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BC Election 2020

What Was Said, and What Wasn’t, in BC’s Election Debate

Tyee reporters read between the lines, and award their boos and cheers.

Tyee Staff 14 Oct

The big focus in the hours after a leaders’ debate in any election campaign is on who won and lost, who made big gaffes or scored big points.

That's why NDP Leader John Horgan’s post-debate news conference started with an apology for his claim that “I don’t see colour” in response to a question about his awareness of the white privilege he enjoyed. The answer suggested his awareness was somewhere between minimal and non-existent.

Those general impressions matter. For voters who tuned in — or hear about the debate from friends or co-workers — the debate is a chance to form opinions about the leaders, see them under pressure and decide if they’re someone who can be trusted to run the province.

But those judgments are all subjective and individual.

So we’re looking at what they said. The Tyee’s team of journalists watched the debate to see what the leaders said — or didn’t say — about the issues they have been covering, from education to climate to poverty to Indigenous issues.

Here’s what they reported. (Oh, and there is a boos and cheers section at the end that looks at the best and worst moments.)

About those youth issues.
By Christopher Cheung

Remember “woke” and “lit”? During a 2017 debate, Horgan dropped the hip lingo as a little “I see you!” to the young people who might have been watching.

Green Leader Sonia Furstenau — whose party is running a number of young candidates, the youngest of whom just finished high school this year — offered a more substantial shoutout this year, calling on her colleagues to take the young people marching for climate action in B.C. more seriously. “We need the adults to start living up to their end of the deal,” she said.

BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson, on the other hand, while championing the Liberals’ campaign promise to end the “ICBC monopoly” on auto insurance, talked about how he was thinking of the young drivers. Err, nice try, Mr. Wilkinson. It’s true that young candidates have mentioned the challenge of affordability, but auto insurance isn’t exactly what they had in mind.

BOO: Young candidates have mentioned the importance of representation in legislature. When asked about personal experience understanding white privilege, Horgan brought up playing lacrosse with a diversity of peers and how he “did not see colour.” Horgan apologized for the comment after the debate. Writer Sunny Dhillon critiqued the response best with his tweet: “If you don’t see colour, you don’t see us.”

The eerie silence on education and child welfare.
By Katie Hyslop

At the risk of sounding like an overwrought Simpsons’ character, won’t somebody think of the children?

True, child care, one of the biggest costs for B.C. families, received its fair share of debate time. And the Greens’ Furstenau was asked about ending birth alerts, a racist child welfare practice that targeted Indigenous families.

But the nearly 7,000 children in care and more than one million children, youth and adults enrolled in some form of education in B.C. did not merit a mention.

Despite the fact that British Columbia will spend $6.7 billion on education and another $2.2 billion on the Children and Family Development Ministry this fiscal year.

The former BC Liberal government’s underfunding of education and changes that made post-secondary institutions increasingly dependent on international students’ tuition fees was not mentioned. Even though the pandemic is putting those dollars at risk.

Nor was the NDP’s pandemic back-to-school plan discussed, beyond a reference about teachers’ fears from Furstenau. Panned by teachers, the plan relies on cash-strapped school districts to fix broken ventilation systems or keep classroom windows open all year because physical distancing isn’t possible.

It is an unmitigated good that tonight’s leaders debated like adults. But that should not have prevented them from actually talking about the needs of children and youth in this province.

CHEER: Racism being discussed at least four times during the debate.

BOO: Horgan’s “I don’t see colour” line making it clear he hasn’t discussed racism with a Black, Indigenous or person of colour who doesn’t work for him.

Talking — or not — about health.
By Moira Wyton

Despite it being a pandemic election, health policy was a triumph only for the Greens, with nothing new from the Liberals and NDP.

Asked about the future of for-profit long-term care in B.C., Furstenau was the only one to say that the sector needed to transition to not-for-profit in the long-term and focus on funding transparency in the meantime.

“What we’ve seen is that [for-profit homes] under-deliver in care hours,” said Furstenau. “Seniors are not a commodity.”

Horgan joined her in taking Wilkinson to task for Liberal laws that opened the sector up to contract flipping and depressed wages in the early 2000s.

Horgan also touted the NDP’s changes to improve staffing at care homes during the pandemic and the party’s commitment to hire 7,000 more staffers in the beleaguered sector.

But he said for-profit care can stay.

Wilkinson, who noted he is a physician who has worked in long-term care, said it’s not important who owns a building as long as care is good. But while he said a Liberal government would offer tax credits to help people be able to stay in their homes and spend $1 billion to ensure more private rooms in care homes, he didn’t say how he would ensure care standards were met.

Horgan also defended his government’s slow rollout of safer alternatives for street drugs, but neither other leader got the chance to say what they’d do differently on the overdose crisis.

Primary care was the last touchstone for the leaders on the health file, with Furstenau highlighting her party’s plan to integrate mental health supports and make them more affordable under the medical services plan. Horgan reiterated his commitment to expanding primary care, and Wilkinson didn’t get a word in.

