The BC Liberals’ self-admitted inability to connect with voters was the theme of their inaugural leadership debate on Sunday.
The six candidates made their pitches to a packed hall of more than 600 party supporters in Surrey.
But no matter who was speaking, the topic of the day was how the BC Liberals had failed to translate their message of jobs, economic growth and balanced budgets into one of tangible benefits for B.C. voters.
“The platform didn’t reflect what that meant to people in their own lives,” said former Surrey mayor and Conservative MP Diane Watts. “We lost 11 seats, 10 of those in the Lower Mainland. We stopped listening. We stopped connecting.”
Former transportation minister Todd Stone agreed.
“We were seen as to not be listening to British Columbians, particularly here in Metro Vancouver,” he said.
Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee put the blame on the opposition and the press.
“I believe that we need to change the narrative,” said Lee. “We need to get past the false choices that the NDP and the media have set up in this province.”
South of the Fraser has been painted as a key battleground for the party and Watts, as former mayor and South Surrey-White Rock MP, pressed for the hometown advantage as she pledged to improve Surrey’s transportation corridors.
“We have four stops in North Surrey and that was Expo ‘86. That’s the rapid transit line we have here in Surrey,” said Watts. She reiterated her support for the Massey Bridge but told the crowd it had to be part of a comprehensive transportation plan for B.C.
Former finance minister Mike de Jong went one step further.
“I think we should pick up where the Expo line ends at the King George Station and carry it through to Langley.”
Watts and de Jong weren’t the only two to focus on Lower Mainland losses.
“I think we’ve all had that experience of watching the election result and seeing how much we lost in the eastern suburbs,” said Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Andrew Wilkinson. “Those are areas we should have won and the reason we didn’t is that we were preaching at people from 30,000 feet, telling them about credit ratings and debt-to-GDP ratio. It meant nothing in their living rooms.”
De Jong agreed.
“All of these terms that we use… balanced budgets, credit ratings, they are code for one thing: choices,” he said.
Housing was a key issue for all debaters.
Vancouver-False Creek MLA Sam Sullivan said that housing prices one of the top two threats to B.C. communities, telling the crowd that “large areas of [the Lower Mainland] are now reserved for only luxury housing; single, detached homes.”
Despite record-breaking illicit drug overdose numbers hitting record highs last week, only Sullivan made a promise to tackle the issue during the debate.
People with addictions need “the opportunity to wean themselves off… right now it’s illegal for a drug addict to wean themselves off drugs. The drugs are illegal.”
Sullivan pitched a reformed HST tax, which he dubbed the MST tax: everything the HST had but “minus haircuts and Chinese food.”
Candidates across the board promised to make B.C. a hospitable province for its ever-growing tech sector. Stone told the crowd that he would bring tech education to the province’s kids. Watts promised to fix procurement issues that she said dogged Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard.
But overall, there was a focus from several candidates that whoever party members picked to represent them in the legislature, that person would also have to represent B.C. to the world.
As Lee put it, “they need to sell the B.C. brand.”
All current candidates, except for Lucy Sager, a Terrace businesswoman – turned out for the debate. The day before the debate, former education minister Mike Bernier dropped out of the race, offering his support to de Jong.
This was the first of six debates that will take place across the province in the lead up to the BC Liberals leadership convention in February.
Watch the debate below: