Following weeks of speculation, Conservative MP Dianne Watts has officially thrown her hat into the BC Liberal Party leadership race.
In a much-hyped announcement in Surrey on Sunday afternoon, Watts told an invitation-only room of supporters that it was time to “bring our province back from a coalition government that is not only unstable, but determined to raise taxes, gut our natural resource sector and drive jobs and investment out of this province.”
Watts joins a growing list of leadership candidates that includes Vancouver-False Creek MLA Sam Sullivan and Terrace business owner Lucy Sager.
She will step down from her role as South Surrey White Rock MP, triggering a byelection. According to Elections Canada, the most recent federal byelection, which took place in Alberta, cost taxpayers $1.2 million.
When asked for his thoughts on Watts’s bid, former finance minister Mike de Jong questioned her timing.
“I hope we’ll find out why she’s been such a stranger to the BC Liberal Party over the years,” said Abbotsford West MLA de Jong. “There were times when this year we could have used all the help we could get in Surrey.”
De Jong declined to comment on whether he would run for BC Liberals leadership but hinted that he thought “there will be more entrants in that race in the days ahead.”
Watts, who was Surrey’s mayor from 2005-2014 before becoming MP in 2015, leaned heavily on her time in civic politics while making her leadership pitch.
“We created and built a city from the ground up,” Watts said. “We worked with investors, community groups to build an iconic downtown core.”
She lauded her city council’s homelessness and housing strategy, noting that “still to this day, it gives people a safe place to live.”
Watts admitted that the BC Liberals ended up with a “disconnect” with B.C. voters that the party will have to address. She admitted that past premier Christy Clark’s Throne speech was “confusing” for voters because it incorporated platform promises from the NDP and the BC Greens.
“We have to reconnect, we have to create and build a new future and a new vision together,” said Watts. “I believe that a strong economy and a balanced budget must have a purpose and that purpose has to be our children, our families, our seniors and those who are our most vulnerable.”
It was a speech that echoed ones given by Clark, who played up the BC Liberals’ economic prowess and the benefits to the province’s families during the 2017 election campaign.
Clark resigned as party leader in August after a partnership between the NDP and the Greens gave a vote of non-confidence to her throne speech. NDP leader John Horgan was sworn in as premier in mid-July.
Watts had harsh words for the new provincial government. In a scrum following the speech, she called it “wrong.”
“In just a few weeks, the NDP-Green coalition have chased away billions of dollars in investment and job creation,” Watts said, citing carbon tax, income tax and business tax increases.
“Where’s that money going? What’s the plan? It’s a mystery.”
She acknowledged the need for campaign finance reform but said she didn’t believe the new government was going about it properly.
Watts said that under her watch, the BC Liberals would take on softwood tariffs and pine beetles that she said have taken a toll on the forestry sector. She told the room she would fight to help B.C.’s forests recover from what has been a record-breaking wildfire season in which over a million hectares has been lost.
She promised a better seat at the table for municipalities, especially in the fight against the overdose crisis and in upcoming marijuana legalization. The province’s local governments have made legal pot a key issue at the upcoming Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver this week.
“When marijuana is sold in communities, those dollars need to stay in those communities,” Watts said. “Additional policing for impaired driving, the distribution, sales and regulation are all additional costs.”
Watts said that B.C. needed to take a “multi-faceted approach” to an opioid crisis that has claimed 876 lives in 2017 so far. That approach “includes support for parents, for recovery centres, therapeutic communities, treatment options.”
In the Lower Mainland, where the Liberals lost seats South of the Fraser to the NDP’s promises of lower tolls and better transit funding, Watts said she would focus on transportation.
“Rapid transit lines need to be built right now,” she said, referring to light rail planned for Surrey and Langley.
More to come.