B.C. elections debate fiery but not conclusive

May 3, 2005

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In British Columbia, Canada, leadership debates during provincial elections can have a major effect. In 1991, a single sentence during the leadership debate catapulted the then-obscure B.C. Liberal party from no seats for more than a decade to official opposition with 17 seats. In the current election, three television stations plan to broadcast the event live.

Adriane Carr of the Greens, Carole James of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and Gordon Campbell of the B.C. Liberals left the campaign trail on Monday to prepare for the Leadership debate on Tuesday night. The contestants were heavily prepared, and came into the debate with talking points and notes carefully memorized and at the ready.

Before the debate

Prior to the debates, it was widely reported that Adriane Carr of the Green party had already won simply by being present. The Green party secured their position in the debate by having a candidate in every riding, 79 candidates in all. With a steadily increasing polling history in elections but no seats in the Legislative Assembly and a minimal campaign budget, the Green party can only benefit from the opportunity to become better known to the BC electorate.

The Green Party formed in British Columbia in 1983 as part of the international Green Party network. In the 2001 election, the party achieved 12.4% of the popular vote, but still failed to elect a single Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA).

Carole James is a newcomer in the leadership role of the NDP. She was elected in 2003 and aims to restore the party to power after they suffered an embarrassing defeat. In 2001, the NDP went from government to opposition with only two seats. A special election raised the expectation of change and voter dissatisfaction when the ruling Liberals were unable, despite high-profile campaigning, to prevent a demoralizing defeat in favour of the NDP candidate. This brought the party up to 3 MLAs. Pundit view of the debate was split on Carole James's best approach; an aggressive approach might win enough interest and respect to gain enough seats to form a government - or backfire and push disaffected voters toward both opponent's parties, while a firm but softer stance would suggest acceptance of the position as opposition with an expectation to pick up about 15 seats in the assembly.

The NDP is not the old guard of B.C. political parties, and only formed in 1961 though it traces its lineage back to 1933. It has led the province on multiple occasions in the 1970s and 1990s. However, a series of leadership scandals and the FastCat Fiasco led to the crushing defeat at the hands of the B.C. Liberals in 2001.

Gordon Campbell, the Premier of British Columbia, has the most to lose in such an event and would likely have preferred not to attend at all. An experienced rhetorician with both long service in the Legislative Assembly and in politics in general, he also heads the party which revived itself from obscurity during just such a debate in 1991. Described as a small-c conservative in the nature of Margaret Thatcher, his party's dominance in the assembly did not allow him the confidence to actually present a budget the Liberals had been talking about, and making promises on, for months.

One of the oldest parties in the province, the B.C. Liberals are independent of the national Liberal party and its policies. They are a right-of-centre party, being socially moderate and fiscally conservative. The party was in decline for most of the last half of the past century. However, it made a remarkable recovery during the 1990s due to the dissolution of the Social Credit Party. It was greatly helped by its social conservatism and a series of leadership and financial scandals in the NDP. Capitalizing on a split in the ruling party, the Liberals took power in the 2001 election with 77 of 79 assembly seats.

Leadership debate, 3 May 2005

With tight moderation and a constrained debate format of questions and answers, rebuttals, and open floor debate, the entire event was surprisingly civil as each candidate tried to push the others into social gaffes. The candidates managed to stay on message throughout, though the discourse occasionally broke into the almost spontaneous and provided some of the liveliest discussion in what has begun to seem like a dull campaign, at least by B.C. standards.

Leading the way into the fray, Campbell pointed to the NDP for leaving the economy and infrastructure of the province in a shambles. "British Columbia became a have-not province," he repeated several times.

James hammered back, focusing on broken campaign promises and trust issues. When Campbell pointed to the successes of his party in office, she dismissed the claims. "We see Mr. Campbell taking credit for things that he had nothing to do with, high commodity prices and low interest rates."

In the enviable position of watching her opponents digging into each other and not sparing much effort on the Greens, Carr was free to criticize both parties. "The gap between the rich and the poor has grown to be the biggest in Canada and that's a shameful record," she said to Campbell. When James pointed to the privatisation of Healthcare under the Liberals, Carr cut her dead with "And who started the move to privatisation? It was the NDP who started that move."

The debate, broadcast live by three stations, did not have any clear winners or losers. Macleans magazine reported that Campbell survived being double-teamed by the other parties, yet he also seemed unable to meet James's challenges or respond to Carr's inquiries with direct answers.

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