Martyn Brown: And the winner of the B.C. Liberal leadership debate was…John Horgan

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      Well, that was two hours of my life that I will never get back.

      Whatever possessed me to watch last night’s B.C. Liberal leadership debate? Politics. Once it gets in your blood, it’s a tough habit to break.

      You know you have hit a new low as a political junkie when you are willing to endure five men taking turns crapping on one clearly helpless woman, and also on each other. And even worse, just to get a fix that you know in advance will make you wish you had rather slit your wrists, figuratively speaking.

      Why do I enjoy that stuff so much? I hate it, as I also hate myself for surrendering to the siren call of the sick rush I chase in “waiting for the men”, as it were, to indulge my morbid compulsion.

      What was I thinking, watching Andrew Wilkinson, Sam Sullivan, Michael Lee, Mike de Jong, and Todd Stone—all going after Dianne Watts, because she, of all people—is somehow miraculously and inexplicably perceived as the one to beat?

      Seriously?

      The train wreck that is Watts was already horrific enough to watch, in its ongoing derailment at her own hand. It got much worse as her supposed “friends” in the B.C. Liberal leadership race threw new obstacles in her way.

      Like posing basic questions about policy and “vision” that she yet again proved incapable of answering. Not that it seems to matter much to all those Liberals who view her as their party’s best bet to lead them blindly, if not boldly, into the future.

      How to negotiate softwood lumber? How to combat rising crime? How to balance the budget if over $2 billion in Crown corporation revenue is removed from the treasury, as Watts has suggested?

      It’s all “gotcha politics” and “an affront to British Columbians” that should have no place in a leadership debate, was the best that Watts could counter.

      It was almost too painful to behold, even in my Scotch-addled stupor. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel.

      By the end of last night’s sad spectacle, I almost felt sorry for her.

      Frontrunner Dianne Watts was eviscerated by her opponents during the debate.
      Dianne Watts

      Who knew that Wilkinson, in particular, could be such an effective bully, including in his attacks on Lee? (“You’re new on the job. We’ll help you get better.”)

      Or that Mike “the music man” de Jong could be so lethal by saying nothing more to Watts than “I’m going to let you talk. Maybe we’ll get an answer eventually.” Ouch.

      Then again, none of the candidates offered anything of substance that would give any objective Liberal member any new cause for hope, whoever emerges as the party’s new leader on February 3.

      Lee and Sullivan certainly comported themselves better than the other four contestants. But compelling leaders they ain’t.

      The former was too timid, vague, and diffident for his own good, while the latter was too candid, specific, and honestly ideological to win him any votes, destined as he is to finish last.

      Lee’s performance will be mostly remembered for his contrasting closing statement, in which he slagged his competitors for one weakness or another, with the notable exception of Stone, who he only mildly nudged as being too rurally rooted in his support.

      Also noteworthy was how Lee cozied up with Sullivan. Why he would waste one of his precious exchanges on the one candidate who would also position himself as a likely also-ran was hard to fathom.

      The overall impression that Lee left on me was of a well-meaning rookie who was almost as much out of his element in the debate as Watts, pleading with Wilkinson "Don't patronize me".

      “With attitudes like that it’s no wonder we’re still in opposition,” Lee chided the latter, who seemed to relish the opportunity to give Lee a lesson in hardball politics.

      Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee came across reasonably well in the debate, though at times he was fairly vague.

      My hunch is that Stone and Wilkinson likely gained the most ground.

      Despite their combativeness, which at times bordered on rude, they looked the most leaderlike. They came across as articulate, telegenic, and forceful politicians whose penchant for trading insults might serve their opposition party well in the legislature and on the hustings.

      They positioned themselves as eager combatants, happy to take on all comers, to demonstrate their willingness and ability to carry the fight to the NDP if given the chance to lead.

      I suspect that they each wanted to show how aggressive and pugnacious they can be, in playing the gladiator role, when the arena demands it—a strength of de Jong’s that might earn them some of his supporters’ second-choice votes.

      Without doubt, the highlight of Wilkinson’s evening was his emotional and reflective response in answer to a question on how he, a former rural doctor, would help to combat the opioid crisis.

