Hurry-Up Learning Curve For New Liberal Leader

Some neat juggling pending down Belleville Street way as members of our Legislative Assembly challenge our street entertainers with well-rehearsed appeals for the public’s attention.

A key performance is scheduled for Tuesday, February 13, when all but one member of the Assembly will gather for the Speech from the Throne. In the principal speaking role there will be a Lieutenant Governor, if we have one available, or an approved Supreme Court Justice to stand in and read a script prepared by Premier John Horgan and his cabinet … hopefully whipped into understandable English by a team of obedient scribes.

Sometimes “the Speech” is short, but more often it’s long with a multitude of platitudes plastering together a string of hopes and aspirations that may be realized in the coming months. Then, on February 20, Finance Minister Carole James will introduce the 2018-19 provincial budget and many of the undertakings in the Throne Speech will re-emerge as firm plans with the money available to make dreams reality.

Did I write a few lines back “all but one member” should be on hand for the Throne Speech? That would be the “empty chair and desk” being held in readiness for the winner of the Kelowna West byelection scheduled for Feb. 14 – which just happens to be Valentine’s Day.

Coming one day after the Throne Speech, the byelection date is potentially a good choice for a government with such an extremely slender hold on life as our New Democrats. In Kelowna West on Feb. 13, NDP candidate Shelley Cook will be able unload a full government basket of hope and promise just hours before the polls open the 14th. That said, she’s going to need a rocket-blast finale if she is to break long-held Liberal ownership of the riding. Kelowna West, which includes downtown Kelowna, has gone through several name changes over the years, but has never wavered provincially from solid right-wing politics.

The Liberal candidate on Valentine’s Day will be Ben Stewart. He won the seat for the Liberals in 2009 defeating his closest NDP rival by 5,000 votes. Stewart won the seat again in 2013 with an even larger majority, but resigned to allow then Premier Christy Clark, who had been defeated in her own riding of Vancouver Point Grey, to take a second crack in “safe” Kelowna West and retain her premiership.

In the 2013 byelection Clark outstripped the NDP challenger by an even larger majority with 62.66 per cent of the vote. She won handily again in the general election in 2017, but lost the right to form a new government. The final seat count in 2017 was Liberal 43; NDP 41; Green Party 3; with the three Greens voting to align themselves with the NDP to form the present government. Following that decision, Clark resigned from politics.

There are five candidates vying for the Kelowna West seat: Mark Thompson, Conservative; Robert Stupka, Green; Kyle Geronazzo, Libertarian; Shelley Cook, NDP and Ben Stewart, Liberal.

With three wins under his belt and still highly popular, Stewart remains the favourite, but this could be his toughest contest. Liberal leadership candidates seeking to replace Clark resorted to harsh personal criticisms in the recently concluded campaign. In public debates, they demonstrated more dissension in the ranks than eve of byelection unity. They haven’t left Stewart much to boast about.

NDP stalwart Cook had it rough last year facing veteran campaigner Christy Clark. Again this time, she has a veteran campaign winner to beat, albeit a Liberal without a leader until mere days before the vote. Not much time to end the leadership campaign disarray in Liberal ranks and present a polished, united front to Kelowna West voters.

Snipping at Ben Stewart’s heels for the right of centre vote will be Conservative Mark Thompson. He isn’t expected to win or even be close to the winner’s circle, but any votes he does scavenge will come from the Liberals, not the NDP’s Cook with her basketful of Valentine’s Day chocolate coated pledges.

We shall have to wait and see if newly elected Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson can find time to forget last Saturday’s leadership victory cheers and hurtle up to the Okanagan to keep Kelowna West a Liberal stronghold. He has nine days to solidify Ben Stewart’s bid to hold the seat, get ready for his first session as leader of the Opposition and start to prepare himself and his party for a general election call which could come at any time.

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