Friday, September 21, 2007

Guelph All-Candidates Debate – Ontario Election

On September 19, I attended the all-candidates debate for the riding of Guelph, held at the Dublin Street United Church, and organized by the Guelph-Wellington Coalition for Social Justice. The meeting was well-attended, with a nice mix of both young and old voters, and a fair number of interest groups were represented there. I was pleased that the evening began with a presentation on the MMP referendum from Marty Fairbairn, from Elections Ontario. Fairbairn did his best to stay neutral, despite some very pointed questions from the audience. Unfortunately, there were so many questions in the candidates debate that the moderator ended it (after 2 hours, which was perfectly reasonable) before a question could be posed about candidate support for MMP.

The Opening Statements

Bob Senechal: The “John Tory” candidate in my riding did very briefly use the words “progressive conservative” in his opening statement, which might have been the only time he did so over the course of the night. The John Torys are running on leadership, leadership, and leadership, attacking McGuinty for broken promises. Senechal laid out 5 priorities for Guelph (borrowing a page from the Harper handbook): 1) Fairness in Education, including $500M for public funding to faith-based schools; 2) Transportation, including bringing the GO Train to Guelph, and incorporating mass transit into new highway development; 3) Lower Taxes; 4) More Family Doctors, and easing the process for recognizing foreign credentials; and 5) Environment – creating more nuclear plants for Ontario.

John Gots: The Family Coalition Party candidate, who would get equal time to the mainstream parties. I find this party offensive on a personal level, so I will not dwell on his statements or answers to questions. Suffice it to say that he banged on the drum of the traditional family, attacked gay couples, and would later turn a question about laws regarding animal cruelty into a speech about abortion.

Ben Polley: I was quite keen to see what the Green Party candidate would have to say. Guelph is, I have rapidly discovered, a hotbed of environmental activism, and so I expected a serious candidate. I was not disappointed over the course of the evening, although his opening statement was quite general, speaking about moving beyond left-right debates and relying on common sense. He did, however, speak of the linkages between issues of poverty and health, and between education and the economy. And of course, some good words about the impact of the Greens on Liberal party policies on pesticides and wind turbines.

Karan Mann-Bowers: I have voted NDP in a long string of federal and provincial elections, although often reluctantly, faced with no better options. Mann-Bowers stressed her credentials as a mother, an advocate, a wife and an educator. She stated that she would make no promises that evening, but stressed values of fairness, accountability and respect. She also stressed the importance of her unique perspective of an immigrant woman of colour, which she believes needs to be represented in the legislature.

Liz Sandals: The incumbent Liberal MPP, Sandals stressed both the Liberal record and attacked the Conservatives, particularly for their education policy. She carefully spelled out the constitutional requirements for the four existing streams of publicly-funded education in the province. Key accomplishments were listed, including the creation of the Green Belt, reduction of coal plants, a new wait time strategy for health, and a new child benefit for low-income Ontarians.

Andrew Garvie: My husband leaned over to me and said “I bet he’s the Marxist-Leninist,” referring to the young man with the longish hair and short-sleeved shirt. Well, not quite, but he is the Communist candidate, a fourth-year philosophy student at U of G. Garvie stressed two key issues: the need for MMP to allow for a more democratic process, and the need for universal access to post-secondary education, to reduce student debts and end the “prostitution” of universities to corporate interests.

Question Period

I am not going to recap all of the questions and answers, although this part of the evening was particularly long and tedious, as we had to sit through six answers to every single question, regardless of whether or not the candidate had a position, or knew what their party’s stance was.

This section started out as a bit of a consensus section. Everyone likes local farmers and wants to encourage buying locally and subsidizing farms. They are also all keen on more mass transit and want to bring the GO Train to Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo (although Sandals was cagey about when this might happen, and would not promise to get it done). Everyone is also committing to reduce downloading of responsibilities to municipalities without funding, and spoke of uploading (except the FCP). Everyone opposes cruelty to animals.

Differences emerged on a few key issues. Water extraction and sale by Nestle is a major local issue. The NDP and the Green candidate were quite vehement about this being “our water” and raised the spectre of Americans taking Canadian resources. I was impressed by the Green candidate’s proposal to shift the cost of recycling and reuse of plastic water bottles to the manufacturer. Sandals would return to this issue at length in her closing speech, stressing the bureaucratic evaluation of the sustainability of the ground water resevoir – it was a weak point for her, as she seemed only to be able to explain inaction as the result of bureaucratic red tape.

A host of written questions on public funding for religious schools was grouped together by the moderator to present to Senechal. He couched this as an issue of fairness and of relpying to UN criticisms that the Ontario system is discriminatory. Sandals criticized this as a measure that would take even more money away from the existing public schools and foster discrimination. The FCP called for a move to the voucher system. I must congratulate Garvie for calling for a move to one public system, which would require a constitutional amendment to eliminate public funding for Catholic schools as well.

The impact of the high dollar on the Ontario economy was also raised, and the candidates were asked how they would help the manufacturing sector. Sandals spoke of partnerships with high-tech industries, which she believes are the sector where Canada can compete internationally in value-added, high-skill jobs. Senechal talked (surprise, surprise) about lower taxes. Mann-Bowers raised the NDP pledge for a higher minimum wage, lower corporate hydro rates and anti-scab legislation. Polley outlined (a bit too quickly for me) a Green plan to invest in small businesses through loans to workers to invest in their firms, as opposed to direct large loans to big businesses. I need to read more about that policy plank.

Closing Statements

Garvie admitted that he hasn’t got a chance in hell of winning, but observed that he wanted to run to raise issues in the debate, especially about tuition fees and the MMP referendum. He got a lot of support from the audience, even those who were not clearly his friends.

Senechal repeated his opening statement, in slightly different words.

Sandals spent two thirds of her time trying to explain the water extraction evaluation, and ended up sounding like a bureaucrat. She closed by stressing that a vote for anyone but the Liberals is a vote for the Conservatives as government and a return to more private health clinics and education funding diversions.

Mann-Bowers spoke vaguely about wanting to “connect with people” and representing the marginalized groups of society, including those in poverty, who are mostly single mothers, many of whom are black. She threw in a few sops to the “children are our future” discourse, and then rattled off a few NDP planks about a two-year tuition freeze, raising the minimum wage, closing coal plants and supporting unions.

Gots was a troglodyte.

Polley presented a platform that would be well suited to a left-wing social agenda, supporting a minimum wage hike, an increase in the basic tax exemption up to $11K in the first year of government, an end to the health premium tax, and a living wage policy. He also, of course, spoke of green power, green transport and green housing. And he got off the best line of the night, joking about how Bob Senechal appeared to be running as the candidate for “the independent party of John Tory”.

My Impressions

Wednesday night whittled down my choices to two candidates: Liz Sandals and Ben Polley. I now have some platforms to read in more detail. These two were the only candidates who struck me as not only being on top of their issues and generally representing my values, but also able to think for themselves, and do more than parrot the party line. I found Mann-Bowers deeply disappointing – I expect more from the NDP than someone essentially asking for me to vote for her as the affirmative action candidate. Like Howard Hampton, she seemed fresh out of new ideas. Senechal seemed like a puppet for his party. I liked Garvie on a personal level and admire his gumption for running, but to borrow from Leela in an episode of Futurama (the one with the popplers and the Omicronians) “You’re a Communist, who cares what you think?”

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At 10:48 am, Blogger Mark Greenan said...

"Gots was a troglodyte."

I nearly spit my coffee on my screen when I read this. Hee hee, you're a funny man Matt!

At 9:55 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I look forward to the federal debate rundown from Guelph.


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