Premier Gordon Campbell will debate NDP leader Carole James and Green party leader Ardiene Carr for one hour tonight. (Democratic Reform leader Tom Morino was excluded.) The hour begins at 7 p.m., and the televised debate will be broadcast province-wide.
Voters who miss the hour won’t likely get a second chance to see the leaders together. Campbell has refused repeated requests for a second televised debate. (A radio debate is expected next Tuesday.) The BC Liberal Party is running the most tightly scripted campaign in provincial history, and restricting access to the unpopular premier has proven central to their strategy.
Campbell is not the only BC Liberal avoiding debate. A survey by The Tyee has found that BC Liberal candidates – most of whom are incumbents – have ducked out of debates, radio appearances or all-candidates forums in at least 39 of the province’s 79 ridings. Though most are appearing at pro-business functions such as local chamber of commerce debates, BC Liberals across the province are declining invitations to forums about education and heath care.
BC Liberal spokesman Mike Morton confirmed that candidates from his party are avoiding debates they think will be biased against them. “We look at who is sponsoring the event,” Morton said. “We’re not going to participate in any forum at which the moderator or the host are not objective.”
On this basis, Liberal candidates have boycotted dozens of all-candidates forums organized by teachers associations and health care workers, as well as just about any event sponsored by a union. Using this same argument, Liberals have also declined invitations to events organized by the Cooperative Housing Federation and even the Sierra Club.
‘No direction’ from headquarters
Morton said most Liberal candidates will appear at between three and five all-candidates events over the course of the four-week election period. “Each individual candidate makes his or her own decision,” he said. “There is no direction whatsoever from the central campaign.”
However, Diana Johnstone – who manages Nanaimo-Parksville candidate Ron Cantelon's campaign – told the (Victoria) Times Colonist that Cantelon is trying to limit his participation to “three or four” all-candidates events, “at the advice of the Liberals' regional association.”
The Tyee survey confirms that most Liberal candidates plan to appear at an average of four events during this four-week election period. (A partial list of The Tyee’s findings follows this article.)
As is the case with any average, exceptions exist. Liberal newcomer Iain Black has already made at least five appearances in Port Moody-Westwood, for example, and Tom Wood tried to turn the tables on his Esquimalt-Metchosin by issuing a news release accusing the NDP of ducking debates. But exceptions like these are offset by incumbents such as Bill Barisoff, who has said he will not even attend the chamber of commerce forum in his own home town.
CBC: ‘It’s been a struggle’
Many liberal candidates’ are limiting their face time with opponents to a chamber of commerce debate, at which local business leaders pose the questions, and a handful or multi-candidate forums on local radio or television, at which the discussion topics are often agreed upon in advance.
“It has been a bit of a struggle in terms of coordinating candidates,” said Laura Palmer, who produces CBC radio’s “The Early Edition. There have been numerous recent instances in which host Rick Cluff announced appearances of candidates who never wound up on the program.
Palmer said that the cancellations were merely a result of numerous “schedule conflicts,” though when pressed she agreed that Liberal schedules had proven more conflicted during this election period. “In some cases,” she added, “the issue we had chosen to discuss wasn’t an issue the candidate wanted to talk about.”
Palmer denied that promoted appearances by Adriane Carr and Carole James were cancelled because Gordon Campbell declined to appear. After bringing in former lawmakers as stand-ins, Palmer said “we backed off” the idea of putting candidates for whom listeners might actually vote on the airwaves. Palmer said, “We were getting better stuff from the former politicians.”
Stand-in balloons and pot plants
While CBC is filling its airwaves with former politicians, local event organizers have found creative ways to fill the empty seats on their stages.
A marijuana plant stood in for no-show Liberal Gillian Trumper in the mid-Island riding of Alberni-Qualicum. BC Marijuana Party candidate Mick Mann filled the former Port Alberni mayor’s empty chair with an 18-inch glass bong, put a flowering pot plant in front of her name tag, and told the crowd, “we need a pot plant instead of Gillian Trumper.”
