The one and only televised leaders' debate of the B.C. election campaign was a tame, civilized affair with no momentum-shifting blows.
In other words, it was a best-case scenario for the front-running New Democratic Party, and much less of one for Andrew Wilkinson and the B.C. Liberals. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau, meantime, was the most impressive person on the stage – not counting the moderator, Shachi Kurl, who delivered a master class in how to keep the participants in these often unruly encounters in line and accountable.
The U.S. should be so lucky.
Polls have consistently shown, from the beginning of the race, that the B.C. NDP has a wide lead of anywhere from 15 to 20 points over their rival BC Liberals. NDP leader John Horgan remains hugely popular, in part because of his party’s mostly adept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and because of his gregarious, charismatic nature.
The Greens have consistently polled around 12 per cent of decided voters, although they could see a small bump in their standing thanks to Ms. Furstenau’s honest and heartfelt responses on the debate stage. She is the type of serious-minded, moral politician that we should want in the legislatures of this country.
There was no one who had more riding on the outcome than Mr. Wilkinson. But his preparation time ahead of the clash was eaten up by controversy.
A video surfaced on the weekend of several long-time Liberal politicians giving a virtual roast to their 87-year-old former colleague Ralph Sultan, who is finally retiring from the game. One of the participants, Liberal candidate Jane Thornthwaite, suggested Mr. Sultan could be easily seduced by the charms of NDP incumbent Bowinn Ma. She suggested Ms. Ma used her looks, and sometimes a little “cleavage,” to cast Mr. Sultan under her spell. All of the participants, including Mr. Wilkinson, laughed enthusiastically.
None were doing so when video of the roast became public and was immediately condemned. This eventually (too little and too late for many) precipitated a slew of apologies, including from Mr. Wilkinson, who said Ms. Thornthwaite had made a “fool of herself.”
Many people felt Mr. Wilkinson had too, by chuckling along at the sexualized banter. One of the knocks against the Liberal leader is that he often sounds like someone from an earlier era, his patter filled with phraseology that rings awkward today. His participation in an event of this nature did nothing to dispel the notion that he is out of touch with the times.
Not everyone among the Liberal crowd was impressed with the way Mr. Wilkinson handled the matter, either. Instead of holding a news conference immediately, he let the controversy simmer throughout the weekend. And when he finally did address it, he not only threw Ms. Thornthwaite under the bus, he grabbed the wheel and drove over her a few times for good measure.
None of this is likely to impact Mr. Wilkinson’s future as leader. If he somehow pulls off a miracle and wins this election, his handling of the roast debacle will soon be forgotten; winning power has a way of doing that. If he loses, he will not have to worry about smoothing things over inside his party; he will be the one tossed under the bus, and quickly. Maybe someone with a sense of humour will throw Ms. Thornthwaite the keys.
History is littered with election results that defied the prognosticators. But with just over a week to go until British Columbians go to the polls – tens of thousands have already voted by mail – it’s difficult imagining an outcome at odds with the polls.
Mr. Horgan was rightly criticized, including on the stage Tuesday night by Ms. Furstenau, for throwing the province into an election a year ahead of schedule solely to take advantage of his party’s strong standing among the public. But that’s a charge with which the NDP has had to deal from the outset of the campaign, and poll after poll has shown it’s had no material effect.
When the general public feel they have been managed well by a particular party, they don’t often turn their back on it. Given a chance to govern, mostly effectively, in a minority situation, the NDP has built up trust with a broad swath of the electorate that will be difficult to sever.
The Liberals had hoped this week’s debate might change the prevailing storyline and the anticipated outcome. It almost certainly did nothing of the sort.
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