Martyn Brown: The Great Debate-that-wasn’t was Horgan’s ultimate victory

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      There was much to commend about last night’s B.C. leaders’ debate, as the Straight’s Charlie Smith has so aptly analyzed in his balanced critique of its hits, misses and questionable moments.

      As I predicted, the mainstream media verdict seems to be that Sonia Furstenau did the best job, other than the moderator Shachi Kurl. And John Horgan and Andrew Wilkinson both acquitted themselves well enough to avoid catastrophe, if not enough to alter the trajectory of this election.

      In that sense, Furstenau’s win was mostly Wilkinson’s loss and Horgan’s ticket to ride.

      With the polls portending an NDP landslide, today the B.C. Liberals have little new reason for optimism, while the B.C. Greens will be newly energized, hopeful that they might be somehow rewarded with enough votes to again hold the balance of power.

      Yet with the NDP’s massive lead, so many votes already cast and, in the mail, and only nine days to go until October 24, the chances of another minority government are only slightly worse than Donald Trump’s current re-election odds.

      Impossible? Surely not. But about as likely as anyone outside of DOCTOR Andrew’s extended family ever again naming their child after him, touching as that tidbit was in humanizing Wilkinson in the debate.

      To say the stars have all aligned in Horgan’s favour is an understatement, whatever constellations of hope the #bcpoli universe might conjure to cast doubt on the pollsters’ mad science.  

      At this point in the campaign—in light of last night’s tame and tepid affair—it would appear that only voter apathy can now save the Liberals’ oh-so-sorry arses.

      With over a third of the ballots to be cast via mail, and with COVID-related concerns and preoccupations likely to suppress voter turnout, complacency is now the NDP’s chief threat.

      Trouble is, for the Liberals, it is probably their candidates who stand to be most hurt by that malaise from lack of motivation.

      It is a condition that Andrew Wilkinson, M.D. failed spectacularly to effectively treat last night, or so far in this campaign.

      People tend to be motivated to vote for the government they think is going to win. Naturally, they hope to tip that balance more firmly in their party’s favour and assure a local voice in the government caucus and cabinet.

      It’s generally easier to get excited and enthused for likely winners than for widely assumed losers who languish in the public opinion basement for demonstrably good reason.

      Compounding that problem for the Liberals is that it will be especially tough in this election for them to motivate, identify and get out their vote, as they did so well in Christy Clark’s surprise come-from-behind victory in 2013.

      And if Wilkinson has proved anything, it’s that he is certainly not half the campaigner she was. And unlike her, his “fan club” is nonexistent, to put it charitably. 

      Equally important, John Horgan is no Adrian Dix. 

      One, Horgan’s the premier and most voters like him in that role. Two, he is—as the pollsters like to test—the leader that most voters would most like to have a beer or coffee with. 

      And three, he bloody well knows how to effectively campaign and debate, without letting his chief rival off the hook. 

      Even when Horgan’s “going negative” he sounds positive and he looks like he is having more fun the madder and more pissy his opponents get. 

      As for the operational mechanics that were so central to Clark’s surprise victory, in this virtual campaign, there is virtually no door knocking and no face-to-face voter contact.

      Along with the phone lines, that direct voter engagement is the lifeblood of any successful campaign. 

      Campaign events with enthusiastic crowds perpetuate their own momentum with compelling visuals made for television news, which in turn help to drive voter turnout. All of that’s missing for Wilkinson in this campaign that has given most voters more reason to tune out than the opposite.

      Phone contact was already hard enough. It’s likely exponentially more challenging this election, both because of the technological impediments that pollsters are also struggling to surmount and because of the negative impact of the COVID crisis on voters’ political patience and interest.

      With mail-in ballots playing such a central role, the parties won’t even know who voted until potentially weeks after election day. Lots of voters have already marked their ballots and sent them in. 

      None of the parties will be physically transporting their identified supporters to the polls, to any significant extent. 

