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Liberal leadership still horse race

Bruce Strachan Right Side Up In a little over three weeks, British Columbia will have a new premier. For the Liberal Party it will be its best day.

Bruce Strachan

Right Side Up

In a little over three weeks, British Columbia will have a new premier. For the Liberal Party it will be its best day. Gordon Campbell will be gone; a fresh new face will lead the party and for the rest of that day and evening, Liberals - especially those who backed the winning candidate - will boogie away the night, celebrating their rendition of a political renaissance.

However, on Sunday morning, the cold sober dawn of reality will come, and with it, the task of governing the province, managing the troublesome HST issue and readying the party for the real test - the 2013 provincial general election.

By Feb. 27, the Liberal's happiest night in the past two years will have come and gone.

With this in mind, the question for party members is, who would you want to wake up to Sunday morning? OK, it's a figurative question, but the tough reality is that you're stuck with your new-found friend for the next two-and-half-years and you've got to make the most of this relationship.

Here's a look at the leading candidates, with Sunday morning and the provincial election of 2013 in mind. We'll leave back-marker candidate Ed Mayne out of the analysis as well as Dr. Moira Stilwell. Mayne is a long shot, as is Stilwell. However, Stilwell's entry into the leadership race has elevated the debate and put a much-needed focus on post-secondary education, particularly in Prince George. For that she is to be commended.

The HST dilemma is best set aside as well. Although it's the central cause of the Liberal's discomfort, there are intervening issues at play. First, the government has wisely decided to appoint an arms-length information panel to report on the economic advantages and disadvantages of implementing the controversial tax. The panel will report out in April. Second, a number of industry groups have begun to come forward in favour of HST, notably the B.C. film industry. Second-guessing public opinion about HST prior to hearing from the panel and influential industry leaders is premature and I would discount any HST comments or process promises from the leadership candidates.

Now to the candidates: Christy Clark and Kevin Falcon are currently in the lead. Clark is well ahead of Falcon with a reported 60 per cent favourable rating among Liberal supporters. Clark is bright, attractive, has great name recognition and wasn't around when the HST was introduced, although she does support the tax.

But Clark has some rough edges. She stepped down in 2005 amid controversy over her handling of the education portfolio. As a result she has little support from current cabinet ministers and caucus colleagues. She has flash appeal, not unlike Bill Vander Zalm in 1986, but like Vander Zalm, that appeal can wear off quickly.

The intervening period between the leadership vote in three weeks and the general election May 14, 2013 is critical and a lot of mistakes can be made, particularly by a government with a shaky hold on its popularity. With her questionable performance record, Clark could be a risky choice.

Kevin Falcon has solid cabinet and caucus support, as well as considerable backing from the business community. Falcon gets things done. He's a known producer, hence his support from Pat Bell and Shirley Bond. But, Falcon has a tough side. Political success always leaves ripples of discontent in its wake. As premier, his hard-nosed and right-wing reputation could cause some discomfort among middle-of-the-road voters.

Trailing Clark and Falcon are George Abbott and Mike de Jong. But don't count either of them out, particularly Abbott. Without question, both could be king- or queen-makers. Plus, there's always the Stephane Dion syndrome at play, where a tough fight between Clark and Falcon, and no clear winner on a first or second ballot, could propel Abbott or de Jong up the middle.

Abbott has the best chance at an up-the-middle win.

Finally, there's the nice-guy scenario. In politics, you don't really win elections; rather you make your opponent lose. That's why attack ads are so successful. A candidate who attracts negative comments is always vulnerable. Gordon Campbell was a good example of this. Quite simply, he was easy to dislike.

That factor would apply to both Clark and Falcon if either were elected leader. Of course it can be overcome, after all Campbell did it, and both Clark and Falcon have far better personalities than Campbell.

But Abbott and de Jong are difficult to dislike. Mike has a law degree and makes Christmas cookies, while George is a berry farmer with a graduate degree in political science. Both have extensive experience in the opposition benches as well as in cabinet. Both have superb senses of humour.

Given the rancor that's been such a prominent part of B.C. politics, Abbott or de Jong would offer voters a refreshing change from the strident and heavy-handed leadership of Gordon Campbell.

Who will B.C. wake up to Sunday morning, Feb. 27? Good question. But don't count any of the front four out. And no matter who wins, it'll be a welcome change for the Liberal Party.

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