A smiley-faced balloon was tied to the chair marked "Liberal" at a Victoria all-candidates forum organized by the BC Association of Social Workers, which was boycotted by both Victoria-Hillside incumbent Sheila Orr and Victoria-Beacon Hill incumbent Jeff Bray.
And in the premier’s Vancouver-Point Grey riding, Green Party candidate Damian Kettlewell has advertised for a Gordon Campbell doppelganger – to be named Gordon Campbell 2.0 – who would attend the numerous local events in the premier’s absence.
But few of the thousands of British Columbians who have found themselves stood-up by Liberal candidates during the past few weeks were amused.
“The people sitting in that audience were appalled,” said Carol McNamee, the NDP candidate who faced off against a happy-face balloon late last month. “There were kids in the audience. There were old people in the audiences. They certainly didn’t leave feeling like the Liberals care about them. “I thought the idea was that when you’re elected, you’re elected to represent the entire population of your riding,” McNamee said, “not just the chamber of commerce.”
SIDEBAR: Where BC Liberals Failed to Show
Here’s a list of 40 ridings in which Liberal candidates did not appear at local events and/or media discussions at of May 2nd. This list is drawn from a combination of original and secondary reporting. Also, The Tyee welcomes anyone to report any errors or omissions in the comments fields that follow this list.
Alberni-Qualicum --- Incumbent Gillian Trumper did not attend an April 27 all-candidates meeting in Qualicum Beach sponsored by the Oceanside Coalition for Strong Communities. (Marijuana Party candidate Mick Mann put a pot plant in her place.)
Bulkley-Valley Stikine --- Dennis McKay has reportedly said he will not attend education forums in Smithers and Hazelton on May 9.
Burnaby-Edmonds --- Liberal incumbent Patty Sihota did not attend an all-candidates meeting on April 27 at the Still Creek Education Centre, organized by the Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion.
Columbia River Revelstoke --- Liberal candidate Wendy McMahon did not attend forum organized by two local teachers’ associations.
Comox Valley --- Incumbent Hagen did not participate in an April 9 forum organized by the Denman Island Residents Association, or an April 10 all-candidates meeting organized by Earth Save.
Coquitlam-Maillardville --- Liberal candidate Richard Stewart did not attend an all-candidates forum on education held April 27 at Gleneagle Secondary School, sponsored by a teachers’ union. Stewart did send a representative, who read a prepared statement.
Delta North --- Liberal candidate Jeannie Kanakos has said she will not attend a May 4 all-candidates meeting sponsored by the teachers’ federation.
East Kootenay --- Liberal incumbent Bill Bennett did not attend an April 27 all-candidates forum in Cranbrook sponsored by the BC Teachers' Federation.
Kamloops --- Incumbent Claude Richmond did not attend a joint forum at the Farmer's Market sponsored by the Council of Canadians. Kamloops-North Thompson --- Incumbent Kevin Krueger also did not attend a forum sponsored by the Council of Canadians.
Kelowna Mission – Incumbent Sindi Hawkins did not attend a forum at the Rutland Senior Center on May 2.
Langley -- Incumbent Mary Polak did not attend an April 29 all-candidates forum organized by the Langley Teachers Association and supported by other unions.
Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows --- Liberal candidate Ken Stewart has declined to attend a May 12 all-candidates meeting organized by The Ridge Meadows Citizens Coalition. Nanaimo-Parksville --- Liberal candidate Ron Cantelon did not attend an all-candidates meering organized by the Oceanside Coalition for Strong Communities.
Nelson-Creston --- Liberal candidate Blair Suffredine did not attend an April 26 forum on health care sponsored by the Nelson Area Societies for Health, the Regional Health Task Force, and other groups. He wrote a letter two weeks beforehand stating that he will not attend single-issue forums. New Westminster --- Liberal MLA Joyce Murray did not attend an April 26 all-candidates meeting organized by the New Westminster Teachers' Union, CUPE and the BC Federation of Labour. The meeting conflicted with a premier's dinner hosted by Gordon Campbell.
North Island --- Liberal candidate Mike Hunter did not plan to attend an April all-candidates meeting sponsored by the BC Nurses Union. Oak Bay-Gordon Head --- Liberal incumbent Ida Chong reportedly did not attend at an April 26 forum sponsored by the British Columbia Association of Social Workers on Tuesday.
