Visions of BC Liberal Future on Display at Tonight’s Debate

By Drew Penner

Just after 6:30 p.m. tonight Andrew Wilkinson tweeted a wide-angle shot in social-media-friendly orange, green and black of a political social he used to get revved up for an impending debate he hopes will enlighten British Columbians on their future with him at the helm.

“It’s a big night and your support means a lot to me!” he wrote. “Wish me luck.”

By February 3 of this year the former provincial behemoth will have a new leader and Wilkinson is one of six contenders attempting to win the support of a population concerned about the party’s dismal performance in the recent election and affordable housing, while still reeling from the evaporation of optimism around a supposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) windfall.

Observers will be watching as Wilkinson squares off against Mike de Jong and Todd Stone — all have spent time in cabinet positions – the 38th mayor of Vancouver Sam Sullivan, Michael Lee and former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts.

It’s a contest that costs $60,000 to enter, with each participant allowed to dole out up to $600,000 in order to increase their chances of grabbing the title.

It costs $10 to sign up to vote in the influential horse race, and the party says it’s a chance for those who do throw down their John A. Macdonalds to see and hear from the leadership candidates directly.

“We’ve held four other debates across the province, these debates are an opportunity to help our members decide who they would like see lead our party come February 3,” explains David Wasyluk, senior communications manager, for the BC Liberal Party. “Selecting a new leader gives us the opportunity to strengthen, renew, and energize our party.”

Critics have contended the fact Mike de Jong and Andrew Wilkinson have both said they’re fine not winning, and have thrown their support behind each other as a second option, demonstrates how weak the BC Liberals currently remain following a nail-biter of an election.

But the party disputes that notion.

“We’ve roughly doubled our membership, welcoming over approximately 30,000 new members from across the province,” Wasyluk said, before taking a clear shot at the new western rulers. “Since taking power we’ve already seen the NDP begin to erode BC’s fiscal position, they’ve reduced the surplus left by the previous liberal government, and have already substantially raised taxes.”

No doubt all leadership Candidates will attempt to make the point that the NDPs are only making life more unaffordable for British Columbians. Wasyluk couldn’t help but point to the NDP’s carbon tax as a potential source of an additional $200 dollars a year disappearing from the pockets of BC residents.

For his part, the premier will no doubt be keeping an eye on the campaign – from China, where he’s promoting BC business and culture.

While Horgan is away he will face a difficult balancing act as the progressive end of the spectrum like to make a big stink about the problems with Chinese political influence among liberals ranks.

It’s something Wilkinson has faced difficult questions about in the past. He once acted for controversial Chinese businessman Ni Ritao’s company Sun Wave Forest Products.

While he was unavailable for comment for this story and has previously characterized his role in the dealings as minor – saying it was just about some equipment – the fact remains he will undoubtedly be forced to account for his role in the failure to reopen the Skeena Cellulose pulp mill on Watson Island up in Prince Rupert.

As a lawyer he worked for the Chinese interest right up until March 27, 2012, according to a Globe and Mail investigation.

Our own Freedom of Information request turned up a document where Wilkinson sent a letter of support to disgraced tech incubator Istuary Innovation Group.

While Liberal party says it’s a time of optimism, noting “the selection of a new leader gives us the opportunity to re-energize and work towards a stronger more prosperous British Columbia for all,” the truth is, party candidates such as Wilkinson must demonstrate how their approach to politics is different than prior leader Christy Clark’s in order to sway voters’ opions.

Some areas of the province are being left behind.

Conrad Lewis, 56, actually remembers the broken promises of the Chinese firm that lined Wilkinson’s pockets.

“They had a sign on there for almost 20 years saying opening soon, but they never did,” he said, thinking about the disappearace of traditional industries he’s seen first hand in the Prince Rupert area. “It’s a frickin’ horror show.”

He’s worked in the fishing industry most of his life and has seen the world flip upside down.

“I never believed I’d see the day when fish would be exported,” he said, explaining raw fish exports mean fewer BC jobs. “It’s all being shipped out.”

In fact, he says, the word around town is that the only thing Sun Wave Forest Products was after was the dock access – so they could siphon more of BC’s resources (and jobs along with it) off to China.

After the performance of Clark, there’s little tonight’s debate will do to turn Lewis, an ardent NDP supporter, into a Liberal voter. But he says, no matter what happens, something needs to be done to put the focus back on people instead of politics.

“The bureaucratic bullshit is probably the challenge I think we need people to work on,” he said, wondering, “Do we stop it with the Liberals? Do we stop it with the NDP? Do we stop it with the Greens?”

The winner of tonight’s debate could end up being the one who is able to portray themselves as being able to convince people like Lewis that their version of the BC Liberals is the answer to his question.