Martyn Brown: In Tuesday’s B.C. election leaders’ debate, watch for that “invisible fly” on Andrew Wilkinson’s head

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      Before “the fly” actually landed on Mike Pence’s head in the recent vice-presidential debate, we probably would have called Andrew Wilkinson’s past two decades at the centre of his party the hard-to-shake “monkey on his back.”

      But now, in more ways than one, that insect is the better metaphor for all that stands to steal the Liberal leader’s show in Tuesday’s B.C. election leaders’ debate.

      All eyes will be on how NDP premier John Horgan fares in swatting back the attacks from Wilkinson and B.C. Green party leader Sonia Furstenau.

      One might expect them to be as vicious as murder hornets in going after Canada’s most popular premier for imposing his deplorable snap election in the midst of a global pandemic and putting British Columbians’ health at risk—and in seeking to take advantage of the Liberals’ and Greens’ cooperative efforts and vulnerability in this COVID crisis. 

      But Premier Capitalist should have no problem in also capitalizing upon Wilkinson’s own worst enemy that hampers his efforts to make his case in any credible fashion.

      B.C. Liberal Andrew Wilkinson will face some jabs about his record in government before the 2017 election.
      Andrew Wilkinson

      In the end, even with platform promises that would cost the provincial treasury at least five times more than what Horgan has offered through his COVID cash inducements, Wilkinson’s unconscionable vote-buying won’t be enough to refocus this election on his repurposed image. 

      Try as he might, “Low Ball” Andy won’t easily escape the “invisible fly” on his head: the metaphorical one that is sure to remind us of his role in all that stank about Christy Clark’s foul tenure. 

      And also, about his “leadership” as a key B.C. Liberal player for the past two-plus decades. First, as its party president; then as one of Gordon Campbell’s top deputies; then as a senior cabinet member in Clark’s dung heap; and finally as one of the worst opposition leaders in B.C. history.

      When you are light years ahead of your chief opponent, as Horgan is over Wilkinson in the opinion polls, you can afford to casually and calmly brush aside his wholly annoying harassment and crush him like a bug, by simply pointing out the obvious: 

      Bzzz. It’s still there on you, Andrew, that invisible fly.

      And it’s too funny for your words, too distracting for serious debate, and too persistent to ignore, in all you would rather we forget about your sorry example in government.

      Eliminating the provincial sales tax and then restoring it to less than half its current rate? 

      Seriously? After how his party lied to all taxpayers and imposed the HST after the 2009 election?


      Why would anyone ever trust the Liberals to honour their PST promise after that fiasco—a promise that I say again is likely a ruse for reintroducing the HST in altered form.

      Pay close attention to the ones who really pull Wilkinson’s strings: the Liberals’ paymasters in the business community, who are already openly advocating for some form of new “value added” tax.

      That idea was also given new expression last week by Kirk LaPointe, publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media. 

      He wrote this:

      “Wilkinson is shrewd enough to know that any recovery requires a few jolts. Ideally, [his PST plan] … would precede a third, more significant step that reforms consumption taxes to introduce a value-added tax—at a lower rate – that would be applied broadly and thus more consistently, with rebates for those in lower-income straits … It is an intelligent but complex fix, not easily explored in the short, virtual campaign we occupy. But the system we have is eating us alive.

      “For all of the pivots that governments are trying to effect, this eventual reform of tax competitiveness ought to be job one. What Wilkinson proposes is a step in that direction.”


      Business in Vancouver columnist Kirk LaPointe has suggested that Wilkinson could eventually introduce a more broadly based value-added tax.

      “Nonsense, that’s not in our plans,” the B.C. Liberals will surely say, just as they did the last time they dishonestly tried to impose that tax trick. 

      Hell, I even believed that when I wrote those words in response to a 2009 election survey. Because that is what I was repeatedly assured by the premier and finance minister, who only found their HST religion when the true depth of the global financial crisis really set in.

      Keep your eye on the fly, I say.

