Martyn Brown: The B.C. Liberal leadership review—who should win?

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

      So far in this series, I have suggested that two candidates in the B.C. Liberal leadership race—Sam Sullivan and Michael Lee—should drop out. Primarily, because they are destined to finish on the bottom.

      I have discussed the strategic importance to the Liberals’ future electoral chances of next year’s referendum on proportional representation, and why it should inform the ballot question.

      I have further outlined why Dianne Watts is not the best candidate to lead the B.C. Liberals’ crucial fight against PR, even though she is likely still in the cat bird’s seat to win the leadership. 

      That leaves three other candidates—Mike de Jong, Todd Stone, and Andrew Wilkinson.

      All of them stand a good chance of winning the race that was once presumed Watts’s for the taking.

      It obviously depends on who can get out their vote on February 1 to 3—online or via telephone—and who can earn the broadest base of support geographically, across B.C.’s 87 ridings.

      Who should win the contest, if not Watts?

      That is the subject of this last installment, which I must warn all readers, is exceptionally long, even for me! It is really intended for die-hard Liberals who are considering their leadership choices, so feel free to click away now.

      Obviously, the Liberal members’ overriding concern is who can give their party the best shot to win the next election and to form the next government.

      The strategic linchpin to that endeavour, however, is first winning the referendum on PR. If the Liberals lose that fight, the entire enterprise will be academic.

      No B.C. Liberal leader will likely succeed in 2021 under any new system of proportional representation. It would virtually assure Premier John Horgan’s NDP of another four years in power, as a minority government backstopped by an enlarged Green balance of power.

      If PR passes, no leader will be able to hold together the B.C. Liberal coalition as we now know it.

      The “forces of free enterprise” will eat their own, fighting new ideological crusades, under competing party flags that will consign the Liberals to opposition for many years to come.

      That might actually work to those combined voters’ advantage in the long term, if the goal is simply to form a minority government that is more right than left.

      It is scary to contemplate, though, for those of us who fear the far right’s hold on any future minority government that might be beholden to a single wingnut, or to some extremist element that controls the balance of power.

      If that prospect doesn’t light a fire under the B.C. Liberals’ collective butt, I don’t know what will. It should be a powerful motivator for any leader in the pivotal year ahead.

      If one accepts that argument, the question then becomes, who is the right leader to help the party defeat PR and avoid those consequences, which would spell curtains for its broader electoral hopes?

      Is it to elect a “fresh face” that suggests a break a from the past, as the party’s highest imperative? Is it to run away from the record of the party’s last 16 years in government?

      Is it really to elect a new leader whose principal pitch is that she “wasn’t there” when the Liberal government went awry? As if it is to Watts’s credit that she had no experience as a minister in cabinet, an MLA, or as even a party member fighting in the Liberal trenches?

      Or would it be better to choose a leader who is stronger for all that experience? Because of all they heard and learned along the way. And equally, for the skills they have obtained and honed as cabinet ministers, MLAs, and seasoned veterans in the legislature.

      Is the person who is best positioned to defeat PR in 11 short months really someone who has no seat in the main media theatre that matters?

      Someone who won’t even have a seat for at least another six months, assuming anyone from her currently unsupportive caucus “team” steps aside? And further, that she even wins that by-election?

      As Justin Trudeau and Gordie Hogg just proved, in defeating their Tory counterparts in the by-election to replace Watts in South Surrey-White Rock, no seat is really “safe”.

      Horgan is currently riding high in the polls and he hopes to grow his government approval ratings in the legislative session ahead.

      It will be packed with popular measures that he hopes will boost his odds of winning the vote on PR, which will also inevitably be a referendum on the GreeNDP’s performance. And on the workability and desirability of minority governments.

      Is it really smart to invite that added electoral challenge of having to fight and win an unnecessary by-election in a seat already held by a sitting Liberal MLA?

      Is it really wise to run that avoidable risk, and all of the distractions it would entail—in the allocation of scarce resources, in diluted media messaging, and in that leader’s time and energy?

