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Post-debate discussion

The real contenders and the also-rans: Caroline Elliott’s observations of the first BC Liberal leadership debate
Photography by John Lehmann
Photography by John Lehmann

As a longtime party member, many-time campaign volunteer, former ministerial staffer, and present-day political panelist, I watched the BC Liberal leadership debate this week with some interest. It was good to see a well-spoken, diverse, and largely respectful group of candidates.

That said, the debate highlighted who the real contenders are, and which ones simply lack the gravitas required.

Going from left to right across the stage:

Michael Lee was calm in his demeanor, incisive yet fair in his questions of others, and, if I’m going to be totally honest, a little bland.

Bland isn’t always a bad thing, though. No one can doubt his commitment to the party and his handle on the issues. And there’s no question his cordiality will serve him well in a ranked ballot scenario. Moreover, the case that he actually increased the BC Liberals’ margin of the vote in his Vancouver riding is a strong one, given that the party needs to do more of that to win.

Ellis Ross came across as an authentic leader, true to his beliefs and sincere in his commitment to make the party and British Columbia better. His rejection of the typical “politician” mantle came across as very real, and his perspective as a Northern and Indigenous leader has and will continue to serve the party and the province well, whether he wins or not.

His biggest challenge going forward will be convincing party members he has the ability to win votes in the critical Lower Mainland, where he has relatively little history.

As presumed front runner, Kevin Falcon had by far the most difficult job.

His opponents’ focus on him had the presumably unintended result of providing him extra air time as he adeptly fended off questions, giving him the opportunity to spell out his unrivalled (at least on that stage) record of service to the party. He exhibited pride in past BC Liberal accomplishments, while identifying missed opportunities that demand attention going forward. His emphasis on his 12 years as MLA for Surrey-Cloverdale bolstered his case that he’s the right leader to win back the suburbs.

Renee Merrifield was a candidate that I knew little about before the race began, and I suspect I wasn’t alone. She spoke expressively and enthusiastically and had a grasp of the numbers and figures behind policy questions.

Ultimately, though, she entered the debate with a need to rebuild some credibility following some controversial perspectives on COVID-19 that recently saw her removed as health critic. (Fellow contenders and caucus mates Ross and Lee also stepped down from their critic roles.) Whether her performance was enough to redirect attention back to her own agenda is debatable.

Next up is Val Litwin, and here’s where it gets a little weird. As a woman, I found it awkward to hear a man describe the many ways in which female leadership is more desirable than male leadership, and then go on to tell people to vote for him, a man, as a means of knocking down barriers for women; why not just endorse Renee and call it good?

Even more uncomfortable was Litwin’s criticism of Falcon’s decade-old choice to focus on his then-very young family, boasting of his own decision to spend time away from his young children as some kind of credential.  Not a great stance to take if you’re looking for female votes.

Last but not least, Gavin Dew. His antagonistic approach seemed designed to combat the fact that he is a relatively unknown figure in BC politics, with his sole run for office (a 2016 byelection in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant) resulting in the single lowest number of votes for a BC Liberal candidate in the party’s modern history.

In terms of approach, party members might question whether his combative tack is good for the party’s long-term interests; recall Andrew Wilkinson’s ICBC-related takedown of Todd Stone in the last leadership contest, which the NDP replayed again and again. At any rate, Dew’s apparent desire to run in a viable seat may well be behind his bid for leadership, and to that end there’s no question his confident debate performance raised his profile.

At the end of the day, I believe half of the candidates showed themselves to be real contenders, demonstrating a grasp of the issues, conducting themselves respectfully, and exhibiting a true desire and ability to build a strong and united party that looked better for the debate, not worse for it. It’s worth noting that all three (Lee, Ross, and Falcon) have held office either formerly or presently as BC Liberal MLAs for at least the equivalent of a full term; the others are relative newcomers.

There are three serious candidates in this race, and if the BC Liberal Party wants to emerge victorious in 2024, it is crucial that members select a credible leader who demonstrates competence, professionalism, maturity, and, most of all, a concern for the long-term interests of the party over their own political fortunes.

Some of the candidates demonstrated that in spades. Others, not so much.

Full disclosure: I personally have chosen to support Kevin Falcon’s campaign for leadership. I encourage all BC Liberal readers to get involved and support the candidate of their choosing.

Caroline Elliott is a PhD candidate in political science at Simon Fraser University