Former Surrey Mayor and MP Dianne Watts will step down from her South Surrey-White Rock riding.
Former Surrey mayor and Conservative MP Dianne Watts said she’s “committed 100 per cent” to becoming the next leader of the BC Liberal Party.
Watts formally announced her candidacy Sunday in a packed hotel banquet room in Surrey, where she was a hugely popular politician.
“Today we embark on a journey together, a journey to create a new vision for British Columbia,” she told supporters. “We must reunite people from across this province and across the political spectrum for one common goal: To take our province back from an unstable coalition government.”
Watts, Surrey’s first female mayor, served for three terms between 2005 and 2014 before making the leap to federal politics.
She said she plans to step down as MP for South Surrey-White Rock, a riding she won for the federal Conservatives in 2015, and resign her role as employment, workforce development and labour critic in the official Opposition.
She will step down regardless of the outcome of the leadership race, she said. “My focus needs to be here,” she told reporters after the announcement. “I don’t think it’s fair to have one foot in Ottawa and one foot here. I’m committed and I’m all in.”
Watts said the B.C. Liberals have a strong foundation to build on, citing the balanced budget and strong economy. But she acknowledged the party had a “disconnect” with some voters, which showed their displeasure by granting the long-running governing party a minority government in the spring election that was quickly overturned by an NDP-Green alliance.
“When you have balanced budgets and surpluses as large was we did, then there’s an expectation that people will want to have those dollars affect their life in a different way,” Watts said.
“For me, it was really important when I heard that — you look after the seniors and our kids and those who are less fortunate and you build a plan around that … There’s a lot of things that could have been broader in nature in terms of connecting with the general public.”
In her speech, Watts included as her priorities addressing B.C.’s opioid crisis, the forestry and resource sector, affordability, and the need for a transportation strategy.
She said the Liberals’ throne speech at the start of its short-lived minority government where then-Premier Christy Clark flip-flopped on many policies was “very confusing” for British Columbians and indicated the Liberals will carve its own way. “We have the ability to stand on our own with our own public policies and our own strategies we need to move forward on.”
Watts criticized the NDP government’s new legislation on campaign finance reform, calling it “wrong-headed” because it would create new taxpayer subsidies for political parties over the next four years. The bill also seeks to ban corporate and union donations and set limits to individual donations.
Watts said she would reject any “top-up” money offered to her as leader, diverging from a long-standing B.C. Liberal practice in place until January this year, that saw Clark receive up to $50,000 annually from her party through political contributions in addition to her $195,000 salary.
The leadership race is expected to draw several prominent names, including some who have criticized Watts for staying quiet during the last election when the Liberals lost a few key ridings in Surrey.
Watts defended herself by saying she was busy in Ottawa doing the job taxpayers paid her to do.
“I think they would be terribly offended if I left the House of Commons in Ottawa and came out to work on an election,” she said, adding: “And surely, I can’t imagine my presence there would have done any difference in the outcome.”
Stepping down from her role as MP wasn’t a decision she took lightly, said Watts, but she felt compelled to do so because of the “unstable” NDP-Green alliance and what she said was the flight of investment dollars from the province since the NDP came into power.
“I’ve raised my family here, and I’ve lived in this province all my life,” she said. “That’s something that I cannot idly stand by.”
An Insights West poll in August found 39 per cent of B.C. respondents have a favourable opinion of Watts, the highest of all potential Liberal leaders polled.
Vancouver-False Creek MLA Sam Sullivan was second at 30 per cent, followed by former finance minister Mike de Jong at 28 per cent, rookie Richmond MLA Jas Johal at 24 per cent and former transportation minister Kevin Falcon, who is now in the private sector after retiring from politics before the 2013 election, at 23 per cent.
Sullivan, a former Vancouver mayor, announced his candidacy on Friday.
More candidates are expected to declare their intentions this week. Former cabinet ministers Andrew Wilkinson, MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena, and Mike Bernier, MLA for Peace River South, are expected to announce their candidacy on Monday.
Long-serving MLA Mike de Jong, who came fourth in the 2011 Liberal leadership race won by Christy Clark, is expected to announce his bid later this week.
Other names that have been mentioned as mulling a run for leadership include MLAs Todd Stone and Michael Lee.
The B.C. Liberals will choose a new leader in early February. The first leadership debate will be held in Surrey on Oct. 15.