      Worse still, in the midst of the provincial campaign on PR, barely three months before the vote?

      Is it really in the Liberal party’s interest to choose a new leader who will not even be sitting in the legislature in this next legislative session, if not also the fall session? Does anyone doubt that forum will really be Ground Zero for the media battle on PR?

      Stop now if you think the answer to any of those questions is “yes”.

      The smart route is to elect a leader who can immediately marshal the Liberals’ troops in opposition.

      It is to elect a leader who inspires loyalty as a proven loyalist in their own right.

      It is to elect someone who can create party unity, not aggravate existing divisions, and also act as the general the party needs in the main theatre of battle that matters most in 2018—the legislature.

      Only three candidates are best suited for that immediate task at hand—Wilkinson, de Jong, and Stone.

      If Dianne Watts is elected leader, she won't be in the legislature for the spring session and could possibly miss the fall session, too.

      Rejuvenating the B.C. Liberal party

      Many Liberals’ first choice will come down to a question of who can best rejuvenate the party. Fair enough, if that objective is seen in its broadest sense.

      Change is where it’s at, many pundits agreed, in singing Watts’s praises before she entered the race.

      Yet visible change is not all about shiny new loonies that stand out from dull toonies, or about the currency of newly minted leaders whose prospective value lures backers like Bitcoin does.

      It is equally about visible rejuvenation in membership, vision, ideas, and policies.

      It is about setting a new tone in leadership and a new style of listening, acting, and executing, in prosecuting change that most people want.

      Horgan is doing just that for the NDP. His experience and pedigree sure didn’t stop him from rejuvenating his party, doing well on the hustings, or forming a government.

      Nor would the Three Amigos' experience and supposedly “tainted” track records much hurt their ability to renew and rebuild the B.C. Liberal coalition.

      Wilkinson, Stone, and de Jong are all seriously talented and broadly gifted individuals whose backgrounds and attributes would help more than harm their party’s quest for revival, as the force it long was to be reckoned with.

      They all are better positioned than Watts is, to set that desired change in positive motion.

      Rejuvenation starts with a new mindset, embodied by the new leader, in contrast to their predecessors and other party leaders.

      It starts with a leader who has the presence, know-how, and political smarts to communicate that change in ways that ensure it is widely reported, broadcast, and mostly welcomed.

      In opposition especially, it helps if that individual is not outside caucus, looking in, either physically or metaphorically.

      It also helps to know what you are talking about. Especially on tricky issues like PR, which all five of the Liberals’ elected leadership contenders understand better than Watts.

      That issue stands to define the Liberals’ next leader as either a persuasive authority who is worthy of voters’ trust, or as an ill-informed lightweight who is readily ignorable.

      Credibility and deep knowledge of that eye-glazing issue will be as key to winning that vote as the ability to reduce it to simple terms. Only by doing that will PR ever matter enough to convince the Liberals’ winning majority to mail in their ballot.

      Nothing would do more to rejuvenate the B.C. Liberals than winning that vote on PR. It would give them a major shot in the arm.

      The campaign will begin in earnest in February, with the throne speech and budget, only days after the Liberal leadership convention.

      Liberals should regard it as their fight of the century: for the future of majority governments; for the fate of “free enterprise”; for voters living “beyond Hope”; and for all those opposed to the NDP and the Green party.

      It would be very hard for Watts to successfully lead that battle without a seat in the legislature.

      That basic truth flips Watts’s central argument on its head.

      Without a seat in the legislature, “newness” would not be an asset in the fight on PR; it would present all sorts of new barriers that would have to be surmounted every day. The Salish Sea that would keep Watts divided from her caucus is only one of those obstacles.   

      In any case, it might surprise Liberals to learn that only a fraction of B.C. voters even really have a clue who any of the contenders are. Believe me, the vast majority of British Columbians wouldn’t recognize any of the leadership candidates if they were sitting across from them at Tim’s.

      It is only with daily exposure in the media, on television especially, that any new leader can become “known” in any material personal sense that really matters at the ballot box.

