B.C. Liberal leadership candidate Dianne Watts speaks with Teresa May and Mike Ostopowich during a stop in Kelowna Tuesday night.—Alistair Waters/Capital News

B.C. Liberal leadership front-runner says new vision is needed by party

Dianne Watts, speaking in Kelowna, says party also needs to reconnect with British Columbians.

B.C. Liberal leadership hopeful Dianne Watts says the party has to reconnect with British Columbians if it hopes to wrestle back power from the NDP in the next provincial election.

Watts, the former Surrey mayor who quit as a Conservative MP last month to run for leadership of the B.C. Liberals, brought her campaign to Kelowna Tuesday, the latest stop on a tour of all 87 provincial ridings she said she has undertaken.

Speaking to a group of about 50 people at a downtown restaurant, Watts—considered by many to be the front-runner in the race to succeed former Liberal leader Christy Clark—said it was clear from the loss of 11 seats by the party in the provincial election in the spring, the party has lost its connection to many British Columbians, especially in urban areas of the Lower Mainland.

“And we need to reconnect,” she said.

Related: Liberal hopeful Michael Lee also in Kelowna

That will start by doing what she is now doing, she said—getting out and listening to what British Columbians want and need, and working to provide those things.

In her remarks, Watts was critical of the party following the last election for running on a platform only to change many of its positions in the subsequent Throne Speech. That speech was presented after the Liberals squeaked out a razor-thin, one-seat election victory.

“If it’s good enough to be in the platform, it’s good enough to be in the Throne Speech, said Watts of the many flip-flops in the Throne Speech.

The changes—in many cases reversals of previous long-held positions and election promises—were made in a last-ditch bid to hold onto power, given the NDP—with the support of the B.C. Green Party—had enough votes between them in the Legislature to topple the Liberals in a vote of non-confidence.

That is what they did, not only pushing the Liberals out of power after 16 years in office but also prompting Liberal leader and former premier Christy Clark to resign and quit politics altogether, despite having been re-elected easily as MLA in her Kelowna West riding.

Watts, who lived in Kelowna as a teen and graduated from KSS, said the party needs renewal and a new vision, both of which she believes she can provide. And she pointed to her nine years as mayor of Surrey, the province’s second largest city, and a community with any challenges as proof.

While there, she said, she was able to bring many different groups together and get things done, not unlike the task of leading the “free-enterprise coalition” that she said is today’s B.C. Liberal Party.

Watts, who ran as a Conservative in the 2015 federal election and was elected MP in Surrey-White Rock, quit her federal seat Sept. 30 to run for leadership of the B.C. Liberals.

Following her brief remarks Tuesday in Kelowna, several people who spoke to the Capital News said they were impressed with her and what she had to say.

“She has a strong message and I think (the B.C. Liberals) really do need to refocus,” said Brad Savoury, a recent arrival in Kelowna from Alberta.

Another recent arrival, knows first-hand what Watts can do in a position of leadership.

Nicholas Popoff said he moved to Kelowna from Surrey and lived there during Watts time as mayor.

“If Dianne Watts can replenish the party and do what she did for the City of Surrey, the province of B.C. will be a better place,” he said.

Local Kelowna realtor Jane Hoffman also liked Watts message, saying she found her direct and liked the direction she wanted to take B.C.

Local Liberal MLAs, Norm Letnick (Kelowna-Lake Country) and Steve Thomson (Kelowna-Mission) were also on hand to hear Watts speak Tuesday night.

Both have yet to publicly endorse any of the eight candidates running for the Liberal leadership and Letnick said he will not do so until after the Dec. 2 leadership candidates’ debate to be held in Kelowna. That debate will be open to all members of the public, not just B.C. Liberal Party members.

Letnick said a key requirement for whoever wins the leadership will be the ability to then go on to win the next provincial election.

“We need a leader who can beat (current NDP leader and Premier) John Horgan,” he said.

Both Letnick and Thomson served as ministers in Clark’s former Liberal government and brushed off Watts criticisms of that government and the party’s tactics following the election.

Both men said all the leadership candidates bring different strengths to the race and that is a good thing. The leadership race, said Thomson, is about moving forward, not looking back.

Using a sports analogy, Letnick said he believed his party has a “deep bench” when it comes to the candidates running to succeed Clark and that will serve the Liberals well.

Watts visit to Kelowna was just one of four by Liberal leadership candidates, yesterday and today, with Micheal Lee in the city to rally support yesterday, Mike DeJong here today, speaking in the same spot as Watts this morning at 8 a.m. at the Curious Cafe on Ellis Street, and Andrew Wilkinson, speaking at the Rotary Centre for the Arts at 11:30 a.m. today.

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