      What that 2009 financial calamity did to B.C.’s finances was nothing compared to what the COVID crisis has already inflicted. Its fiscal damage is going to get much, much worse, year after year. 

      It will be even worse if Wilkinson’s Liberals somehow manage to form the government and cut taxes as they are proposing, thereby robbing the province of over one-quarter of its total tax revenue.

      Or what about Wilkinson’s subsequent promise to also eliminate the small business income tax?


      It was his government, when Wilkinson sat at the centre of Christy Clark’s cabinet, that broke that same promise that had been enshrined in the budget as part of the Campbell Liberals’ plan for a “revenue neutral” carbon tax.

      It was right there in Table 3 in the 2010/11 Fiscal Plan.

      The increased revenue from the carbon tax was legally “committed” in part to reduce the small business income tax rate “to zero by April 1, 2012”.

      The Clark government reneged on that promise and simply rewrote the budget.

      Moreover, Wilkinson now maintains that eliminating that small business income tax would “only” likely cost about $220 million.

      Curious, considering that same budget document a decade ago pegged the cost of scrapping that tax at $338 million, if it had been implemented as promised in 2012.


      NDP Leader John Horgan's friendly demeanour has boosted his popularity with voters.
      John Horgan

      Wilkinson’s Liberals and Horgan’s NDP would both have Surrey voters believe that they are the answer to commuters’ woes. Horgan now promises to extend the SkyTrain out to Langley as his new transportation priority.

      How ironic. 

      In 2010, a full decade ago, then-premier Gordon Campbell said this in his “death-bed” speech to the Union of B.C. Municipalties convention:

      “It's time to get started doing the SkyTrain to Langley City which has planned itself to actually provide the opportunities for the future that are required to make sure that transit works. It's time to get ready to build a rapid bus from Langley to Chilliwack. It's time to build rapid transit to UBC. 

      “It's time we got started. We decided finally on the technology. We made the decisions … so we can get on with building the kind of communities and cities that we need that will serve the needs of our citizens.”

      What happened, instead? 

      The Clark cabinet immediately killed that vision that so many of its Liberal members applauded as “visionary” when Campbell announced it, which the NDP also ridiculed as too expensive and unwise at the time.


      The list of B.C. Liberal promises made and broken is as long as Wilkinson’s exhaustive résumé.

      Really, Wilkinson a sudden champion for child care? After his party’s concerted efforts to frustrate every one of the GreeNDP’s initiatives to expand that crucial service? Give your head a shake, Andrew, you’re too funny.

      His Liberals, a champion for affordable housing? Are you kidding me? 

      After all they did to create the problem in the first place, as they did the ICBC dumpster fire that Wilkinson now promises to douse with new fuel?


      Combatting homelessness, opioid addictions, and the mental health crisis? Wilkinson’s suddenly now got a plan? 

      They are all the direct result of his party’s failure in government and his time in office as B.C.’s attorney general.

      I could go on, as I’m so prone to do, but you get the point.

      There isn’t a single thing that Low Ball Andy can criticize during Tuesday’s debate that Horgan should not be able to easily deflect by happily pointing to that comical fly hovering on and over Wilkinson’s own hopelessly vulnerable head.

      I can’t wait to see the memes. 

      B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau's best bet is to make the case that her party is the best bet to hold the NDP accountable.
      Sonia Furstenau

      However much Wilkinson drones on about the NDP’s failings, and whatever angry assaults he might land on his politically adroit nemesis, we should have all learned a few things from past leaders’ debates.

      One, they usually don’t fundamentally change the trajectory of any campaign, let alone its outcome.

      Two, they are just as easy to turn off as to turn on, whenever voters lose patience and interest with the spectacle on their screens.

      As Horgan said, he flipped to Wheel of Fortune after only weathering 12 minutes of the recent presidential “debate”.

      Three, the winner of any debate is usually not the one who is the most aggressive bully and most adept at overwhelming the viewers’ policy-hammered heads; it’s typically the one who is most likable, least flappable, and best at connecting with voters’ hearts.