      Rejuvenation is a multiyear project that can be a lonely business for any leader who isn’t seen much in the media. Or who lacks the suite of attributes necessary to elicit enthusiasm, faith in their leadership, and the growth that attracts.

      In my estimation, Andrew Wilkinson would be hard-pressed to excel in that regard. A natural leader or campaigner, he is not.

      Andrew Wilkinson has the intellect to lead the B.C. Liberals, but some say he lacks the common touch to appeal to average British Columbians.

      What about Wilkinson?

      As I noted previously in other articles in the Straight, Wilkinson is obviously very well-regarded by most of his caucus colleagues—and deservedly so.

      With 13 MLAs endorsing him, he has more than twice as many caucus supporters as has either de Jong or Stone, each of whom is endorsed by six sitting members.

      Wilkinson has an impressive base of support from Liberal members across the province, having kick-started his leadership campaign well before the others, even before Christy Clark threw in her bloodied towel.

      What is not to like about Andrew Wilkinson? Not much. He’s a stellar individual.

      He is a former rural doctor, city lawyer, Rhodes scholar, B.C. Liberal party president, deputy minister, cabinet minister, and devoted family man to boot. It is hard not to feel humbled by his academic achievements, by his personal history, and by his strong firsthand knowledge of the province.

      Andrew’s story reads like a dream come true to anyone looking for a leader on paper. He also certainly tells it well, in this video on his campaign website.

      I worked with the guy for 13 years. I thought the world of him as a razor-smart bureaucrat who was right where he belonged: executing ministerial directions, hovering in the hallways, and briefing the premier on issues that were beyond his station to decide.

      He is not a visionary. But as a follower, administrator, and multitalented professional in every sense of that word, he is first rate.

      His evolution as a politician has been remarkable.

      His performance in the Liberal leadership debates, in signing up new members, or in generating attention and enthusiasm for his campaign? Not so much.

      From his Events page, he is clearly a candidate on the go, working hard to reach out. His travel history in the past few months is splendid.

      His platform looks as glossy and polished as he is. It is packed with points that mostly miss the point, but at least suggest an agenda.

      It even offers a “costed budget” for his “priority expenditure measures” in each of the three fiscal years that began last April Fool’s day.

      You’re welcome, John Horgan. It suggests $5 million more a year for “equality and safety for women”, in case you were wondering. Too bad that and other priorities made the cut in de Jong’s budgets.

      Here’s the problem. Andrew’s “vision” looks like a carbon copy of the Liberals’ insipid election platform from last spring. It is as dull as dishwater: lukewarm, with no suds.

      Can you name one thing Wilkinson stands for? Go ahead, if you can.

      Beats me, and I read his platform. Nothing really jumps out—like the candidate himself.

      Mostly what his campaign has conveyed is a former cabinet minister who is running for premier, not opposition leader. That would have been appropriate in 2011, but it misses the mark today.

      The Liberals are in opposition. They will be there for at least another four years.

      What they really need is an opposition leader who might one day make a good premier; but only if he or she is successful in opposing the NDP, including on PR, and in building the Liberals’ own case for needed change.

      That is Wilkinson’s greatest weakness.

      Of the Liberals’ three truly competitive leadership candidates with seats in the legislature, he is the least apt to give Horgan’s NDP a rough run for its money.

      Wilkinson claims that he has already signed up over 2,000 supporters in his petition to fight PR, as his top priority in 2018. That’s good for the Liberals.

      It suggests that he is at least sensitive to the strategic importance of that issue to the Liberals, like all of the other leadership candidates are. My sense is, he better understands than his competitors how useful that issue might be as an organizing tool in winning over new supporters and as a vote-driver in getting out his identified vote.

      But is Wilkinson really the best guy to lead that fight for the Forces of No?

      Don’t think so.

      He is the ultimate “vanilla fudge” candidate—nice to look at, sweet as can be, and guaranteed to give you a toothache. He would certainly irritate John Horgan more than the others, if with less force and effect than de Jong or Stone.

