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The lone Green Party MLA in the B.C. legislature, Andrew Weaver, has called out NDP Leader John Horgan as a coward.

The accusation was prompted by one of the strangest moments in the spring legislative session that just wrapped up: Premier Christy Clark was baffled when Mr. Horgan abruptly cut short what was expected to be a lengthy one-on-one exchange with her on her $9-million office budget. Ms. Clark had to be prompted to move a motion to approve the spending plan – a motion that would end debate with the support of the NDP. Mr. Weaver was not in the House.

Ms. Clark can be heard asking the Clerk of the House: "Are you sure that was legally done?"

As a prelude to the coming B.C. election campaign, this moment is revealing and Mr. Weaver pounced on it. Mr. Weaver was upset because, by shutting down debate on the Premier's ministerial budget a day early, Mr. Horgan denied the Green Party Leader the opportunity to ask his own questions of Ms. Clark. "It was cowardly," Mr. Weaver fumed in a blog posting. "The fact that the Leader of the Opposition would run away from an opportunity to question the Premier on a diverse array of issues is cowardly. It's his job to do so. It certainly appears that he is afraid of challenging the Premier face-to-face."

The annual budget debate between the premier and the leader of the opposition is never limited to spending within the premier's office. It is a prime showcase for the two leaders and is analyzed as a preview for the televised debates during the election campaign when voters tune in and make critical assessments of whom they think they would like to see as the province's next premier.

The NDP House Leader, Mike Farnworth, said in an interview Mr. Horgan abandoned the debate early because he had meetings in Whistler to attend. The Green MLA's accusations of cowardice are "straight nonsense," Mr. Farnworth said. "That is Weaver lashing out because of the criticism he faced over backing Christy Clark."

This has been the pattern on the opposition side of the House for the past three years since Mr. Weaver was elected. The Green MLA has been more of a thorn in the side of the opposition New Democrats than the B.C. Liberals – in fact, Ms. Clark delights in giving Mr. Weaver a platform. She passed one of his private member's bills, he defended her against attacks over her $50,000 stipend from the B.C. Liberal party: They have a comfortable working relationship.

Truncated as it was, there was a debate between Mr. Horgan and Ms. Clark on the afternoon of May 11, and it did offer glimpses of the campaign to come. The Premier delivered what is shaping up to be her party's preferred theme: The economy is thriving in British Columbia because of the Liberal government's investments in skills training and pursuit of economic development. And she slipped in the message, whenever possible, that a vote for the NDP would be a vote for higher taxes: "There isn't a new tax that they don't love," she quipped.

Mr. Horgan used his time to focus on trouble spots in the economy, and he foreshadowed NDP campaign themes of housing affordability and education funding. He fired at the Premier for evading his questions: "I can just continue to ask questions. Hopefully, the Premier will get up and, rather than accuse me of whatever sins she seems to want to lay at my feet for things gone by and things in the future, maybe focus on the challenges that British Columbians are facing today. It's always about affordability." And he chided her for a lack of substance: "You push a button and out spits some rhetoric. It's really quite magical."

Mr. Horgan's shots will resonate with NDP supporters, and rallying his base is part of the path to victory. But the NDP base is not enough to win an election in British Columbia. Mr. Horgan needs to persuade new voters, swing voters and disaffected Liberal voters to cast a ballot for his party. He needs to look and sound like a premier in waiting.

And this is where Mr. Weaver, who represents just one seat, steps back into the picture. He is expected to be included in the television debates in the election campaign next spring. And while the Premier and the Official Opposition Leader trade attacks, Mr. Weaver hopes to score points by being different.

"The approach of the NDP is one of criticism and hurling abuse without providing substantive solutions or options. That is the niche the B.C. Greens are trying to fill. We are here to solve real problems," Mr. Weaver said in an interview. Accusing the NDP Leader of cowardice, of course, doesn't fit that narrative. Mr. Weaver will need to remember which message he wants to deliver.