04/26/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 06/25/2013 05:12 EDT

BC Election: CKNW Leaders Debate Lends Little Clarity To Voters

VANCOUVER - Money and oil.

Among the shades of grey that separate the two main political parties vying to form government in British Columbia with so little economic room to move, these two issues emerged as the main points of contention during a live radio debate Friday.

The call-in debate involving all four party leaders was dominated by the provincial budget and two proposed oil pipelines that would deliver Alberta oil to B.C. ports for export.

Clark cited control over government spending and a balanced budget as her major accomplishments from two years in office.

"I became premier two years ago. I inherited a deficit and I said we're going to get government spending under control. We've done it. We have better control of government spending than any other province in the country, by a long shot," Clark told listeners during the hour-and-a-half show.

"We have balanced the budget in British Columbia and we have three years of surpluses in front of us."

But while polls may say Clark is the underdog to be the next premier, she and her balanced budget were the main target of the debate,.

"The only person in B.C. who thinks the budget is balanced is Premier Clark," said New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix.

In her two years at the helm, the growth in government spending has increased, he said, adding that the budget is balanced only by the sale of government assets.

B.C. Conservative Leader John Cummins joined the fray, ridiculing the balanced budget legislation that forms one of a relatively small number of planks in the Liberal platform.

"We've had a series of balanced budget legislations going back to the Social Credit government of the 1990s," Cummins said.

"It hasn't been successful. We've had six surpluses and 17 deficits since the first balanced budget legislation was introduced. Folks are talking the talk but they're not walking the walk."

Clark was not alone on the hot seat, however. Dix was roundly criticized on all fronts for his announcement last week that he opposes Kinder Morgan's proposed expansion of its existing Trans Mountain pipeline that delivers oil from Alberta to the Port of Vancouver.

"I've made it clear what our position is," Dix said. His opponents disagree.

"I'd actually like to hear whether the NDP is for or against Kinder Morgan, yes or no?" B.C. Green Leader Jane Sterk said.

"I think that what I'm hearing is really an election ploy to say that we're against Kinder Morgan because that's what their NDP base wants and that's what most of British Columbia wants, but I don't really hear that they're against Kinder Morgan."

Just a few weeks ago, Dix said he would wait until the application was filed by Kinder Morgan to take a position, but on Earth Day last week he announced his opposition.

Clark has seized upon the decision as a flip-flop.

Dix insisted his position is clear and he declined to clarify the timeline of his decision to oppose the pipeline expansion.

Clark herself was attacked for saying credit rating agency reports agree her government has balanced the budget. She later backed off the claim Friday, saying that the reports "have said they are confident in the budget numbers that we put forward and they're confident that we're maintaining fiscal discipline."

Hamish Telford, a professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley, said Clark was very aggressive in the first debate of the campaign.

"I think perhaps Christy Clark was a little too aggressive and too narrowly focused for the task at hand," Telford said.

Dix, on the other hand, was "a little lacklustre."

Neither of the major party leaders helped themselves in the exchange, Telford said, but Cummins and Sterk both may have succeeded in painting themselves as reasonable alternatives for voters.

Clark will have to get off her well-worn message on economic growth and balanced budgets if she expects to gain any ground, he said.

"She really needs to broaden the message. Focusing only on debt and deficit appeals really to fiscal conservatives, most of whom are intending to vote Liberal already," he said.

"It's not going to shake that many votes loose from the NDP because people who are inclined to support the NDP aren't all that concerned about that issue."

Callers asked the party leaders about a range of issues including disability benefits, seniors care, the Liberal decision to cancel a therapeutics initiative to evaluate prescription medications and the party discipline system.

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