Saturday, February 03, 2018

Why Todd Stone should win today's BC Liberal leadership vote over Dianne Watts

Will Todd Stone be the new BC Liberal leader tonight?
By Bill Tieleman

Todd Stone should emerge from one of the nastiest, most divisive and destructive leadership races we've ever seen in Canada as the BC Liberal Party's new leader this evening - and do so over Dianne Watts on the final ballot.

Despite a plethora of problems for Stone - from the outrageous ICBC deficit he created to having over 1,300 of his party membership signups rejected - the former transportation minister from Kamloops and current opposition MLA, he is still the best placed to win the leadership vote and, the party membership hopes - eventually the province's premier following the next BC election.

The fact that most of the other candidates have ganged up on Stone in the final days means their campaign teams know Stone is the one to beat, based on their own internal tracking.

And Stone's likelihood of winning is in no small part because of the BC Liberal Party's interesting electoral system - which gives 100 points for each of BC's 87 ridings in the voting - or 8,700 in total - meaning the winning candidate needs 4,351 points to win.

BC Liberal leadership candidates from left: Mike de Jong, Andrew Wilkinson, Sam Sullivan, Dianne Watts, Michael Lee and Todd Stone at campaign event.
It means that while a strong regionally-based candidate like Dianne Watts, the former Surrey mayor and Stephen Harper Conservative Member of Parliament, can sign up lots of members in a relatively few ridings - they don't matter anything like the do in a province-wide, one member-one vote contest.

So the campaign with the most broad, cross-province support - both on the first and subsequent ballots - should win. 

Watts, who I expect to finish in second place tonight but still could win, has by all accounts recruited a lot of new members in suburban Metro Vancouver ridings.

But even if her campaign signed up 6,000 members in three different ridings and dominated the voting there, it's still only a maximum of 300 points out of 8,700.  And a rural riding with just a few hundred members has the same equal voting strength of 100 points. 

So of course, the same math applies to newcomer candidate Michael Lee, BC LIberal MLA for Vancouver-Langara, who claims to have signed up the most new party members.

And the key to winning this contest is who BC Liberal members make as their second, third and fourth choices on the ranked ballot - because those redistributed votes will almost surely determine who the new leader is.

There is also the element of insiders vs outsiders, with those who served in the Christy Clark BC Liberal government viscerally angry with ultimate outsider Dianne Watts trying to take the crown - given Watts only joined the BC Liberal Party after the 2017 election and did nothing to assist that campaign in her home base of Surrey - where the party lost several tough battles to the BC NDP. 

Lee is the traditional dark horse candidate who could surprise the favourites - but I believe that despite a very good campaign, impressive candidate and a strong set of strategists, Lee is simply too unknown to the party or public to get to the final ballot.

Former Attorney General Andrew Wilkinson started very strong and still has the most BC Liberal MLA endorsements but as the long campaign wore on, Wilkinson's attempts to be populist and grassroots faded and his traditional chippy, charmless style came out to poor effect.  

But Wilkinson should still do well and in an ideal situation become the alternative final ballot choice to Watts - or Stone.  

Ex-Finance Minister Mike de Jong is having a much better leadership campaign than his ill-fated 2011 effort against winner Christy Clark, when de Jong couldn't find a single fellow caucus member to support him.  

But with all and sundry blaming the tight-fisted former finance minister for not spending the BC Liberals huge savings pre-election for their stunning 2017 loss, de Jong is not going to win.  Nor will his deal to urge second-choice support to Wilkinson and vice-versa make much difference.

Sam Sullivan never expected to win - and he sure won't.  The former Vancouver mayor who represents Vancouver-False Creek has run on the most right-wing platform of all candidates with a few wild ideas thrown in - and has been the least vituperative in the donnybrook.

If campaigns matter - and they usually do - Watts has had a terrible effort.  

Appearing not just at the outset but throughout the campaign debates as ill-prepared, lacking policies and prescriptions, and beset by her competition repeatedly, Watts is nonetheless popular with some in the party and does not carry the baggage of the Christy Clark premiership that Stone, Wilkinson and de Jong are toting as ex-Clark cabinet ministers.

Watts, Lee and Sullivan also have no - as in zero - BC Liberal MLA support - not a good sign either.

Wilkinson leads with 13 MLAs backing his bid while Stone and de Jong each have seven, with the remaining BC Liberal MLAs sitting out endorsements for various reasons.

Christy Clark proved in 2011 that you could in fact win the leadership with just one MLA backing your campaign - and a very unimpressive one at that - Harry Bloy - but this is a different time and set of candidates.  Plus - recent events raise questions about the leadership voting process - was Kevin Falcon robbed of the premiership?  Time may tell.

But tonight is about the future of the BC Liberal Party - not its past - and whether Stone, Watts or another candidate wins, the new leader faces a daunting task of uniting a party that is out of power and out of sorts.

And then they have to face the formidable battle of taking on BC NDP Premier John Horgan, who is now Canada's second most popular premier and showing that he loves being in government after year in opposition.

Anything can happen in BC politics - and often does - but periodically BC's right wing forces made up of federal Conservatives and federal Liberals joining together provincially shatters into pieces.  

This campaign certainly has been a likely lead up to another political splintering at least for awhile - and being in opposition without the ability to put your former rivals into plum cabinet jobs means the new leader will be hard pressed to create the unity needed to contend.


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