The final all-candidates meeting before a key provincial byelection in the Vancouver Island riding of Nanaimo was peppered with clapping, cheers and jeers as the New Democrat and Liberal frontrunners traded jabs Thursday night.
Six candidates, including New Democrat Sheila Malcolmson and Liberal Tony Harris, are running in the race that has the potential to tip the balance of power in the B.C. legislature.
Fuelled by raucous responses from their supporters, Malcolmson and Harris sparred over issues from the state of the economy to funding for local schools and multi-million dollar improvements to Nanaimo’s regional hospital.
The testy atmosphere contrasted to what has been described as “fairly civil” exchanges throughout the campaign and during the first all-candidates meeting earlier this week when the same issues were debates in the byelection, which will be held on Wednesday.
Nanaimo has been a New Democrat stronghold but a Liberal victory would give the party 43 seats, tying it with the 43-members held by the NDP and the Green party, which signed an agreement allowing the New Democrats to form a minority government.
Should the Liberals win, Speaker Darryl Plecas – a former Liberal who sits as an Independent – would hold the tie-breaking vote.
Advance voting continues until Sunday in the riding, which became vacant when long-time New Democrat Leonard Krog stepped down to run successfully for Nanaimo mayor.
Malcolmson resigned as the NDP member of Parliament for Nanaimo-Ladysmith to run provincially and tangled with Harris, the son of a well-known local businessman, over what Harris claimed was her exaggeration of NDP accomplishments in B.C.
“You can’t built a strong economy in 18 months,” he said to loud cheers from his supporters but catcalls from Malcolmson’s side of the room.
Malcolmson appeared to regain audience support as she accused the B.C. Liberals of allowing Nanaimo’s chronically overburdened hospital to languish for years.
Health Minister Adrian Dix announced Wednesday that Nanaimo is next in line to receive an urgent primary care centre and the province announced $34 million in upgrades to the intensive care unit in November.
The other four candidates in the race include Michele Ney, representing the Green party, B.C. Conservative Justin Greenwood, Libertarian Bill Walker and Robin Richardson with the Vancouver Island Party.
Turnout for the first two days of advance polls in the byelection has outpaced votes cast over same period in the last provincial election, with Elections BC reporting 3,188 ballots recorded Tuesday and Wednesday, compared with 2,955 cast in 2017.
Story by Spencer Sterritt, Nanaimo News Now