The leaders of B.C.'s political parties squared off Friday morning in a radio debate in Vancouver, the first time voters got a chance to hear all four leaders challenge each other face-to-face.
Two themes emerged very early on: Whether in fact the Liberals had balanced the budget, and exactly when NDP Leader Adrian Dix made his decision to oppose the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
Both issues raise questions about the transparency of the two major parties as voters head to the ballot box on May 14.
According to a recently released Angus Reid poll, the NDP currently hold a 14-point lead over the Liberals.
Liberal Leader Christy Clark sounded comfortable and upbeat in her old stomping ground at CKNW, where she used to host her own radio program. When moderator Bill Good asked her to give an example of an accomplishment she was proud of as premier, she turned immediately to the way she's handled the provincial budget.
"I became premier two years ago, and I inherited a deficit and I said we are going to get government spending under control. We've done it … And then I said, 'alright, now we have government spending under control, we're going to balance the budget,' " Ms. Clark explained. "We did that. And now that we've balanced the budget, we are in a position to put our province on a path to a debt-free B.C."
Ms. Clark added that the "out-of-control spending" her opponents are proposing would take B.C. in the wrong direction.
Immediately Ms. Clark came under fire.
"I would challenge Ms. Clark on the fact that this government has controlled spending. It simply hasn't. Debt in B.C. doubled under the NDP in the '90s and it's doubled again under the Liberals," Conservative Leader John Cummins said. "In fact, under Ms. Clark's tutelage the debt in British Columbia has increased by $11-billion."
Mr. Dix followed that up with perhaps the best zinger of the debate.
"The only person in B.C. who thinks the budget is balanced is Premier Clark," he said. The fact of the matter is that the premier has been in power for two years ... In the first year, the rate of growth of government spending went up. In the second year the rate of growth of government spending went up. And the year we're in … what happened was they missed their deficit targets. So I think it's wrong to take an approach to these issues that simply lays out campaign slogans. Balancing the budget is hard work."
Mr. Dix added that the Liberals' strategy of selling off government assets near an election was hiding fiscal realities.
According to credit rating agency Moody's, the provincial fiscal situation might not be as rosy as Ms. Clark is presenting.
"The negative outlook reflects the risks to the province's ability to reverse the recent accumulation in debt," Moody's said recently. "A return to a stable outlook ... would require an achievement of the province's fiscal targets that stabilizes and ultimately reverses the recent accumulation in debt over the medium term."
In terms of selling of surplus properties, the credit agency said "these one-time sales cannot be relied on to resolve structural budget imbalances."
But it wasn't only Ms. Clark who came under fire. The debate picked up its intensity when Mr. Dix was questioned about his position on twinning the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
Mr. Dix publicly opposed the project for the first time on Monday, but had previously said he would wait to make a decision until there had been an environmental assessment.
On Friday, Mr. Dix reiterated his position, saying, "We don't want to transform this coast, metro Vancouver, this port, into an oil tanker port … What I'm saying is clearly now, where I stand … I don't think that this port should become an oil tanker port."
Ms. Clark made her move.
"To me that suggests a pattern of behaviour, Mr. Dix. You conceal your position on Kinder Morgan for months, you conceal your platform and what you want to do on the issues that matter to British Columbians for months, and if you're concealing those things from us, what else are you keeping from us? … People need to know where each of us stands."
B.C. Green Party Leader Jane Sterk also questioned Mr. Dix's position.
"I think that what I'm hearing is an election ploy, to say 'we're against Kinder Morgan' because that's what their NDP base wants and that's what most British Columbians want, but I don't really hear that they're against Kinder Morgan. I just hear they're against increased tanker traffic in the Vancouver harbour," she said.
While Ms. Sterk didn't get the airtime Mr. Dix or Ms. Clark did, she was able to get strong jabs in, and articulated her party's positions clearly.
Mr. Dix responded by saying that an NDP government would immediately get B.C. out of an agreement with Ottawa that gives the National Energy Board the discretion to make decisions on major energy projects. He did not clarify his position on Kinder Morgan.
After the debate, the issue dominated media interviews. Mr. Dix maintained he made his decision on Kinder Morgan only this past Monday. At one point, a reporter called Mr. Dix "disingenuous" for not telling British Columbians the truth, implying Mr. Dix made his decision on the project much earlier, just not publically.
Ms. Clark, talking with reporters afterward, said the issue should raise the question of "trust" for voters.
When she was questioned about whether in fact she had read credit rating reports that paints a gloomy picture of the provincial fiscal situation, Ms. Clark began reading specific passages of the reports from her smartphone.
"What all three [agencies] have said … is that they would not maintain a Triple-A credit rating, the best credit rating in the world, here in British Columbia, if we do not balance our budget, if we do not maintain fiscal discipline…And they did maintain our Triple-A credit rating because they do believe the budget is balanced."
The four leaders will square off next in a live televised debate on Monday night.