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Two BC Conservatives Battle over Breakfast

After May's election flop, leader candidates at least agree the party 'must be better prepared.'

By Andrew MacLeod 21 Feb 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

One of the few issues where the two candidates for the leadership of the British Columbia Conservative Party seriously differ is breakfasts for children.

"I'm sorry, I disagree with breakfast programs for kids," said Dan Brooks, a 38-year-old from Vanderhoof who ran for the Conservatives in the district of Nechako Lakes last May.

"I feed my kids breakfast every morning," Brooks said. "That is taking care of your child, that's my individual responsibility to do as a parent. As soon as we expect the government to take those responsibilities for us, we go down a very slippery slope towards socialism."

The remarks, similar to recent ones from federal Industry Minister James Moore that drew heavy criticism, received a murmur of agreement from the crowd of about 50 people gathered at the Salvation Army Citadel in Victoria for the first of five Conservative leadership debates scheduled throughout the province.

They were also a direct attack on Brooks' opponent, Vancouver business person Rick Peterson, a 59-year-old who in 1993 helped start a breakfast program that he says now feeds 700 kids in seven different schools.

Call for fairer taxes

Peterson's platform includes plans to attract private funding to expand such a program for more of the province's neediest schools. The party would start coordinating the plan ahead of the next election and a Conservative government would be prepared to fund any needed investment not raised from the private sector or individual donors.

Peterson said some 170,000 of the 500,000 children in B.C. live in poverty, many of them in working poor families that are struggling from the cumulative effect of costs rising on everything from hydro to insurance.

It only costs $100 a year to provide a child with breakfast each day, an investment in that kid's life and future, said Peterson. "I know if we don't we're going to pay a price down the road."

That social perspective is in line with other Peterson positions. Following this week's budget presentation, Peterson criticized the BC Liberals for increasingly relying on Medical Services Plan fees.

"If you drive home the fact that yesterday's budget shows that a family paying $31,000 a year pays the same MSP rates as Jimmy Pattison, that's not tax fairness," said Peterson in a response to how the B.C. Conservatives could make inroads in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island.

Rising MSP premiums are added to the fact people pay more for BC Hydro, ICBC car insurance and BC Ferries, he said. "The fact that we pointed out, that the surplus the BC Liberals are claiming is on the backs of the most hardest struggling people in this province making $31,000 a year, that's not fair," he said.

"It's a message you have to keep in mind as you're surrounded by an orange NDP ring here," he said. "How are you going to appeal to people who have views that lean maybe more towards the NDP side with a common sense approach to this?"

Heartbreaking election

The leadership race follows a discouraging couple of years for the Conservatives. At one point they polled as high as 23 per cent and picked up MLA John van Dongen from the BC Liberals to gain a toehold in the Legislature, but following a messy internal schism that broke into the public their support fizzled ahead of May's election.

"That election was heartbreaking," said Brooks. "We could have done it... Unfortunately the powers that be decided to purge instead of unite."

Brooks stressed the importance of unity, respect for the party's constitution and respect for each other. He talked about running a candidate in all of the province's 85 constituencies, instead of the 56 run last time, giving everyone a chance to vote Conservative. "We must be better prepared next time around."

Both candidates talked about the need to connect with younger voters and to break through widespread cynicism about politics and politicians. "I'm sorry, 71-year-old white-haired John Cummins didn't resonate with youth voters," said Brooks, talking to an audience where the average age was likely well over 60.

Peterson talked about the need for the party to find ways to appeal to women, as well as men. He said he would be focused on developing an accessible message that will help the party gain momentum. From that, donation money will follow, he said. "If we do everything else right, this will be the easiest part of our job."

It's not a matter of selling people on the Conservatives, he said. "It's giving them a vessel they would like to fill. It's giving them a cause that they would like to support. It's giving them some leadership they trust, that they believe in."

Vigorous agreement

Brooks and Peterson (moderator and former federal Conservative candidate Jack McClintock joked their names together sound like a bluegrass band) agreed on various topics, including the privatization of health care and the need for better management of BC Ferries.

Brooks said that while it's taboo to talk about the privatization of health care in Canada, people should have choices and the government shouldn't make doctors who want to provide service privately go to court.

Peterson said he's familiar with the issue having helped the long term care provider Amica with its financing. The public sector has no pressure on performance, results or outcomes the way the private sector does, he said.

Drawing on his own experience in the tourism business, Brooks said BC Ferries' approach of cutting services and raising rates is dead wrong. Declining service will hurt Vancouver Island's economy and is already damaging the Chilcotin, he said.

If BC Ferries were managing a toll bridge like Golden Ears, they'd close a lane and jack up the fees, joked Peterson. The government-owned company has become too management heavy and should emulate a more streamlined service like the one in Washington State, he said. "The fat starts at the top."

There was also vigorous agreement on the need for a party like theirs. As Brooks put it, "Right now we're in a leaderless, visionless government. People are hungry for a vision."

Despite the cheerleading of Premier Christy Clark, there are signs things aren't right in the province, he said, including the growing debt and the departure of British Columbians to Alberta. "Why is there a direct flight from Comox to Fort McMurray? If that doesn't disturb you, I think we're looking at politics wrong." We need to create good jobs here instead, he said.

"I didn't start with the ambition of being premier, but that's where we're going to end up," he said. "Without us you're left with NDP, and NDP lite."

Peterson, who supported Kevin Falcon in the BC Liberal leadership race against Clark and whose endorsements include the B.C. Conservative Party's last four presidents, said, "The rest of the province wants to see where we're going. They don't care where we've been."

The Conservatives' leadership convention is scheduled for April 11 in Richmond.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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