      He loves any podium much more than it loves him back. His air of arrogance is his inescapable aura. And he is hard-pressed to communicate in eight-second sound bites.

      Intelligence oozes out of every one of his pores, but not in a “Father Knows Best” way. It reeks of Oxford condescension that I know is unintended, but which would not serve him or his party well in connecting with mass audiences. Especially in juxtaposition to Horgan.

      Wilkinson would not resonate well in rural B.C., or with the blue-collar workers. His starched white image is bound to rub them and many younger voters the wrong way.

      Him in a hard hat? It is hilarious to contemplate.

      It would look about as “natural” on him as a helmet and a tank on Michael Dukakis. A lab coat with a pocket protector is more believable on Wilkinson, who is usually dressed in black suits, cozy sweaters, and golf shirts that fit in quite well with his Shaughnessy crowd.

      I suspect he is genetically incapable of “dumbing down” almost any issue, to position it and himself in a simple and graphically effective way that targets the heart instead of the brain.

      Wilkinson may well win the leadership. He is likely the candidate that most of the B.C. Liberals’ wealthy corporate backers are hoping will prevail. No one ever accused them of having an ounce of political sense, especially when it pertains to their own strategic best interests.

      In any case, real change demands breaking the Liberal party free of those Vancouver power brokers’ clutches.

      It demands a leader whose party is not indebted to the vested interests and powerful moguls, who have traditionally bankrolled their “friends”, in expectation of exerting inordinate influence on government.

      On that score, Wilkinson would fare worst, possibly of all six contestants. He was made for backroom politics, wheeling and dealing, and high-falutin' cocktail parties.

      His legalist mind makes him perfect for negotiating contracts with the devils that lurk in Vancouver’s glass towers. His clinical approach to almost any issue, in private and public, made him a great bureaucrat and a fine minister of technology, innovation and citizens' services, minister of advanced education, and attorney general.

      But what we are talking about here is politics, vision, and campaign “theatre arts”.

      The skill sets those things require are not in Wilkinson’s wheelhouse. They are just not his forte.

      In short, the Liberals could do much worse than to choose him as a leader; but they could also do better, if their goal is to actually defeat PR, renew the party, and win the next election.

      Mike de Jong is one of those two better candidates. 

      Mike de Jong was a loyal and competent cabinet minister to two B.C. Liberal premiers.

      I really like Mike

      Fairly assessing Mike de Jong is tough for me, biased toward him as I am on a personal level.

      As I indicated in previous articles, I still regard him as a friend, though we haven’t spoken in several years, since I went “rogue” in speaking truth to power.

      I first encountered de Jong way back in 1994, in the Matsqui by-election. At the time, I was then-Social Credit leader Grace McCarthy’s top political staffer.

      After winning her party’s leadership, Amazing Grace opted to run for a seat in the legislature.

      Grace was rightly convinced that she could not beat the newly minted Liberal leader, Gordon Campbell, in her own Vancouver-Quilchena riding. So she opted to run as a parachute candidate in the formerly “safe” seat that Social Credit MLA Peter Dueck vacated for her.

      De Jong “stole” that seat for the Liberals and beat McCarthy by 42 votes.

      And the rest, as they say, is history. De Jong’s victory consigned the Socreds to ruin. It precipitated the emergence of the short-lived B.C. Reform party, under Jack Weisgerber—whom I also served as his senior political staffer.

      Now, here de Jong is, running for the top job of that party he was so instrumental in consolidating, as the right’s new reigning champion some 23 years ago.

      What goes around, comes around. Weisgerber is now among the six former MLAs who are now endorsing de Jong to lead the B.C. Liberal party.

      As noted, six other sitting MLAs are also now backing de Jong, including former education minister, Mike Bernier, who was also initially a candidate in the leadership race.

      In contrast to the combined number of endorsements that Wilkinson and Stone have attracted from present and past MLAs, de Jong’s caucus support is certainly nothing to write home about. It is pretty weak, actually.

