BC Liberal Christy Clark used the final leaders' debate to present herself as the best candidate to take the province through the difficult softwood lumber dispute, using the issue to deflect her political opponents' accusations that her government failed to curb skyrocketing housing prices and became addicted to big-money corporate donations.
Ms. Clark was at the centre of most exchanges during the 90-minute program aired by the province's major TV broadcasters and hosted by Toronto broadcaster Jennifer Burke. Voters go to the polls on May 9.
With the announcement of a 20 per cent tariff on Canada's softwood lumber exports earlier this week, Ms. Clark and NDP Leader John Horgan have sparred over how best to protect the province's interests in a trade war made more unpredictable by U.S. President Donald Trump's approach to cross-border issues.
British Columbia is Canada's largest lumber exporter into the United States. In February, the B.C government appointed former federal trade minister David Emerson as an envoy on the softwood file.
On Wednesday, Ms. Clark wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking Ottawa to ban the shipment of thermal coal – the majority of which comes from the United States – through B.C. ports.
Ms. Clark said the impasse over softwood lumber "gives us the freedom" to do the "right thing" given the negative environmental impacts of thermal coal.
But Mr.Horgan and Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver accused Ms. Clark of doing nothing in the two years since the previous agreement expired. Mr. Horgan repeatedly noted that unlike Ms. Clark, the premiers of Saskatchewan and Alberta have personally visited Washington, something he said he would do within a month if he were to form government.
As the leader of a party that has held government for the past 16 years, Ms. Clark was the focus of most of the verbal attacks.
Ms. Clark was forced to concede: "I have experienced some controversy." She then skipped to her key message, which she hammered on repeatedly, about protecting jobs. "Both of you are determined in your plans to kill jobs in British Columbia," she said to her two rivals.
Ms. Burke put Mr. Horgan on the defensive, asking him: "Do you have an anger management problem?" (a reference to Mr. Horgan's performance last week during a radio debate). Ms. Clark piled on, saying that given rising protectionism in the United States, "We need a leader who is tough, but is calm and considered. … We cannot win if we don't control our temper." It was a theme she returned to again and again. Speaking with reporters after the debate, she denied that she was directing her remarks at Mr. Horgan, but said the debate offered voters "a chance to learn a little bit about our character."
Mr. Horgan came into Wednesday's debate after a radio event last week that was notable for his fierce attacks on Ms. Clark. At one point during that event, Ms. Clark, sitting beside the NDP leader, said, "Calm down, John," while patting him on the arm after the NDP leader complained about not getting enough time to speak. Mr. Horgan snapped back, "Don't touch me again please." Mr. Horgan also suggested Ms. Clark liked to be the centre of media attention, and turned to the Liberal leader and said, "I'll just watch you because I know you like that."
Afterward, NDP insiders said Mr. Horgan's aggressive approach had been a success because it rallied the party base, and confirmed Mr. Horgan had the fortitude to effectively criticize the Liberal leader. Much of the NDP's approach in 2017 has been characterized by a need to take a more prosecutorial direction than in the 2013 election in making their case to voters.
On Wednesday, however, Mr. Horgan was more subdued, though he still made some pointed remarks about the Liberal leader. When Ms. Clark asked him why he had not raised the softwood lumber dispute in the legislature, he complained that she should show up in Question Period more often. "You'd rather watch the hockey game."
Following the debate, Mr. Horgan said he was happy with the event and that it was a good opportunity to talk directly to voters about his agenda.
Asked about the references to his temper, he said, "I feel passionate about issues."
All three leaders dominated in varied moments of the debate, with Mr. Weaver occasionally holding the spotlight.
Mr. Weaver grinned as he stood between Mr. Horgan and Ms. Clark and the two talked over each other frequently. But when he and Mr. Horgan had an exchange, he asked, "Are you going to get mad at me now?"
"Oh come on, man," Mr. Horgan responded, clearly exasperated with the focus on his temperament.
Later, speaking with reporters, Mr. Weaver said he was having fun: "It was a great debate."
During one exchange, the two men even argued about the size of their rallies: Mr. Horgan talked about how the NDP drew 1,000 people last weekend to a downtown Vancouver ballroom, and Mr. Weaver touted hundreds of supporters who attended a Green rally in Victoria.
As the focus then turned to Ms. Clark, with the Green leader given an opportunity to question her, the Liberal leader said, "I will not debate whether my rally was bigger than your rally, Mr. Weaver."
The debate was organized and presented by a consortium of broadcasters, namely CTV Vancouver, CBC Vancouver, Global BC and CPAC.
At the dissolution of the legislature, the BC Liberals had 47 seats, the NDP 35 seats, as well as one Green member and two Independents.
The debate comes at the midpoint of an election in which the Liberals are seeking a fifth consecutive majority mandate while the NDP is seeking to return to power for the first time since 2001. Meanwhile the BC Green Party, which elected its first and only member – Mr. Weaver – in the last election in 2013, is seeking expand its political foothold in B.C. politics.