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Old guard, new guard square off in Liberal leadership contest in stretch run

Last Updated Jan 22, 2018 at 6:40 pm EST

B.C. Liberal leadership candidates Todd Stone, from left to right, Andrew Wilkinson, Sam Sullivan, Mike de Jong, Dianne Watts and Michael Lee participate in the first leadership debate in Surrey, B.C., on Sunday October 15, 2017. The contest to replace Christy Clark as leader of British Columbia's Liberal party is in its stretch run with the race coming down to a choice between the old guard and party newcomers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VICTORIA – The contest to replace Christy Clark as leader of British Columbia’s Liberal party is in its stretch run with the race coming down to a choice between the old guard and party newcomers.

Three veteran cabinet ministers, Mike de Jong, Andrew Wilkinson and Todd Stone, are facing backbenchers Sam Sullivan and Michael Lee, as well as Dianne Watts, who was the mayor of Surrey before winning a seat for the Conservatives in the House of Commons.

David Black, a political communications expert at Victoria’s Royal Roads University, said Monday the race has split into two camps: those wanting change and those resisting it.

There are also many Liberals who have yet to accept last year’s election result that saw the party lose power to the NDP after 16 years in office, he said.

“They are in a great hurry to be back in power,” Black said. “The success of the Liberal party has made it difficult for them to undertake the introspection that the party would probably benefit by. What are we as a party? Where are we going?”

The final debate for the six candidates is Tuesday in Vancouver. The Liberals elect their new leader on Feb. 3.

Black said Watts and Lee are pushing the party to follow new directions to reflect changing political dynamics in B.C., while Wilkinson and de Jong are promoting their experience and promising to maintain a tight grip on the province’s purse strings as the best route to success.

Black said Stone is positioning himself as a middle ground option, while Sullivan, a former Vancouver mayor, is lobbing political grenades that include bringing back the harmonized sales tax that was defeated by voters in a 2011 referendum.

“There is a conversation happening on that stage between the old party, the party of the north and the Interior, and a party that saw itself losing a lot of seats on the Lower Mainland, worried that it’s indicative of a changing demographic,” said Black.

Watts, Lee and, to a lesser extent, Stone are representative of the move towards change, while de Jong and Wilkinson are firmly in the fiscal conservative camp, he said.

“Mike de Jong doesn’t waste a moment to tell us he balanced five budgets,” Black said.

Watts said she considers her opponents portrayal of her as a Liberal outsider an asset that allows her to view issues differently. She also rejected suggestions she lacks experience in provincial politics, saying she was mayor one of Canada’s fastest growing and most diverse cities before serving in Ottawa as an Opposition MP.

The Liberals are no longer in government despite going into last spring’s election posting a budget with a $2.7 billion surplus, the strongest job growth in Canada and a triple-A credit rating, she said.

“That tells me you’ve stopped listening, you’re not connecting and you’ve lost trust,” she said.

Stone said the Liberals were strong economic managers but could have done a better job sharing the wealth, including raising welfare rates. Liberals must now decide who is the best person to lead the party during what must be a period of renewal, he added.

“The expectations of our citizens have changed,” said Stone. “If this party does not embrace change, then I fear this party will become increasingly irrelevant.”

De Jong said the election results came as a shock to Liberals, but the party is strong and ready for a new leader to begin the rebuilding process.

“People want an experienced leader who can hold Premier (John) Horgan to account and the NDP to account and can work with the B.C. Liberal party to generate ideas to reignite the imagination of British Columbians,” he said.