On skyrocketing housing prices and homelessness.
By Jen St. Denis

Horgan brought up the BC Liberals’ track record of standing by while both housing and rents skyrocketed in 2015 and 2016 (they did finally bring in a foreign buyer tax in July 2016). Wilkinson targeted the NDP for failing to bring the cost of housing down during their three years in power. (Fact check: between June 2015 and 2016, the average price of a condo rose by 24 per cent; between September 2017 and September 2020, the average price of a condo rose by 8.4 per cent.)

Wilkinson also pointed out that rents have continued to rise during the NDP administration, while Horgan said his government gave renters “a break” (presumably by lowering B.C.’s annual allowable rent increase from two per cent plus inflation, to just the rate of inflation).

On growing and persistent tent cities, Wilkinson once again hammered home his message that the NDP have inadequately housed people in hastily bought hotels and motels, leading to crime and social disorder because people with brain injuries and mental illness haven’t received appropriate treatment.

Horgan underlined his government’s decision to create a stand-alone ministry for mental health and addictions, but it wasn’t clear how that had led to better mental health services for people transitioning from a homeless camp to temporary housing.

BOO: The lack of any explanation from Wilkinson on how he would help renters.

CHEER: Wilkinson saying he would continue B.C.’s money laundering inquiry if the BC Liberals are elected.

On First Nations and industrial development.
By Amanda Follett Hosgood

Not once during the debate was the past winter’s conflict on Wet’suwet’en territory mentioned, but it was surely on candidates’ minds as they answered a question about whether reconciliation requires full Indigenous support of resource development projects on their territories.

Furstenau kicked off the responses by pointing to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which passed unanimously in the legislature in November and commits the government to following the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and said there needs to be government-to-government negotiations to ensure a sustainable future. “It can’t just be words. It has to be action,” she said. Earlier in the debate, she also admonished Horgan for moving forward with Site C, saying the problem-plagued dam “was your first chance to do a bill with the lens of UNDRIP and you didn’t do it.”

Wilkinson was quick to stress the importance of moving ahead with natural resource projects. “We have to work with First Nations whenever possible,” he said, calling for peaceful resolution when conflicts arise. “Blockades simply don’t work. It just gets in everyone’s way and causes tension and unhappiness.”

Horgan acknowledged the role of all three party leaders in passing the UNDRIP legislation. “The challenges of keeping our economy going when we’re just starting to reconcile after 150 years of occupation is daunting,” he said, but added it is important that “everyone dials into the projects going forward.”

CHEER: To Furstenau, who called for fewer words and more action. Between Site C and the Wet’suwet’en conflict, the current government has missed two huge opportunities to put its commitment to UNDRIP into practice.

BOO: To Wilkinson, for his claim Indigenous rights should be honoured “whenever possible.” That’s not what the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, now provincial law, calls for.

What about work?
By Paul Willcocks

Work has become increasingly crappy for British Columbians. Precarious contract or gig economy jobs have replaced stable employment. Falling unionization rates have left people without benefits or bargaining power. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in employment standards protections.

But making work life better was scarcely mentioned in the debate.

Only Furstenau offered a proposal, defending the Green promise to work with labour and business on exploring a four-day work week, noting benefits in productivity, health and happiness in other jurisdictions.

“We still adhere to this 100-year-old idea of working five days a week,” she said.

The NDP has portrayed itself as the workers’ party. But at least in the debate, Horgan had nothing to say about making working life better for British Columbians.

And finally, on that existential threat...
By Andrew MacLeod

Considering it’s an existential threat, climate change took up very little of the debate. On the positive side, all three leaders are starting from a baseline position that it’s real, serious and it needs to be addressed.

Most convincing was Furstenau, for whom it is obviously a core issue. “There is no doubt we are in a climate emergency right now,” she said, reminding people that only a few weeks ago British Columbians were “choking on smoke” from wildfires and that both the NDP and Liberals supported providing $6 billion in subsidies to the LNG Canada project, which will become a major source of carbon emissions.

Horgan talked about the CleanBC plan and stressed, as he had since it was released, that it was developed in partnership with the Greens. The plan sets targets for reduced emissions and maps out a way to get most of the way to them. Horgan has repeatedly described it as the best in North America. He also offered a reminder that his government had fought against the Trans Mountain pipeline project but acknowledged he has always supported building a liquefied natural gas industry as long as it fits within the province’s climate and economic plans.

Wilkinson dismissed the CleanBC plan as a “sham” and “a great hot air balloon with not much in it” since greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise under the NDP government and there’s no plan to achieve 25 per cent of the targeted reductions. He’s no climate denier, however, instead arguing that oil use will phase out over the next 30 years and that B.C. has an opportunity to become a clean energy powerhouse by encouraging sources like wind and solar.

BOO: To debate organizers who didn’t allot more time to an issue that needs to be at the forefront.

CHEER: To all three leaders for recognizing climate change as pressing, plus an extra one to Furstenau for calling the emergency an emergency. And to moderator Shachi Kurl and the leaders for keeping the debate on track.  [Tyee]

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