      That does not surprise me, having worked closely with de Jong in the Campbell era, over the course of 13 years of tumultuous change, growth, and calamity, ending with the HST debacle.

      De Jong was and is the most loyal cabinet minister that any premier could ask for. He was ever-respectful of the job that the premier was elected to do and of the principle of cabinet solidarity.

      He never agitated on his own behalf, with his eye on the party leadership, like some of his contemporaries and current contestants did.

      He was also deeply uncomfortable asking his caucus colleagues to lend him their public support. He was sensitive to a fault about how difficult public endorsements can be for any sitting MLA, whose own supporters might have very different views on who would make the best leader.

      To the extent that de Jong failed to generate more caucus endorsements in either 2011 or in this contest to date, it is largely because he did not want to compromise his colleagues to advance his own interest.

      People need to know that about de Jong, a man whose integrity is beyond reproach and who never shirked from speaking his own truth to power directly to premier Campbell, often in front of his cabinet colleagues.

      He’s got guts and his political acumen was usually bang-on, in my experience.

      Having to say “no” to so many colleagues, in his capacity as finance minister, and championing new transparency that many of his caucus colleagues worked so hard to stop, also did him no favours.

      Many hoped he would just shut up and give up in fighting internally for new disclosure requirements for MLAs, and for changes in freedom-of-information legislation that was resisted at every turn.

      But he did not give up. He plugged away, with principled resolve and with the courage of his conviction—to achieve things I never thought were possible, politically. That’s his greatest strength, and largely explains why he would be a good leader.

      Some of his colleagues probably blame de Jong for his tight-fisted ways as finance minister, which many perceive cost the Liberals the election. They can equally point to the others who sat on Treasury Board, and to their former leader.

      The people that were negatively impacted by that frugality were understandably and legitimately angry at the Liberals.

      But in most Liberal quarters, de Jong’s unswerving “Dutch” hand on the taxpayers’ till was responsible for one of his government’s greatest claims to fame: five straight surplus budgets, following the worst recession since the Great Depression.

      It is unfair to blame de Jong for adhering to the same fiscal conservatism that previous B.C. Liberal finance ministers had practised in preparing their election budgets.

      Anyone who wants to really see how that played out over the Liberals’ terms in office can check out this table on the Liberals' budgetary fiscal record:

      I created it from the published Public Accounts and from the government’s revised financial statements, which reconcile changes in accounting standards and treatments.

      As it shows, de Jong was hardly the first B.C. Liberal finance minister to see their budget forecasts wildly swing in election years.

      Indeed, that is why the B.C. Liberals were successful in very nearly wiping out the government’s direct operating debt, which is the accumulated burden of previous deficits.

      That is also why the government obtained its coveted Triple-A credit rating, which not many voters actually give a damn about, but perhaps would if they understood its significance.

      Had the Liberals been reelected last May, most would be still lauding both de Jong and Clark as fiscal “geniuses”, just as many of them did after the Campbell government was re-elected in 2005 with its $3-billion surplus.

      The last thing de Jong wanted to do in his budget last February was to produce a “fudget budget” that overestimated revenues, underestimated unforeseen spending pressures, and resulted in a post-election deficit he vowed would not occur.

      Ah, yes, some of de Jong’s critics counter, but he could have spent more money than he did in the last fiscal year that he and we all later learned also had a much larger surplus than was anticipated.

      Untrue. Under accounting rules, that money could only be spent before March 31 of last year.

      De Jong could have shovelled money off the back of the truck in the waning days before the writ was dropped. But that, too, would have been unconscionable, and would have hurt more than helped the Liberals politically.

      That is the reality, folks.

      So all those second-guessers in the Liberal caucus, who were as surprised as de Jong was after the election by how off-the-mark his finance officials’ conservative estimates proved to be, should give him a break.

      De Jong did his job and their whole government chose not to gamble on higher spending. The Liberals figured they had the election in the bag and their revenues simply exceeded their wildest expectations.

      In all the time I worked with de Jong, I can tell you, he was the cabinet minister who easily impressed me the most, easily mastering each portfolio he held.

