Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong in his office at the B.C. legislature, Sept. 25, 2017. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

Mike de Jong’s second shot at leadership

B.C. Liberal’s tight spending may be a blessing and a curse

Mike de Jong brings a more impressive resume to his second run for leadership of the B.C. Liberal Party, as a finance minister with the best track record in the country.

That string of balanced budgets and growing surpluses may be his biggest asset, and also a liability with party members who are still recovering from the party’s slow-motion fall from power over the summer. Legendary for his frugality, the Abbotsford West MP was too frugal for some voters, leading to lost seats in Metro Vancouver and a lost grip on power as the NDP and B.C. Greens teamed up to form a minority government that could last for years to come.

Will party members and leadership rivals hold that against him, de Jong was asked in an interview with Black Press as he prepared to launch his leadership campaign on Tuesday.

“I’m not sure what I’ll hear,” de Jong said. “I hope I hear some new ideas from the candidates, because that’s my intention, to come to this with new ideas and try to appeal to that family, that mom sitting at a table with her kids, who are facing some challenges right now.

“And here we are in the richest province in the country, with the best economy, the best track record for job creation. We should be able to ensure that we’re sharing that wealth and that opportunity equitably.”

De Jong has caucus support including Abbotsford-Mission MLA Simon Gibson, Chilliwack MLA John Martin, Richmond North Centre MLA and former international trade minister Teresa Wat, and he says “others will be on board” as the leadership campaign progresses.

Party members are to vote on ranked ballots with the results to be revealed Feb. 3, as the B.C. Liberals get set to face off in the legislature with the NDP-Green government as it launches its first full budget. There are party forums set for Vancouver, Surrey, Prince George, Nanaimo and the Thompson-Okanagan, plus a forum hosted by the B.C. Liberal Indigenous Network.

De Jong enters a growing field of candidates, including the front-runner in caucus support, Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Andrew Wilkinson, Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier, Vancouver-False Creek MLA Sam Sullivan, and likely Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone in the days to come.

Also competing is Surrey-White Rock MP Dianne Watts, who intends to quit her federal seat to enter B.C. politics, a decision de Jong was first to criticize.

“I think she will have some questions from long-standing members of the party about why she chose to remain so silent at a time when the free enterprise team was in a tough electoral fight, when many of her [federal Conservative] colleagues did not,” de Jong said.

Another challenge for de Jong and other leadership candidates is the shadow cast by former premier Christy Clark’s post-election throne speech that borrowed an income assistance increase, cancelling tolls on Metro Vancouver bridges and other measures from the NDP platform. It was based on substantially increased forecasts for income, real estate and sales tax revenues in the current fiscal year that were not revealed until a month after the May election.

“Finance ministers write budgets, and premiers write throne speeches,” de Jong said. “And in this case, Premier Clark believed that she wanted to signal, in a dramatic way, some changes. And to be fair, it was in June that we discovered the good year we were having was actually a great year, and we got updated numbers.”

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