VICTORIA — The latest hopeful to run for the leadership of British Columbia’s Liberals spoke candidly Tuesday about the elephant in the room that contributed to the party’s downfall after 16 years in power, despite the province’s resounding economic success.
Todd Stone is the fourth member of former premier Christy Clark’s pre-election cabinet to enter the leadership race, which brings the field to eight candidates. The Liberals will elect their new leader in February.
The former transportation minister said the Liberals ran a tight ship economically but didn’t listen when it came to the needs of many communities, especially in Metro Vancouver where the Liberals were punished in last spring’s election.
“There is no downplaying this, we have learned some tough lessons as a party,” said Stone, who announced his leadership bid in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, where the Liberals lost seats to the NDP. “I have learned some tough lessons as well.”
The Liberals took the wrong path on transportation issues in the Metro Vancouver area, alienating local politicians and residents on an issue that impacts the daily lives of people, he said.
“There was too much tension. Too much political calculation,” said Stone, who represents the riding of Kamloops-South Thompson. “We need to stop telling local communities and regions what is best for them. We need to start engaging with them to improve places where we live, work and play.”
Stone, 45, who has three young daughters, said he wants to open the Liberal party to more women, youth and ideas, with a focus on the technology industry.
Mike de Jong, the former finance minister who was largely the architect of five straight balanced budgets, said he expects to debate his leadership rivals about the province’s economic direction under the last Liberal government and in the future.
De Jong, who is taking his second run for the leadership job, said if he is judged for holding the purse strings too tightly, he welcomes it.
“If the criticism is Mike de Jong believes we should respect taxpayers by not spending more of their money than we receive, I’ll take that criticism,” he said. “If the criticism is Mike de Jong believes we should try to reduce the tax burden people are facing, I’ll take that criticism.”
It’s early days for the leadership contest, but Stone’s reckoning and de Jong’s readiness to defend the Liberal record points to a campaign that will focus on reforming the party brand and the leader who can win the next election, said David Black, a political communications professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria.
“You’ll see reform but not revolution,” he said in an interview. “You’ll see a rethink but not a wholesale rejection of what the party is and what they stand for.”
Black said the race is also open to an outsider candidate like former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts to put a fresh face on the Liberal party.
“There is an argument building here for someone who might say, ‘I am the face of the reset that is the new B.C. Liberal party,’ “ said Black. Watts entered the race last month.
Half of the field were members of Clark’s cabinet before May’s election and defended many of the polices that voters turned away from. Her cabinet also included leadership candidates Andrew Wilkinson and Mike Bernier.
Bernier, a former education minister, said he is proud of the balanced budgets and stellar credit ratings, but “we lost sight of why we do that. That’s why I’m travelling all around B.C.,” said Bernier, who was on his way to Prince Rupert.
Wilkinson, a former advanced education and technology minister, said the campaign will be about reorganizing and reinvigorating the party.
“That means we have a new leader who’s going to take a forward-looking approach and not live in the past,” he said.
Also in the race are Terrace businesswoman Lucy Sager and legislature members Michael Lee and Sam Sullivan. The first leadership debate is set for Sunday in Surrey.