Six candidates seeking to become the next leader of the British Columbia Liberal Party will face each other tonight in the campaign’s first debate.
The Liberal members will elect a new leader Feb. 5 to replace former leader Andrew Wilkinson and interim leader Shirley Bond.
The debate will be streamed on the Liberal party’s website and Facebook page.
Stewart Prest, a lecturer at Simon Fraser University’s political science department, said the debate could strongly signal the future direction of the party, which lost power in 2017 after four consecutive governments.
“The terrain has changed somewhat, and the party seems to be trying to figure out what is going to be that dominant story that stitches the party back together when it is being pulled in different directions,” he said.
The race includes six candidates: Vancouver entrepreneur Gavin Dew, former Liberal cabinet minister Kevin Falcon, Vancouver MLA Michael Lee, former chamber of commerce executive Val Litwin, Kelowna MLA Renee Merrifield and Skeena MLA Ellis Ross.
Prest said he will be looking for signs from the candidates indicating where they want to take the party, which could range from renaming to renewing and refocusing the Liberals.
“The NDP has demonstrated that they can govern fairly effectively as well, and are perhaps pulling from some Liberal voters who are willing to move a little to the left of the spectrum,” said Prest. “Where does that leave the B.C. Liberals who are trying to figure out how to move the party past this moment and become relevant electorally again?”
The Liberals lost 13 seats in the October 2020 election that saw Premier John Horgan’s New Democrats re-elected with a majority, winning 58 seats to 28 for the Liberals and two Greens.
Wilkinson resigned shortly after the election.
Former Liberal cabinet minister Mary Polak said the debate will allow party members to consider the approaches the candidates have to guide the Liberals in Opposition while building a solid program to win elections.
“The party membership is ready to support someone who can show them a credible plan,” said Polak, who was defeated in her Langley riding last October.
A post-mortem of the election released publicly by the Liberals last June said the October 2020 election defeat was a result of factors that included an unenthusiastic platform, an uncomfortable leader and widespread perception within the party that the campaign was headed for defeat.
The report said the Liberals must embark on a rebranding that supports the values and aspirations of voters.
“The party is perceived by many as lacking diversity, fairly or unfairly,” said the report. “The B.C. Liberals need to recruit, listen to and elevate British Columbians of every gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and economic background. The province has changed and so should the B.C. Liberals.”
Prest said he will look for how far a candidate says they are prepared to push for broad change within the party.
“It will be interesting to watch during the debate, as one of our first chances to see if there is a candidate willing to give voice to that kind of approach,” he said.
—Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press