Halfway through the B.C. election campaign, leaders of the three major parties are heading into a TV studio for a high-stakes debate that could be a turning point ahead of voting on May 9.
The second debate of the campaign will take place Wednesday and this one is being planned and executed by a consortium of broadcasters turning over their supper-hour news slots for the proceedings featuring BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark, NDP Leader John Horgan and Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver.
Last week, a debate broadcast by one TV station in Metro Vancouver aired on a radio station and was streamed on Facebook. This second debate stands to have a much larger audience as consortium members Global BC, CTV Vancouver, CBC Vancouver as well as CPAC clear the airwaves for it. "I have no doubt in my mind that hundreds of thousands of British Columbians will tune into this debate," said Les Staff, a spokesman for the team of broadcasters organizing and airing the event.
Political scientist Hamish Telford says debates such as this week's program matter because they mark the first time many voters tune in to the entire election process. "There are a lot of votes to be had and this is the single best opportunity for all of the leaders to capture some of those votes," said Dr. Telford of the University of the Fraser Valley.
Some viewers will miss the live debate, but catch up on what went on through media analysis and observations from friends – the latter being enhanced by social media.
Last week's debate was marked by aggressive rhetorical attacks by Mr. Horgan on Ms. Clark, including a dynamic in which the NDP Leader complained, multiple times, that moderator Bill Good was giving Ms. Clark more time than him to speak. Ms. Clark said, "Calm down, John," while patting the NDP Leader on the arm. Mr. Horgan snapped back: "Don't touch me again, please."
On Tuesday, Ms. Clark was mindful of the moment, laughing at a news conference when asked whether she would touch Mr. Horgan's arm again.
"No. He doesn't like it. He was a little bit offended," she told reporters at a campaign event in Maple Ridge. Standing at a podium, she touched the arm of a man beside her, and added, "It was kind of a gentle touch."
She added, "I don't want to annoy him any more than I already have."
Jennifer Burke, a Toronto broadcaster with B.C. roots who hosted the 2013 debate and will be hosting this debate, quipped in an interview on Tuesday that the leaders "won't be at touching distance."
Instead, they will each have their own podium, unlike the table used last week. The leaders will take questions based on themes they know in advance without being told of specific questions. Leaders will also have an opportunity to ask each other questions. And questions have been solicited from the public.
Ms. Burke said Ms. Clark, who has been Premier for six years, is better known than either Mr. Horgan, NDP Leader for three years, or Mr. Weaver, first elected in 2013. The debate will introduce the NDP and Green Leaders to many voters.
"My role is basically to be neutral and make sure each leader stays focused on the questions at hand and respect each other," Ms. Burke said. Mr. Horgan has vowed to keep the heat on Ms. Clark, something he repeated on Tuesday. New Democrats, defending Mr. Horgan's debate aggression, have said his attacks on the Liberal Leader rallied their party base.
"I'm going to be who I am and that's John Horgan," Mr. Horgan said when asked about the point.
Ms. Clark dismissed the idea of combative debates being productive.
"Debates are not just about attacking other people. Debates are about saying what you stand for, being courageous about that and being clear with people," Ms. Clark said Tuesday in Maple Ridge.
Mr. Weaver told The Globe and Mail this week that he found the "bickering" between Ms. Clark and Mr. Horgan in the first debate "disrespectful" and he won't follow that pattern.
Still, he said he is excited about provisions of the format in this week's debate that will allow for more direct, designated verbal clashes between leaders.