Incumbent Christy Clark and challenger John Horgan lost little time getting to the rough stuff in the first debate of the 2017 election campaign, broadcast Thursday morning on radio and over the Internet.
Less than 10 minutes was gone on the clock at host station News 1130 when the two leaders were at it.
Clark firing accusations at Horgan over the uncounted billions worth of promises in NDP platform, the taxes he’d have to increase and the jobs and projects he’d cancel.
Horgan firing back with his signature line that “when she gets in a corner she makes stuff up,” riffing on her reliance on chartered jets to get around the province, saying “you don’t know anything but politics” and mocking, mocking, mocking.
Most of the more quotable lines — and broadcastable clips — happened in the first half-hour or so of the 90-minute proceedings
The regrettable moment when Horgan turned to the premier and said: “I’ll just watch you. because I know you like that.” (Afterwards, he would explain it as a shot at “a photo op premier … she wants to be the centre of attention.”)
The crossing the line moment where she touched his arm and said “calm down, John.” (“What would the response have been if I had laid my hands on the premier?” Horgan challenged afterward).
Things did settle down after that, both settling into a proper debate under the able guidance of moderator Bill Good and realizing perhaps, that it was time to show some restraint. But by then, each had defined themself for that day at least.
Horgan, in the run up to the debate, disclosed the advice he’d been getting about what to do and not to do. He told Rob Shaw of The Vancouver Sun that he was advised to not talk over his opponents, to not turn away from the camera to address Clark directly, and to “moderate” his instincts to engage in a rhetorical scrap with her.
But he tossed that script out the window in the first few minutes.
Some voters, seeing the leader of the Opposition in what amounted to a television debate for the first time, might wonder about his angry edge and apparent lack of respect for the premier. Others will surely be impressed that Horgan has the premier’s number and calls it (and her) as he sees it.
As for Clark, she seemed to be struggling to get her message out. I was struck by how often she had to consult the hefty briefing book in front or her. Even with that backup, her answers were weak on issues like the health firings.
She did gain greater command of her material in the second half of the debate and got off some good lines. On Horgan’s plan to phase in $10-a-day child care over 10 years: You’re not going to deliver it until most of the kids have a driver’s licence.”
I’ve come this far without discussing the impact, rather lack of same, for the man who wasn’t there — or so it seemed, particularly during the hot and heavy exchanges between the other leaders.
I mean Green Leader Andrew Weaver. Sitting there at the far end of the row. So polite, he would raise his hand when he wanted Bill Good to call on him. Reciting the basics of Green party policies in detail. And for the most part, not making much noise.
Afterwards, Weaver would characterize the rougher exchanges between the other two leader as “petty” and, in any event, “it is not my style.”
But there was no moment during the proceedings when he addressed potential supporters directly to make the point explicit — “Look at them. Now look at me.” Unlike Gordon Wilson during the legendary 1991 TV debate, Weaver didn’t close the sale. He will have a second chance in the television debate next Thursday.
The other thing that stood out was Weaver’s dealings with the other leaders. Again and again he attacked Clark and the Liberal record. Only once did he have a bad word to say about Horgan and the New Democrats. At the very end, he referred to them having had “16 years to inspire people” and failing to do so.
The one-sidedness must have come as a surprise to Horgan. In the advance interview, he told reporter Shaw that he fully expected Weaver, no less than Clark, would be “yelling at me.”
Speculation abounded over what Weaver was doing. Green support has long been strongest on Vancouver Island, where the NDP holds most of the seats. Yet he gave Horgan and his party a pass.
Perhaps the Green leader was responding in a roundabout way to the NDP’s persistent attacks on him as a quasi-ally of Clark and the Liberals. Weaver supports some things the Liberals have done and Clark goes out of her way to support some of his measures. And as every New Democrat will tell you, a vote for Andrew Weaver is also a vote to keep you know who in office.
So Weaver spends much of his time taking aim at Clark to show that he, no less than Horgan, is the candidate of change.
But on the strength of Thursday’s performances by the respective leaders, I expect most voters who want to get rid of Clark would see Horgan as the stronger bet to accomplish the goal.