Islanders looking for heart and vision in B.C. Liberal leader

The B.C. Liberal Party leadership race has begun, and Vancouver Island members say they’re looking for a leader who will prove the party has heart.

The party released rules for the race Tuesday and said a leader will be announced Feb. 4.

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While no one has officially declared candidacy, several are believed to be considering a run, including MLAs Mike Bernier, Mike de Jong, Michael Lee, Todd Stone and Andrew Wilkinson — plus Conservative MP Dianne Watts.

Those who choose to run are expected to declare in the coming weeks.

Ahead of the launch, many of them were phoning Liberals around the province to gauge potential support.

Islanders on the receiving end of those phone calls said they were evaluating potential candidates based on the direction they want to see the party take, in the wake of Christy Clark’s departure Aug. 4.

Former MLA Sheila Orr, who represented Victoria-Hillside, said she wants someone young who can energize the party and is looking at Stone.

“I’m looking for someone who is strong, but I also have to have someone who really connects to people,” she said.

Orr also said the huge $2.7-billion surplus the Liberals banked could have been used toward affordable housing, daycare or safety nets for seniors.

“I believe in free enterprise, but I do need someone with a social conscience, someone who has heart.”

Finding a candidate who can expand the Liberals’ image beyond building a strong economy was a priority repeated by many members interviewed.

It’s a lesson they say they learned from the election campaign, which emphasized the party’s fiscal record, but left some voters believing those riches weren’t being shared with those who needed help.

“We have to remember the Liberals got the most votes and the most seats,” member Mark Mawhinney said.

“That being said, I think the party needs to balance its very successful fiscal record in managing the province’s finances and taxpayers’ dollars prudently, but ensuring that it’s empathetic in its investments.”

The Liberals won 43 seats, while the NDP won 41 and the Greens won three. Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon asked the NDP to form government, after the party signed an agreement with the Greens.

Steve Housser, who ran for the Liberals twice in the Cowichan Valley, said the next leader should make a strong case for the environment, at the same time as the economy.

“I think the Liberals were unfairly positioned, or didn’t do a good enough job of positioning themselves — if not as champions of the environment, then certainly of being very aware of its value and very willing to protect it,” Housser said.

He said he’s considering Stone or Wilkinson.

Parksville-Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell, the only Liberal MLA on the Island, said she has received some calls of encouragement, but decided against running for the leadership.

“Where we go as a party now, we have the opportunity to ensure we are strengthening and energizing the party,” Stilwell said.

She pointed to the surplus and the fact that B.C. had the third-lowest debt-to-GDP ratio in Canada as evidence that Clark set the party on the right track.

Stilwell said she is prepared to support whoever wins the race, and declined to throw her support behind any potential candidate.

“Whoever gets elected as our party leader, we will have to work with that person. So I’d like to ensure that our caucus remains unified,” she said.

Alex Dutton, who ran in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, said she would evaluate potential leaders based on their policy proposals.

“I want to see a real vision articulated for the future of this province. This is an opportunity to refocus and reinvigorate the party and I’m really excited about that,” she said.

She said she wants to see the Liberals support more projects such as the single-parent employment initiative, which offers job training and support to parents on income or disability assistance.

Other party members said they were optimistic about the new beginning that comes with a new leader.

“Every time you turn the page, you’re looking for a fresh start,” said member David Adams. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to look outside the current caucus for the new leader. I would be looking for someone who is young, energetic and understands that the economy is important but so are social programs.”

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