Former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts was given the lion’s share of airtime to defend her platform in the final BC Liberal Party leadership debate Tuesday evening.
Watts – who resigned as South Surrey-White Rock Conservative MP in September in a bid for leadership of the provincial party – was quizzed the most by her competitors, who each were given an opportunity to ask another candidate a question during three rounds of an “interactive debate” portion of the televised event.
Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Andrew Wilkinson was the first to be allowed to question a candidate. He targeted Watts – the only non-MLA in the running – and asked her to list five things that need to be done in February.
Watts used the 60-second answering time to speak about the “work that has to be done,” the impending budget and a “collective effort.”
Following her answer, Wilkinson took the opportunity to pitch that the party “needs” to get candidate Ben Steward elected in Kelowna West Feb. 14; the leader should reach out to 41 caucus members to listen to what they have to say; and the party should prepare for proportional representation.
“Let me reiterate what I just said,” Watts responded. “Those are all of the things that I was talking about.”
“But you could have mentioned them, Dianne. I didn’t hear one of them,” Wilkinson responded.
In addition to Wilkinson, MLAs Michael de Jong, Michael Lee and Todd Stone also questioned Watts’ platform. Only candidate Sam Sullivan (Vancouver-False Creek) did not ask Watts a question during the interactive debate segments.
During the first round of the interactive debate, Stone (Kamloops-South Thompson) questioned Watts’ commitment to the party, and asked whether she would run in the next provincial election.
“Yes, absolutely,” Watts responded. “There are a lot of seats in Surrey. There’s a lot of seats in the Lower Mainland, and you know what, we have to win those seats back.”
De Jong (Abbotsford West MLA) quizzed Watts on her position for negotiating a softwood lumber agreement, and whether it would be on the basis of a national import/export quota, or on the basis of a federally provincial administered ordered measure.
Watts tackled the question by speaking to her thoughts on growing the forestry sector. After she presented her platform, several people from the crowd shouted at her to “answer the question.”
“Dianne –,” de Jong said after the crowd’s involvement.
“No, I understand exactly what you said. You know what?” Watts said, which was followed by laughs from the crowd. “The fact of the matter is, I’m not an expert in softwood lumber negotiations and nor do I pretend to be. You know what? The issue has to be resolved, there’s no doubt about it.”
Watts continued to speak as de Jong made several attempts to respond. Moderator Keith Baldrey told de Jong: “Feel free to jump in.”
“OK, my turn now, Dianne,” de Jong said over Watts voice. “My turn for a moment.”
“You know what?” Watts said back. “We’re not going to play gotcha politics here, Mike.”
“Dianne, I’m just going to let you talk, because maybe we will get an answer at some point,” de Jong concluded, which was followed by applause from the crowd.
“You know what?” Watts said. “You can stop playing gotcha politics.”
Later in the debate, Lee (Vancouver-Langara) questioned Watts on her ability to lead a strong team.
Watts made note of the Surrey First Electors Society, a civic party she founded in 2007 that has swept all nine council seats in the last two elections.
“I’ve built a coalition. I’ve lead a coalition. I’ve kept a coalition together for almost 10 years. I bring together diverse people. I have led a team that has transformed one of the fastest, most diverse cities in the entire country,” Watts said.
Wilkinson, in the third and final round of interactive debate, turned to Watts and said that when she was elected mayor, the city had the same crime rate as the provincial average.
“Nine years later at the end of your term, Surrey had crime rates 26 per cent above the provincial average,” Wilkinson said. “Everybody I talked to in Surrey says crime is a huge issue. You haven’t got anything in your platform about it.”
Watts refuted the statistic – which Wilkinson says he got from BC Stats – saying that crime was down 37 per cent by the time she left office.
Watts said her crime strategy is to get to the “root causes” of crime, and that having 1,000 people move into Surrey each month was “absolutely a challenge.”
“It’s not just about arresting people, and it’s not just about putting people in jail. It’s about effectively changing their life,” Watts said, followed by cheers and applause from the crowd.
Wilkinson quickly responded, saying that Watts platform offers “no content” on reducing crime.
“What do you stand for? It’s a plan to make a plan to think about a plan. You need guts to do this job,” Wilkinson said over Watts’ voice.
Watts turned to Wilkinson with a pointed finger and said: “This is an affront to British Columbians, what you just said, and it’s absolutely wrong.”
This was followed by cheers from the audience.
In her closing statement, Watts said she wants a BC Liberal Party that connects with people, creates opportunities and “ignites hope for the future.”
“This choice of leadership is between the past and future. I offer a fresh start with a proven track record without sacrificing all the good work that has been done,” Watts said.
Party members cast their votes Feb. 1, the new leader is to be announced Feb. 3