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Reporters watch the B.C. election live radio leaders debate in Vancouver on Thursday. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Reporters watch the B.C. election live radio leaders debate in Vancouver on Thursday. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Gary Mason

Horgan comes out aggressively in first debate of 2017 B.C. election Add to ...

It wasn’t long into the first leaders’ debate of the 2017 B.C. election campaign that supporters of Liberal Leader Christy Clark were levelling incendiary accusations of sexism at NDP rival John Horgan.

On social media, senior strategists of Ms. Clark’s campaign suggested that Mr. Horgan was, among other things, “mansplaining” to the Liberal Leader – a derogatory term used to describe a male speaking to a woman in a sexist, condescending manner while discussing a particular subject.

There is no question that Mr. Horgan, combative by nature, came out aggressively against his primary opponent. He challenged Ms. Clark’s statements constantly, often interrupting and speaking over her – something he had vowed not to do before the debate began. (She interrupted him, too).

But as political debates in B.C. go, this one held for a radio audience but broadcast on TV and live-streamed on Facebook, as well, it was not extraordinarily hostile. And Mr. Horgan’s conduct was certainly no different than what we have witnessed in men-only political debates for eons.

It was at the end of one of Mr. Horgan’s verbal offensives that Ms. Clark said: “Calm down John,” and reached over and patted his arm. Mr. Horgan flinched: “Don’t touch me again, please.”

It was almost like the Liberal war machine had prepared for the moment. Within seconds, the party’s social-media apparatus had created a hashtag: “CalmDownJohn,” seizing on Ms. Clark’s remark. Such is the hypocrisy of politics.

How would this exchange have been evaluated by the Liberals, and the broader public at large (especially among women) if it had been Mr. Horgan who had said: “Calm down, Christy,” and then reached across and patted her arm?

I think, we all know. Heads would have exploded. The incident would have been seized on as a potentially fatal mistake by the NDP Leader. He would have been portrayed as a horrible sexist jerk (as he was by many Liberals anyway) who didn’t deserve to be premier. In other words, that two-second clip would have been evaluated completely differently than it is now. You decide if there is a double standard at play.

As for the rest of the debate, there weren’t a lot of surprises. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. The fact Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver spent the entire 90 minutes going after Ms. Clark while letting Mr. Horgan off the hook was a bit of a shock. After all, it is the NDP that the Greens hope to steal a seat or two from in this election, not the Liberals.

Instead, Ms. Clark spent the debate fending off attacks from men on both sides of her. (An image that may also work in her favour). For the most part, she held her own.

Mr. Weaver deserves credit though. While many of his supporters will likely feel he was too polite (he sometimes stuck his hand up when he wanted to speak) and not aggressive enough, others will say he sounded the most statesmanlike of the three leaders. He also got off the most memorable lines, all at Ms. Clark’s expense.

At one point, he mocked Ms. Clark’s 2013 election promise of a new LNG industry that would create 100,000 jobs, eliminate the province’s entire debt “and put unicorns in each and every one of our backyards.” When Ms. Clark mentioned a new bridge her government wants to build and how it is being constructed with the health of the environment in mind, Mr. Weaver said: “You don’t build bridges to address climate change.” In another reference to LNG and Ms. Clark’s insistence on staking the future of the provincial economy on it, the Green Leader said: “You can’t squeeze water from a stone. And squeezing it harder still won’t make any water come out.”

Christy Clark is, and remains, an excellent debater. She is fearless, which is a huge advantage in these settings. I would say, however, that she did not seem as prepared for this set-to as she has for others. It was a bit flabbergasting to see her reading from notes at points during the debate, while her rivals spoke extemporaneously. You would think she would know her material inside out by now.

Still, she likely did not do herself any harm.

As for Mr. Horgan, he will have learned from this debate. There is no question he came out hot and let his emotions get the best of him a couple of times. After the first half hour, however, he settled down, didn’t interrupt as much, stopped whining about how much time he was getting or not getting from moderator Bill Good (which was really annoying) and began sounding more premier-like.

This is undoubtedly the tone his advisers would like to see him strike from the outset in the televised debate next week, which has been the event that has often altered the course of elections.

This B.C. election is close. We’ll likely know in the next few days if this debate did anything to change that.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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