British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. election debate turns spotlight on leadership styles

Somewhat by default, Adrian Dix's NDP has dominated the election agenda in B.C., mostly but not always to its advantage, Stephen Smart writes. Tonight's TV debate may be the last chance for Liberal Christy Clark to bring the leadership question to the fore.

Christy Clark and Adrian Dix have led very different campaigns

Dix has ruled out a second TV debate, which Clark still wants 3:03

As the B.C. election nears its halfway mark with tonight's televised leaders' debate, it's become apparent how the campaign styles of the two main contenders couldn't be more different. 

They are both after the same thing, convincing voters to give them four years in office. Yet Liberal leader Christy Clark and the NDP's Adrian Dix have each charted very different courses to reach that same destination —  strategies that raise the performance stakes enormously for tonight's all-party debate.

Back on Monday, April 15, one day before the official start, Clark's Liberals gathered reporters in a conference room at an upscale Vancouver Hotel where, in one fell swoop, they released the party’s entire election platform. 

There would be no drawing out the announcements one at a time over the course of the campaign, and Clark insisted this was the responsible thing to do, to ensure voters were given the full picture of the party's plans right away. 

Mind you, releasing a platform at all hardly seemed necessary given that the majority of the platform content had already trickled out over the previous few months, not least in the ruling Liberal's speech from the throne and provincial budget in February. 

Still, it was all out in the open before the writ was even dropped.

There's a problem with that strategy, however, as each day the campaign wore on the Liberals still had a bus full of reporters looking for something fresh to say. 

Giving the media no daily announcements, Clark and the Liberals had opened themselves up to one of the most dangerous situations in politics, the prospect that reporters who aren't given something obvious to write about, will find something on their own, often not what the campaign team wants.

In fact, much of the questioning Clark has been facing on a daily basis hasn't been about her campaign, but about her reaction to what the NDP was putting out. 

So not only are the Liberals not generating their own positive-news headlines, they are also seen largely as simply reacting to the NDP. 

In an election setting, those are the optics of a party preparing to be in opposition, where you're almost always in reaction mode —  as opposed to being the government, where you set the agenda and others react to you.

Dominating the headlines

While the Liberal leader has been touring the province essentially giving the same stump speech, the NDP has been feeding the media and the public a daily, albeit small, dose of its platform. 

This has provided the party with nearly two weeks worth of NDP-oriented stories. Or nearly two weeks of almost completely controlling the campaign news agenda.  

That's not to say the NDP has come off unscathed with this strategy. It has had to deal with at least a couple of controversies, such as an embarrassing first day when its Kelowna-Mission candidate, Dayleen Van Ryswyk, had to be dropped for making controversial online remarks about French-Canadians and First Nations people. 

There has also been continued fallout from the Vancouver business community over the decision last week to oppose the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline project from Alberta to Vancouver harbour. 

This was a project — twinning an existing pipeline over the same route — that Dix had only recently said would be irresponsible to make a decision on until the company made its formal application. 

Still, in comparison to the Liberals, the NDP has managed to nearly dominate the news agenda with the content that it wanted, and both sides should be familiar with the last time an opposition party in B.C. was commanding that dynamic during an election campaign. 

It was in 2001, when the opposition Liberals (under Gordon Campbell) was getting ready to unleash a 77–2-seat walloping of the ruling NDP.

Debate stakes

So that brings us to now, and the stakes that are being set for Monday's televised leaders' debate, the only one of the campaign.

B.C.'s four main party leaders, after Friday's radio debate. From left: NDP's Adrian Dix, the Green Party's Jane Sterk, Liberal Christy Clark and John Cummins, Conservative. (Canadian Press)

The NDP has now completed its slow platform rollout and, like the Liberals, has nothing really new to announce. So the tough part begins. 

For the NDP, there will be no more setting the agenda by default because it was the only one with policies to announce. The NDP now needs to find a way to keep alive the optics of being a government in waiting while the focus, because of the debate, may shift more to the question of leadership.

For their part, the Liberals need to find a way to take those optics back, which they are hoping to do Monday night when the debate cameras switch on. 

Even the most steadfast Dix supporters and the most critical Clark naysayers will acknowledge this kind of forum definitely plays to Clark's advantage. 

While incredibly smart and policy savvy, Dix has never appeared comfortable in front of the camera. 

Having covered him as a reporter for nearly a decade now, I can say he's become a lot better, but still has his awkward moments. 

He's not always sure when to smile, when not to, where to look, where not to. Whereas Clark seems not to even notice the bright studio lights or the awkwardness of speaking into a camera lens.  

So the question now is whether Clark can harness that advantage and use tonight's debate to pull herself and her party back into the race. 

Although the gap between her Liberals and the NDP has narrowed to 14 percentage points, according to the latest Angus Reid poll, that is still a large political mountain to climb. 

Can she do it? Or has the momentum of the first half of the campaign left a comeback out of reach?