      Under Campbell, he was the minister of forests, labour and citizens’ services, Aboriginal relations and reconciliation, attorney general, and solicitor general. He was also Clark’s health minister and finance minister.

      To say that de Jong understands government is an understatement, whether as chair of the powerful legislative review committee, or as government house leader.

      In that building on Belleville Street, and equally on the hustings, de Jong is utterly in his element.

      What distinguishes him from Wilkinson or Stone is not so much his evident strengths as a potential premier-in-waiting. Indeed, I am convinced that any one of them would all make an excellent premier, at least in the eyes of most Liberal supporters.

      Rather, it is de Jong’s knowledge of the legislature and government, and particularly his skills as a prospective opposition leader and campaigner that make him an exceptional choice to lead the Liberals in advancing their strategic interests.

      He, of all people, knows that well. Which is why he has made those advantages he offers his “unique selling proposition” in his latest campaign video.

      Unfortunately, that video did not really answer the question it posed—why he is actually running for leader, what he hopes to achieve and how he plans to do it, or why he is really the best person to “fight the NDP and win”, as he put it.

      Without any discernible platform, de Jong is the anti-Wilkinson, as it were—more like Watts than either the former or Stone. His lack of policy content is appalling, I am sad to say.

      Indeed, were it not for my knowledge of him and the central importance I place on his character and skills, I would not place him in my top two “best leader” candidates.

      His website sucks. Badly.

      Its handful of videos are no more informative and helpful than Watts’s are. They reveal little about his “vision”—to the extent he has one—and even less about his priorities for the party or how he plans to advance them.

      Optically, the picture he presents is of a candidate whose main supporters are handfuls of aging white men, small contingents from the Fraser Valley, Surrey, and northeastern B.C., a smattering of Young Liberals, and prominently featured fans from South Asian communities.

      No surprise there. But not in a good way.

      Does de Jong have any support from the Chinese Canadians? Over to you, Teresa Wat, who along with Bernier is co-chairing his campaign.

      Where are the young faces, or of others that might lend support to de Jong’s claimed “expanded and diverse team of new supporters”?

      Where is the optical diversity needed to strengthen Liberal members’ confidence in de Jong’s appeal to women, to those ethnic communities, and to the under-50 crowd?

      His campaign needs some serious professional help if it is to succeed.

      In the three months since de Jong launched his campaign, it has issued 10 news releases. One of them was to announce his candidacy, three were to announce new endorsers, one was to urge the NDP to approve Site C, and only five said anything of any material substance.

      One of those releases was to pledge de Jong’s support to expand Mandarin language training—something that Stone has also supported.

      De Jong won’t win if he keeps that up, no matter what his internal polling says. I am told it currently has him in second place. Could be, but I remain unpersuaded.

      If there is a knock against de Jong, it is that he is perhaps a little too laid-back—lazy even—for the demands of that top job. That likely has more to do with his accessibility at times as a minister than his actual work habits, though I would hardly characterize him as a workaholic.

      As his marketing materials remind voters, he comes from a farming background. He is no stranger to hard work, whether that might be milking cows or squeezing the s**t out of budgets.

      Believe me, you can’t do the jobs that Mike has done so well without being exhaustively dedicated to the task. I have no doubts, whatsoever, about his energy, his work ethic, or his abiding commitment to do exactly whatever is called for to get the job done.

      He can be corny at times as well. He can be an opaque communicator when trying to carefully frame his choice of words. And he is certainly not the Liberals’ most telegenic leadership candidate.

      None of that dampens his charm and the folksy appeal that has earned him so many friends, admirers, and supporters over the years. Including from those who were not initially his allies.

      De Jong has done us much as anyone to build support for the B.C. Liberal party in the Aboriginal community, in the South Asian community, and in the farming community. He always championed their causes, passionately and effectively, in my experience.

      He can be devastating in the legislature, as Horgan well knows. He probably fears de Jong more than any other Liberal leadership candidate, with the possible exception of Stone.

