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Fact bombs and Palin-drones: reflections on Monday's leaders debate

No knockout punch was dealt or game changer felt during Monday's televised British Columbia party leaders' debate.

Conservative John Cummins started strong, but faded and fumbled before the finish.

NDP's Adrian Dix had the most to lose. While the frontrunner appeared nervous and his voice quivered early, Dix recovered with a strong finish and successfully targeted Premier Christy Clark's credibility on her central fiscal responsibility themes.

Clark improved upon her April 25 CKNW debate performance, but did not score the blow she so desperately needed to turn the tide with two weeks to go until voting day.

Green Party leader Jane Sterk was last to arrive and offered the most consistent effort from start to finish.

Host with the most:

The ad hoc broadcast consortium featured a team effort by executives and technicians of CTV, Global BC and CBC, the host. The venue was familiar to moderator Jennifer Burke. Now a CTV News anchor, Burke once hosted Living Vancouver for the Mother Corp. She was also Clark's CKNW predecessor. Clark was the first one in the studio and chatted briefly with Burke about their former radio careers.

Opening jitters:

Dix had NDP strategists worried with his rough start. He quivered while delivering a climate change reference and stumbled again in the early minutes. By contrast, Cummins was quick out of the gate.

"Look, everyone knows that the Liberals can't win this election, so you've probably tuned in to see what Adrian Dix will look like as premier," Cummins said. "But I'm here to tell you, you have another choice." Cummins also had harsh words for Clark's economic plan.

"You're the only one in B.C. that believes that you balanced the budget," he said. "You had to sell off valuable government assets to do that. It's like selling off one room of your house to pay the mortgage. Sooner or later you're going to run out of rooms."

U-turn at a four-way debate:

Clark continued to wrestle with her red-light running incident mentioned in an April 26 Vancouver Sun profile. She parked her initial "it was 5 a.m." excuse after filling up on a tank of contrition. Burke dealt Clark an early, pointed question about the incident.

"There is no other answer for the people of B.C. other than to say that it was wrong, I was wrong to do it," she said, looking directly at the camera. "And I strive as a parent to set a great example for my son and I didn't when I stopped and treated that red light like a four way stop."


Clark repeated her claims that B.C.'s budget is balanced, government spending is under control and a debt-free B.C. is the next stop... in 15 years. Then she took a page out of the John McCain/Sarah Palin playbook. The 2008 Republican ticket used Joe the Plumber to embody the everyman citizen who needs a break. Clark used a Biblical reference.

"Here's how I characterize this: the NDP plan would rob Peter to pay Paul, hoping that Paul will vote for the NDP. My plan is to put both Peter and Paul to work so that they can realize the great opportunities of this province and they won't have to wait for government to be there to give them a hand. They can do it because they want to get out there and build B.C. with all the rest of us."

Dix used Peter and Paul against Clark, who claimed 32,200 net jobs resulted from her B.C. Jobs Plan. Dix countered with 34,800 private sector jobs lost since September 2011.

"Neither Peter nor Paul are working," he said. "Wasn't the jobs plan supposed to be the centrepiece of your government?"

Fact bombs:

Dix's strongest lines were his attacks on Clark's credibility.

"Premier Clark, the facts are clear. I know they're not your facts, they're 'the' facts. Those facts, you can look them up on the Internet. Since the premier launched her jobs plan we've lost 34,800 private sector jobs."

"I don't think it's good for the province to run a fact-free campaign. The fact of the matter is none of the rating agencies, not a single one, says what you've repeatedly said they've said" (about a balanced budget).

Piping up:

Clark and Dix locked horns on pipelines. Dix was on the defensive after Clark zeroed-in on the Earth Day announcement of Dix's Kinder Morgan opposition.

Clark: "Hold on a second, I still haven't heard an answer from you on my question about why there is no constancy in your party's position on this. It's something that does matter to British Columbians. You know what it sounds like to me, you sound like a man who has no trouble saying yes to new spending, but you have lots of trouble saying yes to knew economic development for our province."

Dix: "That's simply not true Premier Clark, and you look at your position on Enbridge Northern Gateway, which basically is if the price is right we'll sell out B.C.'s interests. I don't agree with a nine-fold increase in tanker traffic off our coast."

Kids today:

Burke noted B.C.'s second-worst child poverty rate in Canada, and asked Clark "How can you claim to be putting families first when the picture for low income families and children in this province is terribly bleak?"

Clark: "We have to work really hard to try and make sure we're doing everything we can to resolve child poverty in B.C. Here's what I know about child poverty: Child poverty starts with parent poverty. Parent poverty can be addressed in a number of different ways, most principally growing our economy and making sure people have good family supporting jobs in every corner of the province."

Dix claimed NDP increases to social assistance would move 8,400 people above the poverty line. Despite the lack of a costed platform Sterk labelled Dix's proposed welfare rate increase inadequate.

"You can't really believe that $20 extra a month is a solution to poverty, or that bonuses, baby bonuses of $70 a month when childcare can cost $1,000 a month or $1500 a month, is really going to help a poor family get out of poverty?" Sterk said.

Memo vs. Mom:

The biggest contrast of the evening. Dix gave a fulsome answer to the inevitable question about the backdated memo scandal that cost him his job as Premier Glen Clark's chief of staff in 1999. He emphasized his comeback as a non-profit executive director and twice-elected MLA.

"It was my responsibility, it was my mistake, I take responsibility and have ever since," Dix said. "I was 35 years old, made a serious mistake and since then, and I own the mistake, no one else owns the mistake, I own the mistake. one of the problems we've had in recent years is no one takes responsibility for anything. I'm responsible."

Clark followed with a non-answer to a question about being a "tough sell" to B.C. women, despite the Families First strategy. But she didn't make any concession or confession.

"Well, y'know I think that as we get closer to the election campaign, women and men are going to get more focussed on the real issues in this campaign," Clark said. "I don't think that women are less concerned about the economy than men are. This election is about the economy, it's about whether or not we grow the economy or whether or not we grow government."

Conservative chaos:

Cummins was on the defensive after questions from both Burke and Clark over the quality of his party's vetting and recent firing of four candidates. Cummins said the party had a 42-page questionnaire, credit checks and criminal record checks, but couldn't explain the post-writ problems.

"If you compare our actions to that of the Liberals, for example, they had a member who was charged and convicted of drunking, of drinking while under the influence," he said. "That candidate is still running. We eliminated a candidate, we pulled the papers of a candidate who did that. We look at Mr. Foster (Vernon-Monashee), the auditor general accused him of some very unsavory dealings in the construction and repairs of his constituency office, yet he still stands as a candidate.

Cummins didn't name Jane Thornthwaite, but the North Vancouver-Seymour MLA's 2010 charge was reduced to driving without due care and attention on a plea bargain.

Blow this joint:

All four leaders agreed the marijuana prohibition question was a federal issue. Cummins had an open mind to the concept: "There has to be discussion not only in Canada, but with our neighbours to the south." Clark, however, didn't want to touch it. "It says a lot about your priorities when your priority is to lobby the federal government to make changes. I think what we need to be focused on is growing our economy."

The leaders unanimously opposed reintroducing photo radar. "The NDP brought it in, it was a mistake, it was a tax grab," Clark said.

"Our system of red light cameras is very useful," Dix said. "And it's very important we continue to expand that. We have to expand safety. We saw this weekend how serious car accidents can be."

Bob Mackin is part of The Tyee's 2013 B.C. election reporting team.

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