Looking for new leadership

British Columbia's Liberals will elect a new leader Saturday with an assignment to ignite and guide the party from an unfamiliar position in Opposition after 16 years in power.

An estimated 60,000 party members are eligible to vote online and by phone starting Thursday to replace Christy Clark, who resigned last summer after the New Democrats formed a minority government with the support of the Green party.

The field of six candidates includes three veterans with deep cabinet experience, two former big city mayors and a first-time member of the legislature from Metro Vancouver.

Mike de Jong, Andrew Wilkinson and Todd Stone were longtime members of Clark's cabinet, joined late her in government by Sam Sullivan, who is also a former Vancouver mayor. The field of candidates also includes Michael Lee, a Vancouver lawyer who was elected to the legislature last spring, and Dianne Watts, a former Conservative MP and former mayor of Surrey.

The results of the last May's election, which led to the Liberals eventual downfall in a confidence vote, has figured largely in the contest.

In debates, candidates have pointed fingers over the party's fall from power despite heading into the election boasting five consecutive balanced budgets and the strongest economy in Canada.

While candidates acknowledged the government's record of economic success, failures to address transportation, housing and social policy issues have been blamed by some for the loss of pivotal seats in Metro Vancouver, a longtime Liberal stronghold.

Only de Jong, the former finance minister, steadfastly celebrated the Liberal record, saying B.C.'s healthy bottom line and record on job creation were the envy of Canada.

"A lot of the campaign was about how much were they going to distance themselves from 16 years," said Prof. Michael Prince, a social policy expert at University of Victoria. "Mike de Jong was probably the only one who exemplified that dilemma the most, having been the finance minister and presiding over arguably one of the great successes of the Christy Clark era."

De Jong ended up being the target of the other candidates who said they would not have been as tight fisted with the province's purse strings.

"By the end of the last debate he was being picked on as: 'You hid some money on us,' " said Prince.

He said the race produced few new ideas and focused more on mistakes of the past than regeneration.

"There's perhaps an opportunity lost to really reconnect and say, 'What is our direction?' " Prince said.

Sullivan talked about privatizing health care, considering Charter schools and introducing a new version of the harmonized sales tax that was defeated in 2011 by voters in a referendum.

"A campaign like this should invite some bold thinking and Sam Sullivan sort of took the party at its word," Prince said. "But he's largely viewed as someone coming up with ideas beyond the pale."

David Black, a political communications expert at Victoria's Royal Roads University, said the Liberals missed a chance to ask themselves about the heart and soul of the party.

"What I didn't see was the quality of introspection that really ought to follow a party after losing after 16 years," he said. "The most introspective candidates are the ones who are less embedded in the B.C. Liberal organization. They are Watts and Lee."

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