      De Jong could rip PR to shreds on the campaign trail in ways that widely resonate with average voters, in rural B.C. especially.

      He is funny, quick-witted, articulate, and colourful. He is skilled at campaigning and at attacking the government as all opposition leaders must.

      Bottom line is, any Liberals hoping to win that fight on PR next year, which is so critical to their chances of future success, should consider de Jong as a strong first or second choice.

      Todd Stone represents generational change for the B.C. Liberals but his support remains fairly thin in the Lower Mainland.

      Who should win? Todd Stone

      Right, then, so let’s turn to Stone.

      De Jong and Wilkinson would both make better leaders than Watts, for what the B.C. Liberal party most needs in the next year and beyond.

      Stone just offers more caché, youthful vigour, and broad voter appeal.

      To many British Columbians, he will be a fresh face and a dynamic “new” presence. He has the looks, intelligence, savvy, and communication skills to help lead the B.C. Liberals to victory both next year and in 2021.

      He embodies a change that stands to encourage a lot of voters who are now on the fence to reconsider the B.C. Liberal party in positive ways.

      His brand is rebirth: generational renewal, economic renewal, and a new style of B.C. Liberal leadership.

      He’s 45 and lovin’ it: brash, bold, and ready to rock and roll, with no end of energy and self-confidence.

      He looks comfortable in any crowd. His image is fluid, contemporary, at once rural and urbane, and decidedly squeaky clean—beautifully married as all get out. He can cut it with Christian conservatives, but is no holy roller, a small-l liberal whose values align with those of most British Columbians.

      His strategic political focus is clear enough, from local media reports of his campaign appearances.

      Winning the referendum on proportional representation is at the top of radar, as the strategic issue it is to the party’s future electoral hopes.

      He was first out of the gate to take a decisive and politically popular stance against the GreeNDP’s self-serving plan on subsidizing political parties with public money.

      His vow to reject those taxpayer subsidies for the B.C. Liberal party is audacious, principled, and emblematic of the populist change he stands to offer his party.

      He understands the value of symbolic communication and of “water cooler” subjects. He knows how to target and exploit emotional issues, and how to simplify cerebral and esoteric policy issues, to make them relevant to average people.

      His “techie” past and his “Kamloops kid” bragging rights only amplify his broad potential appeal to urban and rural voters alike.

      As a founder and CEO of a successful software company, he is a vintage “free enterpriser” who can appeal to entrepreneurs and inspire young people with real stories of what he learned in chasing his dreams.

      “Believe in our future” is his campaign slogan. His real message is hope and confidence—which is always half the battle in winning any campaign.

      The other half is street smarts and a the ability to hit the soft underbelly of the political foes on the other side. Stone has both of those qualities in spades, and he seems to enjoy the cut and thrust of political repartee as much as de Jong does, without going overboard like Christy Clark did.

      With six current MLAs and 12 former MLAs supporting him, Stone has earned a bit more of that type backing than de Jong has, after barely one term in office.

      His caucus support is only half as great as Wilkinson’s, but as I have previously outlined, it may not matter at that much at the ballot box.

      Regardless, the faces of those and others who have endorsed him are still impressive and reassuring about his capacity for rallying the B.C. Liberal caucus behind him, if he is elected party leader. He would be a more than able uniter—a leader who brings people onside by listening, inviting honest criticism, and also learning from his mistakes.

      OK, enough of the gushing. What about his weaknesses?

      He was obviously with Christy Clark every step of the way. As a key actor in her cabinet, he has much to answer for, as does the entire B.C. Liberal caucus.

      His role in the “triple delete” scandal will forever haunt him, to the extent anyone ever really much gave a damn about that issue, of which there is little evidence. It won’t harm Stone a bit politically, is my guess.

      As transportation minister, did he botch Metro Vancouver’s plans for rapid transit, in executing the premier’s election promise to impose an unwanted referendum?

      Yup. And he conceded that fact, although I suspect that even now, there are more local taxpayers than not who welcomed that vote.

