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B.C.'s NDP leadership race heats up with first official candidate debate

British Columbia NDP leadership candidates Nicolas Simons, left, and Mike Farnworth await the start of a debate in Surrey, B.C., on Sunday March 20, 2011.


They all wore dark suits and ties. They all hewed pretty close to the party line on education, jobs, social services and agriculture.

But at the first of nine all-candidates meetings, the five contenders for leadership of the B.C. NDP on Sunday offered party members a real choice on how to approach the next provincial election.

"We're all New Democrats. We all share the same values. We all share the same commitments," MLA Mike Farnworth (Port Coquitlam-Burke Mountain) said in an interview after the meeting.

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"The issue for the [party]members is who can win an election," Mr. Farnworth said, adding that he felt he was in the best position to lead because he brings a wealth of experience as a cabinet minister in the Mike Harcourt government and as an Opposition member critiquing government.

Adrian Dix (Vancouver Kingsway) drew attention to the 1.4-million B.C. voters who did not cast a ballot in the last provincial election. Offering the most detailed policy statements on a range of topics, Mr. Dix said he offered changes that he believed would inspire those who did not vote to show up at the polls.

John Horgan (Juan de Fuca) told party members he believed the NDP values were mainstream in B.C. Electoral victory could be achieved by reaching out in a positive way for votes and talking about the next decade, not about the past decade

Dana Larsen, the former leader of the B.C. Marijuana party and the only candidate who is not an MLA, offered the option of rapid change. He told party members he would run a Dave Barrett style of government, doing as much as possible as fast as possible.

The two-hour meeting on the Simon Fraser University campus in Surrey attracted around 200 people. The NDP have arranged debates on nine topics in nine different communities across the province. The NDP is to pick a new leader on April 17 to succeed Carole James, who resigned after a caucus revolt.

The candidates were to discuss education but only three of eight questions put to them dealt with the topic. On the cost of post-secondary education, Nick Simons (Powell River-Sunshine Coast) said he would restore funding to the level of a decade ago, when tuition accounted for 15 per cent of the cost of a student's education, compared to 35 per cent today.

Mr. Horgan previously announced his support for a freeze on tuition fees for post-secondary education, a reduction in student-loan interest rates to match the government's borrowing rate, and the re-establishment of student grants, based on need and regional labour markets.

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The five candidates all supported the restoration of collective-bargaining rights for teachers on class sizes and class composition. Once again, it was Mr. Dix who offered specifics, setting out the number of classrooms with excessive class sizes and classes with a more-than-acceptable number of students with special needs. He also pledged that one of the first things he would do as premier is to bring back those rights that were revoked by the Liberal government.

Mr. Dix has previously said he would discontinue the foundation skills assessment program and change the funding formula for school districts that has led to school closings. He would also restore resources for music, arts and sports programs, and bring back services that ensure access to library programs, counselling, special education and English as a second language.

He told party members Sunday he would finance the education changes by rolling back recent corporate tax cuts.

After the meeting, Mr. Simons said he did not hear many differences in positions during the session. "Perhaps it is just in focus, or in emphasis," he said.

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