiest people in the province will be Horgan and BC. Green Leader Andrew Weaver.

      They well know that Watts lacks most of the attributes noted above, which any Liberal leader will need to beat them—first in the referendum on PR and then in the election.

      The trouble with Watts is, her considerable talents and merits simply don’t fit the job for which she is now applying for.

      The New Democrats and Greens are drooling at the prospect of Watts winning the Liberal leadership. They are confident she would not rock their increasingly comfortable world, especially in respect of the referendum on proportional representation.

      If she wins, the GreeNDP alliance would be guaranteed another six more months minimum without a real Liberal leader in the legislature. 

      And that assumes that there is someone in the Liberal caucus who might be willing to surrender their seat, to give Watts a shot winning it back.

      That is no sure thing, given that not a single MLA has endorsed her.

      Interim leader Rich Coleman might resign his seat to enable Dianne Watts to win a seat in the legislature, but that's not a sure bet by any means.

      Interim Liberal leader Rich Coleman might step aside to hand her his seat, fan of hers he is. He might welcome the opportunity to gracefully exit his caretaker role and cut his term short. He probably would have left last spring, if he wasn’t such a trooper and wasn’t begged to run again by Clark.

      Even if he or some other caucus member vacated their seat immediately, that by-election would not have to be called until next August.

      It could be much later than that, if no one steps up to the plate right away, or if Watts opts to wait a while.

      And then, she would still have to win that by-election, which could be also far from certain, depending on how safe that riding is for the Liberals. 

      Based on the Horgan government’s performance to date, and recent announcements that even many Liberals applaud, the NDP candidate might well emerge on top.

      In any case, that by-election would not come until well after the upcoming legislative session that is so vital for the Liberals’ efforts to defeat PR and end the NDP’s well-earned honeymoon.

      Horgan hopes to win his party all sorts of new supporters with the new budget and legislative agenda.

      Without a leader in the legislature, it is very hard for any opposition party to gain traction at the government’s expense.

      Nothing proves that better than the federal NDP’s colossal humiliation in the recent four by-elections, under Jagmeet Singh’s leadership. Without a seat in Parliament, he is simply missing from the main media theatre that matters.

      Party unity is also a huge issue that will play into that vote on PR. 

      Dianne Watts’s history and campaign strategy suggest that she is certainly not the party loyalist that her main competitors all are.

      She was first elected mayor of Surrey as an independent who had abandoned her former party—the Surrey Electors Team—to defeat her former leader, McCallum.

      Then she started her own party—oops, “nonparty”—the right-wing “civic organization” known as Surrey First. It is as “nonpartisan” as Vancouver’s NPA. 

      After leaving that job to successfully run for the federal Conservatives, she abandoned both that new job and her party after only two years in Ottawa. I doubt that the constituents who elected her to that post anticipated that she would quit before her elected term was even halfway up.

      Ever since abandoning her seat in Parliament and throwing it to the federal Liberals' Gordie Hogg, Watts has staked her claim to the Liberal leadership on her outsider status.

      Many of the MLAs in the B.C. Liberal caucus regard Watts as a Conservative interloper who failed to help the party when her support in Surrey was most needed, when the chips were down.

      She did not even belong to the party until the top job became vacant.

      She hopes to win, in part, by slagging the record of the very caucus she would need to get behind her in building support as the new leader, in the party’s fight to defeat PR.

      It is not a formula for success. It is a recipe for conflict, acrimony, and no end of media stories that are focused on the Liberals’ internal problems, instead of on their fight against the GreeNDP and PR.

      It was hard enough for Christy Clark to get control of her caucus dissidents, even with all the tools at her disposal to keep her “black sheep” in the party fold.

      Watts will have none of that leverage: no cabinet jobs, fancy titles, or other patronage plums. No power at all to make believers of doubters and detractors.

      Without a seat in the legislature, she will likely not even have an office in the legislature. Why would she?