      Lots of commuters, small businesses, and cash-strapped families are quite happy they had a vote that allowed them to reject higher TransLink taxes. They won’t be too angry with Stone. And those who still want the now dead-as-a-doornail new bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel probably saw him as their champion as well.

      For the most part, he was a popular transportation minister. He was well-liked by mayors and municipal politicians across the province, outside of TransLink’s turf.

      That experience, together with his experience 20 years ago as then-opposition leader Gordon Campbell’s executive assistant, gave him a firsthand appreciation of the province that not many British Columbians have.

      Wilkinson and de Jong being two notable exceptions. They also have that deep knowledge that Watts is only now trying to get.

      Stone’s skills as an organizer can be largely attributed to that time he spent with Campbell, and as a starry-eyed Young Liberal.

      Legend has it, his wife is perhaps his greatest asset—a political animal herself, through and through, which can be useful on the campaign trail. He has also lots of capable talent in his corner, though his identified support is thin in Metro Vancouver, which may well prove fatal.

      Why then, I ask myself, is this accomplished digital communicator only marginally better than his chief competitors in communicating through social media? Hard to answer.

      Why does his website offer no information to his events—just like Watts? I don’t get it.

      His Events link is blank, offering only the usual appeal for email addresses. Honest, to God, it’s pathetic. Fix it, Todd. Now.

      What about his platform? It is available through drop-down links on his Issues tab, if not in a readily downloadable form. Again, it is inconsistent with his self-styled brand as a leader for the digital age.

      Most of the “solutions” it offers in the nine issue areas it covers are boilerplate generalities, although he deserves credit for spelling out lots of specific proposals, like Wilkinson, some of which Horgan first suggested and is now acting upon.

      Surprisingly, Stone’s “vision” does not target the issue that I have suggested is most strategically important to the Liberals—the vote on PR.

      Like the other candidates, Stone has said a lot about the subject, in the legislature and travelling around the province, with links to his critiques of the GreeNDP’s “attack on democracy” and on the referendum process that are buried within his website’s Media link.

      He has hardly put that issue or any other front and centre, as Wilkinson has done of late. Like all of the candidates, he is missing the boat in “owning” that issue as his “personal hill to die upon”—which any new Liberal leader is destined to do if they fail to win that vote on PR.

      Together, Stone’s policy proposals are mostly useful for what they suggest about his ideological orientation (Surprise! He’s more conservative than liberal) and about his grasp of political hot-button issues (or lack of same).

      It lends the appearance of being more substantive than he is, and of a “vision” that is a back-of-the-envelope, muddled mess.

      Be that as it may, his strategic appeal is not really for those looking for policy solutions on vexing files and social challenges.

      His “brand promise” is renewal through generational change and sustainable growth powered by the new economy.

      It is clearer than his competitors’ vision, but not by much.

      It doesn’t matter. Not for his leadership chances.

      His real hope is to successfully present himself as the new, young face the Liberals need. Someone with the skills, experience, and relatability required to fight and beat the NDP, both in the house and on the hustings. 

      Whether enough members see him in that vein remains to be seen. But his big pitch is mostly convincing, well marketed, and ably fortified by his firsthand overtures to potential supporters across the province.

      His campaign looks far more professional than either de Jong’s or Watts’s, if not quite as slick as Wilkinson’s, which is probably the best funded.

      Is Stone really connecting with B.C. Liberals and winning the new support he needs? Horgan should hope not.

      I imagine that Stone may well wind up on top, as he should, when all the counting’s through—provided he can finish in at least third place on the initial count.

      No matter what the other candidates might wish or want their supporters to do, vis-à-vis their alternate choices on their preferential ballots, Stone should command a sizable share of those second-preference votes and points.

      His broad regional and demographic appeal and growth potential should serve his candidacy well, and the sooner he can consolidate that strength, the better.

      If Liberal members are really thinking about who is best to lead their party, in light of their common strategic needs and immediate interests, they will choose Stone—or failing that, de Jong.

      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