British Columbia

No sparks fly at B.C. NDP leadership debate

The five candidates in the B.C. NDP leadership race will be in Kelowna on Monday night for the second in a provincewide series of nine all-candidates debates, but so far they are finding more to agree on than debate.
British Columbia NDP leadership candidates John Horgan, from left, Adrian Dix, Nicolas Simons, Mike Farnworth and Dana Larsen pose for photographs together before a debate in Surrey, B.C., on Sunday March 20, 2011. The party will elect a new leader on April 17 to replace Carole James who stepped down in December following a caucus revolt. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The five candidates in the B.C. NDP leadership race  will be in Kelowna on Monday night for the second in a provincewide series of nine all-candidates debates, but so far they are finding more to agree on than debate.

The contenders, Mike Farnworth, John Horgan, Adrian Dix, Nicholas Simons and marijuana activist Dana Larsen, have less than a month to gather support before party members make their selection on April 17.

Farnworth admits generating public excitement about the race has been difficult while major international events are unfolding in Japan and Libya, but he expects interest will grow in the last weeks of the campaign.

The candidates held their first debate, which was focused on education issues, on Sunday at Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus in front of about 200 supporters.

It was a polite affair characterized by statements like this one by Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Symons: "I'd like to start by saying I've agreed with both of my colleagues and I'm going to agree with my other two afterwards so we're all on the same team," he said.

Vancouver Kingsway MLA Adrian Dix noted that in Surrey where the debate was taking place, 8,000 students would be learning from portables next year, "because we have a government that doesn't care about public education and didn't plan for the people in this community and the people around British Columbia"

Juan de Fuca MLA John Horgan said the NDP needs to broaden its base, saying, "We have to make the coalition that Mike [Harcourt] had in 1991."

Port Coquitlam Burke Mountain MLA Mike Farnworth agreed, saying the party needs to "get people voting for us who haven't voted for us before, and we can do it if we're relevant to them"

But perhaps the most populist proposition came from candidate Dana Larsen, who said, "As premier I would work to maximize the use of the SkyTrain and public transit system by removing the fares which too often act as a barrier to access."

The Surrey debate was the first in a nine-stop leadership tour of the province that ends April 6 in Terrace. Monday's debate in Kelowna will explore justice issues, and Tuesday gathering in Kamloops will examine policies and solutions to the problem of poverty.  

Divisions healing

The polite tone of the debate reinforced evidence the party seems to be healing the divisions that divided it during the recent push by the so-called Bakers Dozen of 13 MLAs  to remove former leader Carole James.

Several of James' most vocal critics have teamed up with her loyalists, creating some unusual alliances in the leadership campaign.

Veteran MLA Harry Lali  was among the first to question Carole James' leadership, but now he's supporting leadership candidate John Horgan, who was a James loyalist to the end.

For his part, Horgan is happy to have a couple of the so-called Baker's Dozen dissidents on his team, saying, "Absolutely. We're a united caucus. We have to be a united caucus."

Meanwhile, Mike Farnworth, another James loyalist, has endorsements from five of the dissidents, including Katrine Conroy, one of the first to publicly break from James.

"I'm giving Mike my support," said Conroy.

Party veteran David Schreck says it is all a sign that the healing within the party is underway.

"I think the Baker's Dozen, as they were called, realize that if the party is going to stand any chance of forming a credible opposition, let alone a government in waiting, it has to heal," said Schreck.

But Schreck says there's also the danger if candidates get an endorsement from somebody their supporters are still angry with.

"There's always the danger of a backlash, that you can get an endorsement by somebody that someone is mad at and that can lose you support rather than win you support," said Schreck.

With files from The Canadian Press