FOULDS: Will election debate produce a line for the times?

There was once a provincial leaders’ debate in which one quick-witted line helped vault a politician and his party from obscurity to Official Opposition status — and political junkies from a certain vintage will remember it well.

Tuesday (Oct. 13) is arguably the biggest day of the provincial election campaign as the three leaders of political parties with MLAs in the legislature engage in a debate that will be televised, broadcast on the radio and streamed online.

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan, B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson and B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau will face off, hoping to turn in a performance that can sway undecided voters. The smart money says most viewers have already made up their minds and will tune in to get clarification on an issue or, simply, for entertainment value.

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But there was a provincial leaders’ debate in which one quick-witted line helped vault a politician and his party from obscurity to Official Opposition status — and political junkies from a certain vintage will remember it well.

The date was Oct. 8, 1991 and three people were on stage for the televised leaders’ debate: B.C. NDP Leader Mike Harcourt, B.C. Social Credit Leader Rita Johnston and B.C. Liberal Leader Gordon Wilson.

It was Wilson — whose party had no seats in the legislature — who took legal action to be included in the debate. During the debate, amid yet another rancorous exchange between Harcourt and Johnston, Wilson interjected: "This reminds me of the legislature and here's a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia.”

The line dominated next day headlines and drew guffaws and cheers from those watching at viewing parties. True, voters were tired of the long-ruling Socreds (whose fate was sealed by Bill Vander Zalm a few years earlier) and the New Democrats were already ordering furniture for government offices.

But Wilson’s line is credited for being a large part of why his B.C. Liberals went from zero to 17 seats in the 1991 election. The NDP formed government with 51 seats (a gain of 29), while Social Credit was at death’s door, losing an astounding 40 seats to emerge with a paltry seven on election night. The legendary Grace McCarthy almost saved W.A.C Bennett’s party in a byelection three years later, but she lost by a mere 42 votes to then-school trustee Michael de Jong of the B.C. Liberals in a byelection in Matsqui.

(As a cub reporter, I happened to cover that byelection and my car, like Social Credit, was severely damaged on election night, having been broadsided in a parking lot. Like Social Credit, it chugged along for a bit before its engine finally collapsed. That election night is memorable for seeing de Jong and his election team enjoying a few pops during the victory party, wrapping their ties around their head like sweatbands and screaming “Banzai!” for the TV cameras from Vancouver.)

The Socreds were dead, but a controversy would claim Wilson’s leadership two years later. It involved a blossoming relationship between Wilson and fellow MLA Judy Tyabji — during which Wilson’s then-wife, Elizabeth, famously told a reporter she had no idea about any relationship, noting she was still doing his laundry.

In any event, Wilson gave way to Gordon Campbell, who became became leader of the B.C. Liberal Party in 1993 — and the B.C. Liberal Party began its metamorphosis into becoming Social Credit 2.0, where it remains today.

B.C. Conservative Leader Trevor Bolin had argued, like Wilson three decades ago, that he should be the in tonight’s debate. Unlike Wilson, Bolin has not challenged his absence through the courts.

So, will we see a Sonia soliloquy to lift the Greens into winning enough seats to require more than the fingers on one hand to count? Or will we witness a terrible mess, as we did when Horgan and Wilkinson debated (for want of a better word) the merits of changing the electoral system in November 2018? That “debate” was painful to watch, with the two men talking over one another constantly.

Here’s hoping remnants of 1991 return — at least for the sake of viewers.

The Oct. 13 debate

The 90-minute event is being organized by the British Columbia Broadcast Consortium and will run from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. It will be moderated by Shachi Kurl, current Angus Reid Institute president and former political reporter.

There will be direct questions to the candidates about current issues in B.C. and there will be opportunity for head to head debate between the individual party leaders. There will be no live audience at the venue, due to pandemic protocols. The debate will air on these TV networks: CTV Vancouver, CBC Vancouver, Global BC, BC 1, Citytv, Omni BC, CHEK, and CPAC. It will also air on these radio stations: CBC, CKNW and News 1130.

The above networks are also expected to stream the event on their websites.

Twitter: @ChrisJFoulds

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