Penticton-Okanagan Valley --- Incumbent Bill Barisoff has not attended several local forums, and has said he will not attend a May 11 public forum at the Chamber of Commerce in Oliver – his hometown.
Port Coquitlam-Burke Mountain --- Liberal candidate Greg Moore did not attend an April 27 forum at Glengarry School sponsored by teachers unions.
Port Moody-Westwood --- Liberal candidate Iain Black did not attend an April 27 forum at Glengarry School sponsored by teachers unions.
Powell River Sunshine Coast --- Liberal Maureen Clayton skipped an all-candidates forum on April 27 organized by the council of Canadians.
Prince George-Mount Robson --- Shirley Bond did not attend an April 19 all-candidates meeting sponsored by the Hospital Employees’ Union, and did not attend an April 25 forum at New Caledonia sponsored by community groups calling themselves the Active Voice Coalition.
Prince George-North --- Incumbent Pat Bell did not attend the April 19 meeting sponsored by the Hospital Employees’ Union, nor the April 25 forum at New Caledonia.
Prince George-Omineca --- Incumbent John Rustad did not attend the April 19 meeting sponsored by the Hospital Employees’ Union, nor the April 25 forum at New Caledonia.
Skeena --- Incumbent Roger Harris did not attend an April 27 education forum in Terrace, which was hosted by a coalition of organizations including Northwest Community College, the University of Northern BC, Simon Fraser University, and two area First Nations bands.
Surrey-Panorama Ridge --- Liberal candidate Bob Hans reportedly cancelled a May 2 debate appearance on a South Asian TV program, and forced the rescheduling of a debate at Princess Margaret School.
Surrey-Tynehead --- Liberal incumbent Dave Hayer has twice rescheduled a debate at Kwantlen College.
Vancouver Burrard --- Incumbent Lorne Mayencourt reportedly did not attend an all-candidates forum organized by the Vancouver Community College students association.
Vancouver Fairview -- Liberal nominee Virginia Greene did not attend an April 11 all-candidates meeting organized by the False Creek Residents’ Association, and cancelled two appearances on CBC’s “Early Edition.”
Vancouver Kensington --- The Little Mountain Neighborhood House Soceity cancelled a May 11 all-candidates meeting at Tupper School because Liberal candidate Patrick Wong would not participate.
Vancouver-Kingsway --- Incumbent Rob Nijjar did not participate in an April 20 appearance on Michael Smythe’s radio show alongside his NDP and Green opponents. CBC’s Early Edition cancelled a segment involving all three candidates after Nijjar would not appear.
Vancouver Langara --- Liberal “star” candidate (and former CBC head) Carole Taylor did not attend an all-candidates meeting on April 29.
Vancouver Mount Pleasant --- The Vancouver East Cultural Centre has reportedly cancelled a May 15 all-candidates forum after Liberal candidate Juliet Andalis refused to attend, and an all-candidates debate on child care scheduled for May 4 at Britannia Community Center was modified after she declined an invitation to attend. Vancouver Point Grey --- Kitsilano Neighborhood House cancelled an all-candidates meeting after Premier Campbell declined to attend.
Victoria Beacon Hill --- Liberal candidate Jeff Bray did not attend an April 27 all-candidates meeting organized by the BC Association of Social Workers. A happy-face balloon was tied to his empty chair.
Victoria Hillside --- Liberal candidate Sheila Orr did not attend an April 27 all-candidates meeting organized by the BC Association of Social Workers. She also skipped an April 16 all-candidates meeting at Fernwood Community Centre.
West Kootenay-Boundary --- Liberal candidate Pam Lewin did not attend a May 1 forum organized by Greater Trail Health Watch and Castlegar District Health Watch. She also missed an April 12 forum on education at Selkirk College.
West Vancouver Garibaldi --- Liberal candidate Joan McIntyre did not attend an April debate at the West Vancouver Library.
Yale Lillooet --- Lloyd Forman did not attend a Logan Lake seniors’ meeting.