Re-connecting with communities and coming up with a province-wide forestry strategy were two key points in BC Liberal leadership candidate Dianne Watts’ speech to party members in stops in Port Alberni Saturday and Parksville Sunday.
They were Watts’ first two stops on her second tour of Vancouver Island since she announced in September that she would run for the provincial Liberal leadership, resigning her seat as Conservative MP for the South Surrey-White Rock riding. Watts won her federal seat in 2015, after serving as Surrey’s mayor for nearly a decade.
Watts told about 30 supporters gathered at Pastimes Sports Bar & Grill in Port Alberni that healthy communities are at the crux of a healthy province.
“If your community’s not whole, this province is not whole,” she said. “It has to be… economically viable, there has to be jobs, there has to be growth in all different sectors. There has to be great education and there has to be a strong social fabric and social network to make sure we’re building strong, resilient communities.”
Better communication between municipal, provincial and federal governments is at the heart of the issue, she added, saying she hears about the disconnect between governments everywhere she travels.
One woman at the gathering said Vancouver Islanders’ issues seem to be ignored once election campaigns are finished, and Islanders retaliated by turning the Island into a sea of NDP orange. Watts agreed. “We lost the election because we didn’t listen and we need to start listening,” she said.
Chris Duncan, a board member of the Alberni Valley Community Forest, said the BC Liberals need to educate themselves on forestry issues such as the difficulty smaller contractors are having in dealing with larger forestry companies. “…Contractors are going broke,” while larger companies are making 18-percent profits, he said.
Another retired forester said access to private lands now locked behind gates is an issue any potential leader needs to take seriously.
Watts was critical of the present-day government for their lack of an overall forestry plan for B.C. that deals with not only wildfire management but the closure of small mills and access to private lands as well.
“We’ve got to bring people together and have some tough conversations about how do we make this industry and this sector viable, sustainable and long term,” she said.
On Sunday, Watts resumed her tour with a one-hour stop in Parksville at the Rod & Gun Bar & Grill that drew nearly 50 guests.
After mingling with visitors, Watts shared a short address that reprised the outlook shared in Port Alberni, then opened the floor for questions. She was asked to share her views and plans on topics including the gas tax, the future of the E&N Railway, the education budget, pending federal legislation on derelict vessels and proportional representation.
Watts continues her tour of the Island on Sunday in Victoria (4–5:30 p.m., Bard and Banker (1022 Government St.). She will also hold a morning event in Saanich from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 30 at Felicita’s Pub (3800 Finnerty Rd.).
She plans to visit 87 ridings before the party votes for its new leader.
The BC Liberal leadership seat became vacant when former leader Christy Clark resigned her seat on July 28, 10 days after NDP leader John Horgan supplanted her as premier of British Columbia.
Watts told the Port Alberni gathering that the party needs to figure out what its vision will be, and do it quickly. Above all, she added, the party needs to start listening to its constituents: “That we reconnect with voters, that we renew the party and that we really rebuild the trust that was lost. I mean the trust that was lost through the process of the Throne Speech. I hear over and over again, who are we as BC Liberals?” she said.
“I would say we are a free enterprise party, we have a social conscience and when we have a foundation that we have built on the economic values of job growth and job creation—No. 1 in the country—that is a great foundation, but it’s got to be meaningful to the communities.
“We have one chance to get it right,” she said. “If we don’t, if we don’t make the right decisions on this front, we’re going to be in opposition for an awful long time.”
In Parksville, the veteran campaigner said B.C. citizens would be hearing from a number of candidates in the leadership race, but that one question should be prominent in voters’ minds.
“I think this party has to choose a leader that can win the next election,” Watts said. “What I would suggest is to look at each single candidate; look at the qualities of leadership, the qualities of connectedness and understanding. But also asking the question, ‘Can this person win the next election?’
“Because that’s what it’s all about.”
Members of the BC Liberal Party will vote for their new leader Feb. 1, 2 and 3, 2018. Anyone wanting to get in on the vote must become a member of the party by Dec. 29, 2017.
Six leadership debates will be planned in the upcoming weeks for Surrey, Prince George, Nanaimo, Thompson-Okanagan, Vancouver and an event hosted by the BC Liberal Indigenous Network.
— With files from J.R. Rardon, PQB NEWS