Last night I attended the St. Paul's Candidates Debate, held at Upper Canada College. The four major candidates were there -- Carolyn Bennett (Lib), Barry Cline (Con), Peter Elgie (Green), Norm Tobias (NDP) -- and I found myself somewhat surprised by my reactions to the various candidates in person. It was a very valuable experience, and could possibly influence my vote.
This debate was a debate of substance, and conducted in a very formal manner. Each candidate essentially had five opportunities to give speeches, ranging from 2-4 minutes in length. This was followed by questions from the audience. The format was a good one to hear serious statements from each candidate. It would not have been good if you were hoping to see candidates challenge each other, or if some needed an opportunity to rebut an accusation.
If residents of St. Paul's are intending on making their voting decision based entirely on party platforms, they are missing out. The qualities and approaches of each candidate in the riding differ somewhat from what voters may have seen in the leaders.
The Conservative candidate, Barry Cline
Barry Cline didn't take long to turn the crowd off of him. A few times he provoked boos and heckles from the otherwise well-behaved crowd at UCC. There certainly were partisans in the audience, but I believe Cline's statements upset the neutrals, and even some of his supporters.
He was attacking the Liberals and Bennett most of the time, sometimes fairly personally. Examples:
It's not that there was absolutely no truth in any of Cline's criticisms, but his heavy focus on hard-hitting attacks, combined with the manner in which he delivered them earned him the rebuke that one audience member shouted: "You're mean spirited!"
I have to believe that if Stephen Harper was running his campaign this way, he'd be getting crushed. In fact, I have to believe that many people who are planning on voting for Cline on June 28 would think otherwise if they saw him speak.
The Liberal incumbent, Carolyn Bennett
Dr. Bennett certainly spoke like an incumbent. And just as I did with Cline, I couldn't help but compare her to her party leader.
Unlike Paul Martin, Bennett had no qualms about standing on her record. She proudly pointed to many of her acheivements over the past decade. In fact, unlike Paul Martin, she made a point of his record as finance minister. I haven't heard Paul Martin say anything recently about Canada being an economic basket case 10 years ago, and now being the only G8 country in the black, or the only G8 country with a solid pension plan. Bennett, however, said those things in her opening remarks, along with pointing out that both unemployment and senior citizen poverty are down from 11% to 7%.
Bennett was extremely enthusiastic and optimistic. She clearly loves her job and believes that her role in democracy is a valuable one. While admitting that her government has not been perfect, she attributed that to human failing. She wants the chance for herself and her government to move forward together and continue to make things better.
She talked a lot about the democratic process, and how she has been involved with the people, locally, in discussing the real issues, and then bringing their concerns to Ottawa. She said she has had 75 local meetings, and is proud of it. And she told specific stories, like one about how a meeting with a St. Paul's resident who was having problems with the disability tax credit ended up changing the law. "Great stuff happens when citizens get engaged," she said. And she is trying to help the government be a learning organization.
Like many incumbents, Bennett seemed to be at a completely different level of maturity compared to her opponents. As she spoke about particular programs, the specifics of how the government works, and the challenges that government faces, you could tell that she was just barely scratching the surface of these details. I saw some of the same thing in Paul Martin on Tuesday night, but not as attractively. What was clear from Bennett was that government is a complicated thing, and that to a certain degree the opposition speaks in naive abstractions.
On the other hand, Bennett's opponents did have some legitimate criticisms, and she did not address them. She sailed above the specific complaints in her speeches about democracy, and her enthusiasm for working as a part of the system.
The Green candidate, Peter Elgie
As I've mentioned before, I'm leaning towards voting Green. I've read good things about Peter Elgie before, but this was my first time seeing him speak.
Elgie is a young, charismatic guy, who used his humour to get along well with the other candidates and the audience. He did not engage in detailed discussions of the Green Party platform. Instead, he projected a personality of reasonable common sense and an earnest desire to make big changes in how the world is operating. His attitude seemed to be, "Hey, c'mon guys, this way of doing things is just silly. Isn't now the time to do things differently?" I think he was able to win over some audience members, as a second choice if not a first choice.
Elgie described the Green Party as a party of ordinary people with "practical, visionary, and thoughtful" policy. As examples he talked about using the market mechanism to help the environment -- things such as extended producer responsibility legislation in Europe that works on the polluter-pays principle, or preventing illness by making unhealthy foods more expensive than healthy ones.
In his opening and closing remarks you heard some of his major themes. Roughly paraphrased:
The NDP candidate, Norm Tobias
I'm writing about Norm Tobias last because I feel he won the debate. Of course, who wins or loses depends a lot on what your in-going expectations are. I didn't expect a lot from Tobias, and I was really surprised.
Tobias did a good job of criticizing the Liberal government's record at the same time that he established himself as a credible and serious alternative.
He described himself as a tax law practitioner and teacher. He seemed trustworthy when he told us his professional opinion of the NDP's financial plan was that it was sound. It's always good to play to your strengths, and he did so again when he talked about all the loopholes he sees in the tax system that he would like to close.
I don't know his history, but he gave the impression of someone who could vote Liberal in other years. So, when he said that the "NDP is more closely aligned to the values of Canadians than ever", it made me think.
He also talked about:
If Tobias was not there, I could have momentarily forgot why I didn't want to vote for the Liberals. He reminded me of their broken promises and wishy-washy failure to deliver. He told us a "Liberal majority gets to decide which promises it will keep," after he reminded us of the 1993 red book promise of child care.
I don't have a big problem with private delivery of publicly-accessible health care. However, Tobias made the first good argument against it that I have heard. I.e., that private health care can only make sense economically if they offer "2nd-tier" services after hours, and that is the beginning of a slippery slope.
He also was interesting when he talked about Canada's role in the world as, "a middle humanitarian power".
In the end he warned against strategic voting, saying it will reward Paul Martin with a vote he doesn't deserve and Canadians with a government they don't deserve.
The Free Votes Question
With a possible minority government in front of us, and with one or two of the leaders talking about free votes, it is important for voters to know the positions of their individual candidates. Tonight, the St. Paul's foursome was asked if they would vote to support the use of the notwithstanding clause in the cases of restricting abortion or same sex marriage. All candidates said "no" to both questions except for the Conservative Barry Cline. He said, "I support the right to choose" and then said "I am in favour of civil union". He didn't really answer the question, but that's a good hint.
Well, as I wrote, I liked Tobias of the NDP. On the other hand, I still prefer the Green platform to the NDP's. Bennett struck me as not a bad choice, and clearly a hard worker, but I still feel like sending the proverbial "message to Ottawa". As for Cline, even if I was supporting the Conservatives, I would hope that he'd lose.