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British Columbia Veterans spar with rookies in final debate before BC Liberal leadership vote

Todd Stone and Michael Lee exchange words during the BC Liberal Leadership debate in Vancouver on Tuesday January 23, 2018.

BEN NELMS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

With party members set to begin voting in a little more than a week, the six candidates to lead the BC Liberals made their closing arguments for support in the last debate of the campaign.

All are seeking to succeed former premier Christy Clark as leader, and try to figure out how to return the party back to power after being consigned to opposition as a result of last spring's election. The Liberals governed B.C. from 2001 until last year.

"I've served this party for 24 years. Each time I have taken on a task, I have delivered," declared former finance minister Mike de Jong, who has been touting his experience as other candidates argue for a fresh approach for the party. "If you entrust me with the task of leadership, I'll deliver."

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Other candidates promised new levels of consultation with party members, outreach to young, tech-sector workers, and winning back the trust of voters who did not feel the buoyant economy on the BC Liberal watch was working for them.

"We need to regain the trust of British Columbians and connect with people in their lives," said Dianne Watts, a former Surrey mayor and Tory MP, who quit her federal seat to seek the leadership of a party, a coalition of federal Tories and federal Liberals that she joined last year.

Roughly 1,400 people looked on in the ballroom of a downtown Vancouver hotel as the candidates verbally sparred on their plans to turn things around for the provincial Liberals. Party members begin two days of voting on Feb.1. The winner will be announced on Feb. 3.

Much of the two-hour debate pit veteran MLAs against the rookies, who are promising to bring a fresh perspective to the party, which won 43 of 87 seats in the legislature in last spring's election, but was ousted when the NDP, with 41 seats, struck a governing agreement with the three members of the BC Greens for their ongoing support.

The campaign has featured a debate, among candidates, over sticking to the political fundamentals featured as the party presided over a buoyant B.C. economy that included a $2.7-billion surplus last spring, and dramatic change in the party's approach to acknowledge reservations among voters.

The six candidates in the race are a mix of party stalwarts and newcomers. Former cabinet ministers Mr. de Jong, Andrew Wilkinson and Todd Stone are running as well as MLA Sam Sullivan, a former Vancouver mayor. Newcomers are rookie MLA Michael Lee and Ms. Watts, who is the only candidate without a seat in the provincial legislature. When pressed by Mr. Stone, Ms. Watts indicated Tuesday she will run even if she does not win the leadership.

At various points, Ms. Watts was the target of pointed queries from the other candidates, including Mr. Stone and Mr. Wilkinson, who pressed Ms. Watts on rising crime rates in Surrey while she was mayor.

He also asked her to name the five February priorities for the newly elected leader.

When Ms. Watts was evasive in her response, Mr. Wilkinson rhymed off a to-do list that includes winning a byelection in the Kelowna area seat once held by Clark, reaching out to caucus and fighting NDP plans for a referendum on electoral reform.

But other candidates were also targeted by their rivals. Mr. Wilkinson took aim at Mr. Lee's qualifications to follow through on his commitments to broaden the outreach of the BC Liberals. Both men have long worked in the backrooms of the party, though Mr. Wilkinson was first elected in 2013 and Mr. Lee in 2017.

"I've been out there in the trenches for a long time doing this work. You're new on the job," said Mr. Wilkinson.

In response, Mr. Lee said, "Don't patronize me."

At another point, Mr. Wilkinson noted that Mr. Stone, as transportation minister, had troubles with taxis and transit that might complicate the party's efforts to win back support in the Lower Mainland. In response, Mr. Stone said that Mr. Wilkinson was also in cabinet when decisions were made on those policies. "The way we'll work through this (issue) is for the leader to be authentic," said Mr. Stone.

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Tuesday's debate in Vancouver was the fifth organized by the party.

Two of the candidates – Mr. de Jong and Mr. Wilkinson – have announced they are encouraging their supporters to make each other their second choice on the preferential ballot voters will fill out.

Mr. Wilkinson sought to make a virtue of being explicit about such deals. "I believe in just putting these things on the table – just be transparent about it," he said.

Mr. Watts said such an approach could be presumptuous. "I would not presume to tell anyone how to vote," she said.

Candidates seeking support have been signing up members – an effort the party says has grown BC Liberal membership from 30,000 members to about 60,000.

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