      Wilkinson’s choked-back tears were obviously genuine. That emotional and purely human response went a long way to presenting his kinder, gentler “authentic self”.

      It is a side of him that he otherwise did his best to mask in presenting himself as a partisan attack-dog who is only waiting to be unchained in leading the party’s assault on the GreeNDP alliance.

      For his part, Stone did not say much at all of consequence, intent as he was on driving his defining values more than on showcasing hard solutions to the problems he repeatedly raised.

      What he stands for is impossible to know with any specificity from his performance last night.

      But Stone would have Liberals believe that he is all about generational change, free enterprise, progressive government, climate action, and economic renewal focused on youth, women, cultural diversity, rural B.C., transportation, resource development, and high-tech economy.

      Did I miss anything? Say anything often enough and it begins to define you, whether or not you have the “bold vision” that Stone has tried to own as a fact by simply making that assertion.

      But in politics as in life, appearances are nine-tenths of the battle for the “truth”, and on that score, Stone’s campaign in carefully sculpted.

      Like Billy Crystal used to say in his signature line mimicking Fernando Lamas, “you look…marvelous!” Stone does, his vulnerabilities on ICBC, transit, and the triple-delete scandal aside.

      Indeed, I will go out on a limb here to predict that it might just be enough to put Stone over the top when the dust settles on the leadership contest, a week from Saturday.

      Stone looks like a winner and is different than the rest of the pack: in his generational appeal; in his decidedly more Liberal view of government; in his stature, physicality, and media presence; and in his broader acceptability as a secondary leadership choice of party members in every region who support the other candidates, none of whom are directly at odds with him or his agenda.

      Former transportation and infrastructure minister Todd Stone has asserted that he will bring "bold change", but he's sometimes short on specifics.
      Todd Stone

      After last night’s debate, I would guess that Wilkinson might be best positioned to finish second behind Watts on the first vote count. But Stone will have the most growth potential on subsequent rounds, if—and it is a big if—Lee finishes fifth, or at least behind him on that first count.

      Perhaps surprisingly, if anyone other than Watts did much to harm their campaign in the most widely broadcast debate to date, it was probably Mike de Jong.

      He demonstrated yet again his propensity to be a ham when statesmanship is called for.

      His opening and closing statements, like many of his mid-debate contributions, were too obvious “performances” that looked glib, affected, inauthentic, and almost carnylike in character.

      By and large, de Jong’s pitch was over the top, as it so often is in question period, in trying to earn cheers from the cheap seats.

      Whether he was speaking about his “vision”, his prescription for bottom-up rather than top-down politics (which is belied by Rich Coleman’s inappropriate endorsement), or Dianne Watts’s limited grasp of the issues, de Jong was in full swing.

      I could almost hear him channeling Robert Preston, appealing to the good folks of River City.

      “Trouble! Oh, we got trouble. Right there in Surrey City. With a capital ‘T’ that rhymes with ‘D’ and that stands for Dianne!

      “Terrible, terrible, trouble, my friends. In the NDP, with a capital 'P' which rhymes with 'she', that I’ll rem-e-dy. If you vote for me!”

      His opening statement was especially hard to take.

      "I've served this party for 24 years. Each time I have taken on a task, I have delivered," de Jong promised the party faithful with studied gusto. "If you entrust me with the task of leadership, I'll deliver!"

      Remarkably, no one called him on that boast, which NDP Attorney General David Eby has done so much to eviscerate in his damning indictment of de Jong’s tenure, at least in respect of housing, gaming enforcement, and preventing money laundering.

      Somewhere in China, John Horgan is smiling.

      After last night’s sorry show, he can only pray that Green party leader Andrew Weaver actually follows through on his threats to bring down the NDP government over its efforts to promote LNG in B.C..

      With a big lead in the opinion polls and a B.C. Liberal party that is currently ripping its next leader’s credibility to shreds, that new leader will have a tougher time uniting his or her party and caucus after the damage all candidates did to each other in prime time.

      Whoever prevails, it is no wonder Horgan looked so happy yesterday, standing on the Great Wall of China.

      I’d say he was really the big winner last night, as a leader who now stands head and shoulders above his Liberal competitors and whose party would win a massive majority if an election happened any time soon.

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      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, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at bcpundit@gmail.com.

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