      She won’t be there at daily caucus meetings or at other such forums that would afford the opportunity to build her needed new relationships and to prove her leadership mettle.

      Then there is that “policy thing”. Watts’s campaign slogan is “New Voice, New Vision”.

      So far, it is difficult to see how she has delivered either.

      Dianne Watts earned positive reviews as the mayor of Surrey, but that doesn't necessarily qualify her to lead a provincewide fight against proportional representation.

      Watts’s performance to date has been anything but inspiring or reassuring in respect of her oft-claimed, but so far invisible “vision”.

      As she herself says in one her campaign videos, “there is no point in having a vision if you can’t articulate it and you can’t execute it.”

      If she has a vision, she certainly has not articulated it. Nor will she ever execute it. Because she will lose the referendum on PR that any Liberal leader must win to retain any hope of forming a government in 2021.

      Her grasp of policy is dubious, at best, to put it charitably. Her vacuous videos offer empty platitudes that mainly convey a platform and campaign devoid of meaningful content.

      Why she is actually running for the job is about as clear as what she hopes to achieve if she gets it. Trying to fathom her tortured tautologies and shop-worn clichés is a fruitless enterprise. Her capacity to communicate is seriously problematic.

      Like all of the Liberal leadership candidates, Watts is struggling to be heard at all by the media. It helps to have a message.

      Yet in contrast to her competition, even Watts’s attacks on the NDP are rambling and convoluted. In the game of political hardball that any leader must win to beat their opponents, she is simply not in the same ballpark as either Todd Stone or Mike de Jong, or even Andrew Wilkinson.

      Watts may have been a very capable mayor. She is no doubt a wonderful person who means well by her bid to lead “the forces of free enterprise”. She has a lovely countenance, an intelligent presence, and a conciliatory nature that served Surrey well under her leadership.

      But so far in the leadership race, she has mostly demonstrated that she is not yet ready for prime time on a provincial scale. She is, for many Liberals, a surprising study in disappointment.

      One click on her campaign Events page speaks volumes about her organizational aptitude, or rather, lack of it.

      “No events yet”, is its only message.

      Seriously? That is her idea of “connecting”? No events yet? After three months in her leadership campaign?

      There is no policy link at all. I suppose that’s better than a platform page that similarly only says, “No policy yet”, sadly true though that is.

      Would that be her approach to fighting PR—an eventless campaign that says nothing?

      Her social media campaign is also almost entirely M.I.A.

      Who endorses Watts’s candidacy, if not a single MLA? God only knows. It is nowhere evident on her website.

      Even the complimentary media quotes about her past performance and attributes that are posted on her website "Reviews" tab are not reflective of what is being said about her now.

      Twelve flattering comments are posted, dating back to 2007. Half of them were from 2015 or earlier, and not one of them was made since she actually announced her leadership campaign, on September 24.

      Not included among them is this assessment, from the Vancouver Sun's Vaughn Palmer. It says more about what Liberals really need to know about Watts’s leadership efforts than anything her team has posted in singing her praises.

      In her three months on the campaign trail, only 10 news releases have been posted to Watts’s website, including one media advisory of a campaign visit and a self-congratulatory review on her performance in a leadership debate.

      I mean, she is still in the campaign, right? I guess it doesn’t matter if the only news releases you issue are devoid of any news.

      In short, Watts might well win the race, especially if the anyone-but-Watts vote fails to converge around, at most, two alternative leadership prospects.

      It seems that she is mostly resting on her laurels and running on her name recognition, her municipal reputation, and her anyone-but-them unique selling proposition.

      But anyone who imagines that she is the party’s best hope to lead the fight against PR—let alone win the next election—is dreaming in Technicolour.

      In the last installment, I will assess the other three contestants, any one of whom would make a better leader for the Liberals’ crucial campaign next year.

      They, too, need to get their act together, in assuring that at least one of them wins the party’s top job, as they each carry on their fight to the finish.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at