B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark went on the offensive Monday night against NDP Leader Adrian Dix in the only televised leaders debate of the provincial election campaign, seeking traction for her governing party running far behind New Democrats in the polls.
The 90-minute debate was widely seen as a pivotal moment in the 28-day campaign, coming at the halfway mark and with public-opinion surveys pointing to an NDP return to power for the first time since 2001. An Angus-Reid poll last week had the party running 14 points ahead of the Liberals.
B.C. Conservative Leader John Cummins and B.C. Green Party Leader Jane Sterk were also on stage – neither party had any seats in the legislature at dissolution – and there were a few charged exchanges, especially when Ms. Clark and Mr. Dix individually took on Mr. Cummins.
At one point, Ms. Clark questioned Mr. Cummins, a former Tory MP, about his understanding of Google given three candidates for his party have been ousted for controversial remarks in social media and newspaper columns. Mr. Cummins responded that his volunteer vetters did their best, but at least Conservatives had ousted candidates when they were exposed.
But with no knockout punch, the debate largely boiled down to a series of high-spirited clashes between the leading contenders, Mr. Dix and Ms. Clark, reflecting themes each has raised at a distance on the campaign trail.
Ms. Clark, for example, repeatedly targeted Mr. Dix's recent stand on the proposed $5.4-billion expansion of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline. Mr. Dix has been under fire for declaring his opposition to the link between Alberta and the Lower Mainland after saying he wouldn't prejudge the project until specific plans were filed for federal environmental assessment.
But the NDP Leader, who is thought to have been trying to shore up his environmental base with the decision, made a virtue of his declaration on the pipeline. "I decided, upon reflection, to make our position clear before the election," said Mr. Dix.
Ms. Clark faced pointed questions from moderator Jennifer Burke and other candidates about points ranging from her driving through a red light with her son and newspaper reporter in tow to being supportive of the unpopular harmonized sales tax that was defeated in a referendum.
Ms. Clark apologized for her driving infraction – "I was wrong to do it" – and noted her government had respected the public view on the tax, which is being replaced with the pre-HST status quo.
The Liberal Leader in return accused Mr. Dix of being vague about his spending plans.
"I believe in growing the economy. You believe in growing government," Ms. Clark told Mr. Dix.
An amused Mr. Dix said Ms. Clark had no credibility on debt reduction: "The Premier has debt free on the side of her bus, but is overseeing the largest increase in debt in B.C. history."
The NDP Leader, a former chief of staff to ex-NDP premier Glen Clark elected an MLA in 2005, faced a question from Ms. Burke on one of the darkest moments of his political career – backdating a memo on a casino application to protect Mr. Clark. Mr. Dix was fired over his actions.
Ms. Burke noted that Mr. Dix had said he was under stress when he took the action so wondered how he could square that with the stress of being premier.
"I take responsibility and have ever since," said Mr. Dix. "I own the mistake.
Monday's fast-paced debate format (no answer could exceed 45 seconds) was framed around four main issues – the environment, the economy, leadership and social issues – with questions posed by Ms. Burke to each of the four leaders, and by the leaders to each other. The televised exchange, coming right after the supper-hour newscasts, was expected to draw upward of one million viewers.
Ms. Clark was thought to have a clear advantage going into the debate, having honed her on-air communications skills in her years as a radio talk-show host. Mr. Dix struggles to get his points across in short soundbites.
But despite appearing nervous at first, the NDP Leader seemed to quickly find his footing, according to Mario Canseco, vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion. "There were no major punches for him either, but he did well on the question related to the memo of the 1990s, sounding more contrite than Ms. Clark when she was asked about running a red light," said Mr. Canseco.
Hamish Telford, a political scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley, said it was a good contest between the leaders but he didn't think much would change in the overall campaign. "I look to see who helped themselves the most or the least," said Prof. Telford. "On that count, Jane Sterk probably helped her party the most, and John Cummins the least. Christy Clark may have saved her party from a blowout, but Adrian Dix is probably still the front-runner."