Ellis Ross must have the BC Liberal leadership field fretting.
Why else would he, and not the perceived front-running Kevin Falcon, be the prime object of attention Monday night at the second all-candidates’ debate?
A couple of months ago, Ross was thought to be at the outskirts of the race. It was clear Monday that his rivals no longer consider that so.
The circumstances of the leadership contest make Ross, the MLA for Skeena, a possible spoiler for Falcon’s first-ballot ambition to take the title. If on the first ballot no one holds a majority, the dynamic of the competition usually swivels.
Ross, the former Chief Counsellor for the Haisla Nation, has quickly figured that his strongly conservative positions are an asset in the race to corral a sizable chunk of the vote, particularly in rural B.C. The February voters in this battle aren’t the general public, nor even those who favour the BC Liberals, but any adult British Columbian buying a $10 party membership by the mid-December deadline.
It’s also an election employing what’s called a ranked or a preferential ballot, in which voters determine their first, second, third and other choices in order. The weakest competitors are dropped each ballot, so being a voter’s second or third or even fourth choice might prove very valuable on the second, third, and subsequent ballots when someone’s first choice is eliminated.
And as an extra wrinkle, each of the 87 ridings divides 100 points among the candidates as that ranked ballot is calculated. If you have a lot of supporters in a riding with a small number of voters, that can provide a lot of points – more than, say, having a lot of supporters in a riding with a large number of voters.
As others have discovered – ask Erin O’Toole federally, for instance, because he rose to power in the same way – a general membership drive requires a very different campaign than a general election. It usually requires stark positions to attract voters who support black-and-white clarity or at-the-farther-edges positions on issues and find a voice and political home in the pack of contestants. It was in part the reason that commentator Aaron Gunn, rejected last month as a candidate by the race’s organizing committee, could have been a formidable entrant.
Ross has been staking ground as a conservative voice within a party that strives to be an amalgam of everyone but the NDP and Greens. He is bullish on resource development and had a strong hand in fashioning a $50 million Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) deal for Haisla Nation and Kitimat LNG a decade-and-a-half ago.
Where he differs with today’s candidates, though, is on climate change. When challenged Monday by candidate Val Litwin about a 2019 statement Ross made that experts and scientists can’t agree on global warming, he stood by his remarks and said he could present “scientists” who can argue the denying view.
He decries those who tout electric vehicles as a way to combat climate change, saying that only “rich people” can afford them and that he takes a “people-first” position on any transition to a greener economy to ensure it’s not costing jobs and standards of living.
The positions may not play well in the big cities, but in communities in which resources are intrinsic to the economy as engines of opportunity and growth, there is often a differing point of view. The result of last year’s election left the BC Liberals with many of those seats and far fewer in the larger cities.
Much as he was repeatedly taken to task onstage, Ross knows that his contrast in the race can gather a cohort to deliver a lot of votes in February.
In that respect he scares the opponents, not only about his views but about how his victory in the race would turn a big-tent party into a pup-tent party. Which is why Monday his rivals dished out critique (albeit carefully so as not to suggest intolerance) and claimed that no party can win office any longer without a coherent and vigorous climate change agenda.
“We don’t want to chase people away,” said Falcon.
Ross took the view that “politics” plays too much of a role in this debate. It’s a kind of code to suggest leaders are unduly appeasing those who are consumed with the climate challenge. He points to China, India and Europe as massive fossil fuel markets and implies we are making sacrifices others aren’t.
Of course, even when heartfelt, it is exactly “politics” that his position plays, too.
The vote February 5 could be over barely as it starts. Falcon has a substantial, well-financed organization fortified in every riding. But if he comes up short of the majority, it would be because much of the majority wants anyone but him, which can then set into motion a kinetic shift in the results of what follows. It brought Andrew Wilkinson from fifth place on the first ballot to first place on the fifth. Monday night’s gang-tackle of Ross was a signal that his opponents really don’t want their voters choosing him second and making him first.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.