      Come election day, many voters will probably tell all of the parties’ phone canvassers that they have or will be casting their ballots by mail, whether that’s true or not, just to stop being pestered.

      If the polls show the Liberals having seemingly no chance to win, many more voters will likely not care enough to bother trundling out to their local polling station to cast their ballots in this campaign that is viral in all the wrong ways.

      B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau mentioned education in the debate, but it wasn't the focus of a single question from the broadcast consortium.
      Sonia Furstenau

      Furstenau beats expectations

      What about the Greens?

      Certainly, Furstenau did her best in the debate to inspire her supporters to vote, if not quite enough to convince many NDP voters to change their minds and abandon Horgan’s team.

      I’d be surprised if she did not at least save her own seat with her strong showing.

      To the extent that the Greens rise in the polls by a few points in the next week, it should give NDP supporters new motivation to get out and vote in helping to shore up Horgan’s widely expected majority government.

      A little nervousness is always the best impetus for any party leading in the polls, let alone when it is as far out in front of the competition as the NDP apparently is.

      Barring an unlikely sea change in voting intention, driven largely by the media’s desire to sell more papers and attract more listeners and viewers, that healthy fear of a Green surge should primarily play to the NDP’s advantage. 

      When the dust settles on this campaign, it probably won’t be any of the leaders’ performance in yesterday’s refreshingly civil affair that proved to be pivotal.

      Rather, it will be the Great Debate-that-wasn’t that proves to be Horgan’s ultimate victory.

      And no one bears more responsibility for that than the mainstream media.

      Let’s start with the leaders’ debate itself.

      How is it possible to have a single 90-minute debate in the middle of a global pandemic that failed to even directly focus on the future of health care as such, in any comprehensive sense? 

      The section of the debate ostensibly focussed on the COVID crisis was a convoluted mess of issues that I suppose was meant to substitute as well for a focused discussion on the economy.

      What were the debate organizers thinking in deciding that education did not warrant a single question, notwithstanding Furstenau’s reference to that issue? 

      And during a debate held on the UBC campus, no less? It was a glaring and even offensive omission.

      Not a single question about school safety. Not a single question about each leader’s vision for K-12 or postsecondary learning. Nary a question about how curriculums and course offerings stand to be affected by all we’ve witnessed, learned and endured over the last year especially?

      Remarkable. And depressing.

      We will be told that time did not allow any substantive questions from the moderator on such specific topics as child protection, public safety per se, transportation and public transit, B.C.’s place in Canada, or any number of other vital concerns.

      There wasn’t any focused discussion on each party’s economic recovery plans, other than some discussion about LNG and energy issues. Yet that was Horgan’s initial rationale for calling this election, supposedly, to canvass voters and let them decide who’s got the best plan to help B.C. businesses and families make it through this pandemic and get our economy back on its feet.

      There was nothing directly aimed at probing the fiscal consequences and related service impacts and tax implications that will flow from each party’s unprecedented vote-buying plans

      Nothing about how to deal with the massive new debt burden that is being unavoidably imposed by COVID. That is, other than Wilkinson’s ludicrous and utterly unsupported assurance that he will somehow balance the books in five years, with all he hopes to add to the debt.

      Not enough time to discuss climate change in any serious depth, let alone so many other crucial environmental concerns, outside of that issue’s one allotted short segment.

      Right. I mean, it’s only the most pressing existential crisis of our times and in all human history.

      B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson didn't push hard for more debates, which leaves him in a tough position in advance of the election.
      Andrew Wilkinson

      Opposition parties dropped the ball

      So why on Earth would the “broadcast consortium” organizing that debate not insist from the outset on a series of televised debates?

      We typically have at least have one radio leaders’ debate and one televised debate in British Columbia’s election. 

      Tomorrow (October 15) we’ll get treated to that radio debate on CKNW.

      But why, I ask, haven’t Wilkinson and Furstenau been leading that charge for more debates in this election of all elections? 

      Why did neither of them put out that appeal and challenge to Horgan last night? Talk about a missed strategic political opportunity.