      And on that score, Horgan’s already won, at least in comparison to the Liberal leader.

      Horgan’s comes across as being more likable and affable, which is nine-tenths of the strategic challenge in winning any televised debate.

      After winning his party’s 2018 leadership race, Wilkinson famously said that his central mission in opposition was to “get under John Horgan’s skin” and to ask questions that “will make their skin crawl”.


      Flies seem to go for the ones who are most smug, arrogant, pious, and intensely disagreeable. Especially if their party is also rotten to the core.

      Wilkinson doesn’t have to do much but just be himself in the debate, to succeed in getting under most B.C. voters’ skin and make their skin crawl.

      What about Sonia Furstenau, then? 

      Slapping her aside won’t be quite so easy for Horgan, if she is as sharp and biting in her time-limited strikes as her campaign performance to date suggests she will be.

      No doubt, she will have to draw some serious blood in the debate to very much hurt Horgan’s party as things now stand, with its 18-point lead, with his 61 percent approval rating, and with the NDP leading the B.C. Liberals in every age group and on every issue.  

      Yet, Furstenau is uniquely positioned to make her mark as someone not to be trifled with, let alone discounted or disparaged, as she has been by Horgan of late.

      If anyone can get his blood boiling, it is probably her, if she is as capable a debater as she has proved herself to be a leader in her first couple weeks in that role for the Greens.

      As the only woman and youngest leader on the stage, Furstenau obviously enjoys a singular advantage that she should be able to deftly exploit in connecting with voters in ways that her two much older male opponents will struggle mightily to achieve.

      From how she looks and sounds, to what she says and conveys, Furstenau is so much different than Horgan or Wilkinson—or for that matter, from most contemporary leaders.

      What she really needs to demonstrate is her effectiveness as an opposition leader: one who knows how to leave her mark on Horgan’s widely expected NDP majority government and who is surprisingly fearless and deadly in her attacks.

      Her central mission is actually not to communicate what her party might do in government, which is ludicrous to seriously contempate at this stage in this election game. 

      Nor is it to make us imagine what policies her party might force Horgan to adopt, given the infinitesimal odds of her Greens again holding the balance of power in another minority government.

      Rather, it is to first convince undecided and swing voters that she and her team are uniquely able to hold Horgan’s government accountable on the issues that are most closely associated with the Green “brand”. 

      Namely, honesty and integrity in government, trust, meaningful and urgent climate action, and better environmental stewardship and protection.

      Yes, Furstenau will have lots of opportunities in the debate to share her party’s ideas and vision on other important issues, but her strategic opportunity is unmistakable: it’s in presenting her party’s merit in opposition beyond what it was able to communicate as a formal partner in power sharing with the NDP.

      In doing that, she needs to come hard after Horgan for his government’s betrayals and shortcomings, and fundamentally introduce herself as B.C.’s own champion for progressive change and accountable government.

      She needs to show both her iron fist and her passionate heart, in the spirit of America’s Elizabeth Warren and/or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Canada’s brilliant and compelling new federal Green party leader, Annamie Paul.

      It’s hard not to look at Furstenau and not conjure up Jacinda Ardern, a leader of a similar mold, who is poised to be reelected as New Zealand’s prime minister, in likely coalition with the Green party. 

      “Sonia” also needs to make the case that women and younger British Columbians would especially benefit from having at least a few new Green voices in the legislature: true champions for climate action who won’t be so easily patronized, marginalized or dismissed by the two business-as-usual men who would be king.

      If she does that, it should be at least fun to watch that debate on Tuesday.

      I, for one, will be pulling for her to take a satisfying chunk out of Horgan’s hubristic hide for his opportunistic gambit in leveraging partisan gain from this COVID crisis.

      And I hope to revel in watching both Horgan and Furstenau focus on that hilarious bug in Wilkinson’s ointment: the one that stands to again consign his B.C. Liberals to another long spell alongside the B.C. Greens in opposition.

      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