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B.C. leaders spar in first debate of election campaign

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan brought his aggressive campaign against the BC Liberals into a broadcast studio Thursday for the first of the provincial election campaign debates – a fractious event with tensions elevated by a moment in which Liberal Leader Christy Clark touched the NDP leader's arm.

The debate comes in a campaign where the NDP is aggressively trying to make the case against the Liberals after the NDP's 2013 defeat in a campaign they were expected to win. Instead, the Liberals ended up winning a fourth straight majority mandate.

Much of Thursday's 90-minute debate pitted Mr. Horgan against Ms. Clark while Andrew Weaver, the Leader of the provincial Green Party, was silently on the sidelines, speaking when given the opportunity to do so by moderator Bill Good.

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After multiple complaints by Mr. Horgan that Mr. Good was giving Ms. Clark more time than him – "The clock doesn't seem to be working for Ms. Clark," Mr. Horgan told Mr. Good – Ms. Clark said, "Calm down, John" while patting the NDP leader on the arm. Mr. Horgan snapped back: "Don't touch me again, please."

Asked about the moment following the debate, Mr. Horgan rhetorically said: "What would the response have been if I had laid my hand on the Premier?"

He did not answer his own question, but defended his aggressive tone, saying it did not diminish his stature as a leader, but rather showed that he cares about people.

Ms. Clark told reporters she was surprised at Mr. Horgan's comments. She said her conduct was something colleagues sometimes do. "I certainly didn't intend to offend."

The former cabinet minister and radio talk-show host now in her second campaign as leader – it's the first campaign as leader for Mr. Horgan and Mr. Weaver – added: "Nothing really surprises me about the way debates go."

Mr. Weaver, elected in 2013 as the first Green member of the B.C. legislature, told reporters he was content to avoid the "petty bickering" of the two other leaders and talk about his policies.

Although the Greens are facing a serious challenge from the NDP, especially in Greater Victoria, Mr. Weaver focused his attacks on the Liberals. He told reporters there was little point piling on Mr. Horgan because Ms. Clark was already doing so in a "ruthless" manner.

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The three candidates have been on the campaign trail since last week, but Thursday marked the first time they have been in the same room for a debate. Although billed as a radio debate, the event was broadcast on a regional TV station and also streamed on Facebook Live.

Richard Johnston, a University of British Columbia political scientist, said Mr. Horgan's approach was mystifying.

"It's one thing to have a controlled anger and another to let it boil over," he said, calling the tactic "a high-risk proposition."

Elsewhere in the debate, Mr. Horgan accused Ms. Clark of raising groundless "alternative facts" and wondered if White House spokesman Sean Spicer was going to show up. At another point, Mr. Horgan said he would be content to let Ms. Clark talk while he watched her. "I know you like it," he told her. "You're all politics all the time. You don't know anything but politics." Later he told reporters, "She's a photo-op Premier. She wants to draw attention to herself rather than, in my view, what we need to focus on as political leaders – people."

In turn, Ms. Clark ridiculed the NDP's plan to phase in $10-a-day daycare over a decade if it is elected."You're not going to deliver it until most kids have a drivers' licence," she said.

Over the course of the debate, the leaders talked about transit, rental policy, housing issues, childcare and the Site C hydro project in northern B.C., among other issues.

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During a discussion on the legalization of marijuana, Mr. Horgan and Ms. Clark agreed that allowing 18-year-olds to buy marijuana was not appropriate. Ms. Clark said she supported a limit of "at least 19" given it is the same age for legally being able to buy alcohol. Mr. Horgan also supported setting the age at 19. Through introduced legislation, the federal government is proposing to legalize pot by July 1, 2018, and allow provinces to decide on raising the age from 18.

Mr. Horgan is advancing a program of tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations as well as other measures to pay for an affordability agenda that includes freezing hydro rates and eliminating tolls on a pair of Lower Mainland bridges.

The BC Liberal leader accused Mr. Horgan of effectively raiding the savings of B.C. children through a promised measure to appropriate a $500-million "prosperity fund" to pay for a promise to end the two bridge tolls. While the fund was intended to be funded with revenues from liquefied natural gas, that money has yet to materialize so the Liberal government has filled it using general revenue.

Meanwhile the Liberals are committed to holding the line on spending, cuts in Medical Services Plan premiums and only spending about $150-million in new promises.

Issues about the absence of regulation of political fundraising in British Columbia, a high-profile topic in the months before this campaign, did not come up during the debate.

The next and final debate of the election campaign is scheduled for April 26.

The B.C. election campaign kicked off Tuesday with NDP Leader John Horgan accusing the premier of abandoning everyday British Columbians. The Canadian Press
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