British Columbians are a people of the north, and the province’s political leaders know how to keep their cool. They showed as much Tuesday night in a respectful, issue-centered debate between the people who want to serve as B.C.‘s premier.
The only sign of America’s politics, the Trump Tower in Vancouver, closed in August due to financial woes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Less than two weeks before they vote in a provincial election – although 646,000 have requested ballots to vote in advance — B.C. voters watched a ninety-minute debate that was courteous, centered on subjects ranging from the pandemic to the environment, with a moderator, Shachi Kurl, shutting down interruptions.
“Thank you all for a respectful debate: You all get a cookie,” Kurl, who heads the Angus Reid Institute, said as she closed the faceoff between three party leaders.
The debate did nothing to halt momentum of the left-leaning New Democratic Party of outgoing Premier John Horgan, which had a fifteen-point lead in a pre-debate poll. The party which wins a majority in the eighty-seven member British Columbia Legislative Assembly forms the government. Its leader becomes Premier, combining the executive and legislative branches of government.
Once an angry presence in the Legislature, Horgan has become avuncular, smiling and at times agreeing with and thanking fellow leaders, particularly over what has been a unified response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He sidestepped questions about a “megaproject” that has turned into a mega-white elephant, the Site C dam under construction on the Peace River.
“It wasn’t my project: The BC Liberals started it,” he said, referring to the opposition party that ruled British Columbia for seventeen years until 2017.
The fate of Site C has been punted to a consultant report, due out after the October 24th provincial snap election.
The Liberals’ leader, Andrew Wilkinson, is of a type not unfamiliar to the Great White North. He is a doctor, a lawyer, and a Rhodes Scholar.
But he’s also stiff.
In a province known for flamboyant leaders, Wilkinson has had trouble connecting with the folks. He has shown less-than-rapid response on the campaign trail.
Wilkinson was present at a fundraiser when a B.C. Liberal candidate made a rude, sexist comment about a legislative colleague, New Democrat Bowinn Ma, the youngest member of the B.C. Legislative Assembly.
He said nothing at the time, later issuing a tepid apology.
The opposition leader also failed to stand up for LGBTQ rights after revelations about two Liberal candidates in the conservative Fraser Valley: One legislative hopeful voted in local council against a rainbow crosswalk, the other helped finance a publication promoting conversion therapy.
Wilkinson delivered a sort-of mea culpa, saying he has “gay and lesbian members in my family.” In last night’s debate, he effectively banished the Liberal candidate in North Vancouver who committed the Ma gaffe, saying: “It was abundantly clear by the end of the roast she’d made a bit of a fool of herself.”
And: “It was so clear what she did was wrong.”
The episode helps reveal a different political culture on the other side of the 49th Parallel. While Republicans in “the States” rail against Medicare for All, Canada’s national health care program is, as John Horgan described it Tuesday night, “what separates us from our neighbors to the south.”
British Columbia has experienced 10,734 cases of the coronavirus, although five hundred and forty-nine new cases reported this week represent an upswing.
The province has experienced a total of two hundred and fifty deaths. Washington has experienced 98,792 confirmed cases with 2,294 deaths.
The dustups over sexism and anti-LGBTQ feelings are also instructive. Human rights and social tolerance are part of Canada’s DNA. Nationally, the Conservative Party of Canada lost last year’s election in part due to previous opposition to marriage equality by leader Andrew Scheer. British Columbia has twice had senior cabinet ministers who are gay, and twice seen women in the premier’s office.
The New Democrats were kept in power since May of 2017 thanks to the votes of three Green Party members (all from Vancouver Island) in the Assembly. The NDP and Greens had an agreement that was due to last until October of 2021.
Just after selection of a new Green leader, Sonia Furstenau, Horgan pulled the plug, dissolving the Assembly and calling a snap election. Because B.C. has a parliamentary government, he could do that. The Greens were furious, and Furstenau took after Horgan on Tuesday night for the “unnecessary” election.
The new Green leader had her moment, notably an eloquent discussion of how racism and privilege live on in the province.
Furstenau wasn’t buying the New Democrats’ new policy setting aside old growth forests, arguing: “We are cutting down way more trees than we can sustain.”
As with American governors, Canadian premiers have watched their popularity rise after quick, early response to the pandemic. “All of us are facing pressures and challenges that could not have been imagined before this year,” said Furstenau.
The province’s tourism/visitor industry has hollowed out.
Concerts, Canucks games, and B.C. Lions football are out.
The border is closed to all but “essential” traffic. The province sometimes nicknamed Canada’s “lotus land” is facing a gloomy winter.
Except for John Horgan. Wilkinson didn’t lay a glove on him Tuesday night.
Horgan mocked the Liberals’ proposal to let private auto insurance plans compete with the government-run Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, noting that the Liberals in power had made a mess of I.C.B.C.
At one point, the New Democrats’ leader turned to Wilkinson and said, “You need to get out in the neighborhood and talk to people, my friend.”
Horgan stands to “win” the job of planning the province’s recovery from a pandemic with no end in sight. It will be a difficult journey.