      If those two leaders and the media wonder why the polls haven’t moved an inch since Horgan dropped the writ, they should look in the mirror.

      It’s because some 61 percent of the electorate approved of the premier’s performance—the highest approval rating of any premier in Canada—and this virtual election has done little to engage voters in any way that might alter that fact.

      The Great Debate-that-wasn’t is exactly what Horgan had hoped to capitalize upon by calling his snap election with Dr. Bonnie Henry’s tacit blessing.

      His hoped-for snoozefest is unfolding precisely as he planned.

      Instead of the major media, Wilkinson and Furstenau all making a loud and compelling case for multiple leaders’ debates that Horgan would feel pressured into accepting, they have all turtled in deference to his “silence is golden” strategy.

      No one has been tougher on Horgan than I have for his decision to impose this widely unwanted early election on B.C. voters. But I have to say, as I also predicted, his political strategy is working like a hot damn.

      In this COVID campaign, the only real hope that his antagonists had to fundamentally “bend the curve” in their direction in the hopes of flattening the NDP’s rising support was to increase the number of leaders’ debates to increase public engagement.

      As Horgan has so expertly shown, weathering one debate is no problem. Especially when you’re as knowledgeable, competent, likable, articulate, and justifiably confident as he is.

      But focus on just a few issues in any given debate, and give your opponents more opportunities to make their mark and communicate directly to the voters over the course of multiple debates, and you never know what might happen.

      Fortunately for the NDP, we will never know how the Greens might have risen in the polls if “Sonia” had done more to make her own case to be given more than one chance to shine in a leaders’ debate.

      Meanwhile, if the present polling numbers hold, Horgan will have to put Wilkinson at the top of his Christmas card list for doing such a piss-poor job in making his initial case for at least three leaders’ debates.

      It’s like he threw that out there once, half-heartedly, and then immediately embraced the one-debate decision.

      At no point in this campaign has the premier seriously had to defend his government’s record and vision in depth on any of the issues that all of the leaders paid lip service to last night, to the extent those issues were even discussed.

      Then again, perhaps that’s just as well for Wilkinson, given the comparatively stellar job that Horgan’s administration has done in governing with the Greens’ active support for the last three-and-a-half years.

      There is a reason, after all, that Horgan’s NDP government is so popular with every age group and in virtually every region of our province. 

      And that has to do with its perceived performance, on COVID especially. In contrast to the Liberals’ cumulative record in government. And in recognition of the many problems that they left for the GreeNDP alliance to address.

      Horgan didn’t harp much on those problems of the Liberals’ own making last night. Furstenau pretty much ignored them altogether, along with the Horgan government’s most obvious public policy shortcomings, in essentially making her plea for another minority government.

      No matter. 

      Wilkinson seems to be more than capable of generating his party’s own new fodder for criticism. And also, of proving Horgan the most effective leader to govern B.C.

      Still, I have to wonder how the course of this election might have been altered if the deacons in the legislative press gallery had used their social media bully pulpits to press for more debates.

      I have to wonder how much better or worse each of the leaders and parties would have fared if they had been obliged to engage each other in multiple forums that were as helpful to voters as last night’s prime time dialogue surely was.

      I think there would have been a public appetite for that, with each debate potentially fuelling more viewer/listener interest in the next. 

      Oh, well. 

      On the plus side, all the parties have now released their full platforms. The Greens issued theirs today and it certainly has no shortage of aspirational ideas and spending priorities. The Liberals’ sweeping “buy now, pay later” platform can be downloaded here and the NDP’s full “sky’s the limit” plan is available here.

      If nothing else, we now know that is in fact possible to have a televised leaders’ debate that is a credit to all of its participants and that should set a new standard as the most respectful debate ever in B.C. history.

      Yet it was the Great Debate-that-wasn’t that was Horgan’s ultimate victory in this decidedly ignorable virtual campaign-that-isn’t.

      And we are all the losers for that missed opportunity that Wilkinson, Furstenau, and the media all did their part to legitimize without dissent.

      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