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Friday, April 29, 2011

The Athabasca All-Candidates Forum

During the last federal election, I got a lot of shit from one of my learned colleagues for not attending Athabasca's all-candidates forum. As I blogged at the time, I had some problems with the all-candidates forum. Problem the first was that it was not an open forum. It was being held by an anti-war group called the Athabasca Peace Initiative, and they made it clear that they would be asking all the questions at this forum. When asked about why they were doing this, they responded that, “It's important the right questions be asked,” which I found a little insulting. Problem number two was that not all the candidates were coming. The Conservative, Liberal, and Green candidate all chose not to show up. So it was just the NDP and the fringe parties. Lastly, it was at the same time as the Magnificent River Rats meeting, and we were deciding on ticket prices for that year's festival.

So, I could cast my vote on ticket prices, or I could watch some anti-war activists beg the Christian Heritage Party to bring the troops home. I chose River Rats.

But here we are now, 2.5 years later, and in the throes of another federal election. Athabasca's all-candidates forum had a format I was much more agreeable to. Rather than being held by a specific group, it was being hosted by a group of concerned individuals who just felt Athabasca had to had one. Only four candidates are running in Fort McMurray – Athabasca this time out – Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, and Green – and only the NDP candidate chose not to come out to the forum. And yes, it was an open forum, so all could ask questions, and they were even planning to have some meet-and-greet time before and after the forum so you could talk to the candidates one-on-one.

Before we get to the show, though, just want to take a moment to talk about the riding's NDP candidate, Berend Wilting. With the surprising surge in popularity of the NDP, there seems to be a lot of growing anger towards the NDP here in Fort McMurray-Athabasca. At least in this part of the riding, Wilting hasn't done any door-knocking, declined all interview requests, and is doing no campaigning whatsoever. There's a lot of angry and frustrated NDP supporters out here, and it'll be interesting to see how it affects the NDP results on election night.

The three players at tonight's forum were:

To provide some structure to the evening, four key questions would be asked of the candidates. Once they provided their answers, the floor would be open, and members of the public could then pose questions that were a little more specific, but still relating to that topic. The four questions were:

1)What is the role of the federal government in our own country and internationally?

2)What are the top three action the federal government could take to improve the lives of citizens in this region?

3)What are the most pressing environmental issues facing the region, and how would your party address those issues?

4)How do you see the Canadian economy evolving and what polices would you recommend to monitor and enhance it?

And then, after that, the floor would be open to any other questions.

Opening Statements

 Incumbent Brian Jean was first to speak, citing that Northern Alberta is the best region in the nation right now. He cited the Economic Action Plan, which kept the economy going through the global recession. He also mentioned that the Conservatives have invested half-a-billion dollars in the region, including $350,000 in improvements to the Boyle arena, $65 million to ALPAC, and $51 million between Athabasca, Lac la Biche, and Boyle. He continued that a Conservative government would continue to focus on economic recovery, and that there would be no cuts to healthcare.

Green candidate Jules Asterisk began her opening comments with some leftover grumbling as to how Elizabeth May was left out of the debates. She then continued with the message that there's been too much fighting as of late in the House of Commons, and that a Green government would try to restore a sense of civility to the House. She then elaborated on her background, by pointing out that she's accredited with bringing recycling to Slave Lake, and she still works in waste management.

Liberal candidate Karen Young was the last to give opening statements, and she emphasized that she's still new to politics, and she's still on a learning curve. She highlighted her experience as a single parent and a small business owner. She stuck pretty close to the Liberal platform, as she emphasized the need for a national child care plan.

Question 1

For the first question, Asterisk was able to speak first. She said that the role of the federal government should be to protect people, and that the current government hasn't done enough to protect people from pollution. She also mentioned that a government should simply be planning for the next generation, but seven generations ahead. Jean then spoke next, emphasizing the speration of provincial and federal jurisdictions. He said that the federal government isn't there to get involved in provincial matters, and that the provinces and the federal government should work more co-cooperatively on some issues. Young then spoke, focusing more on Canada's global role, and how Canada's image on the international stage has suffered under Conservative rule. She then elaborated that how Canada behaves in the world affects how they behave at home. She summed up her thoughts by saying Canada should matter to the world.

At this point, the floor was then opened to questions relating to this topic. The first question posed was, What is your party's biggest aspiration for change? Young was the first to speak, and she highlighted the losses under the Conservative government, such as the loss of a seat on the Security Council at the UN. Jean was next to speak, and he cracked a joke about his biggest aspiration for change being world peace. But, he then got serious as he elaborated that Canada still plays a tremendous role in the world, and highlighted that Canada has double its aid to Africa, and that the Conservatives are working to help the world through peaceful means. Asterisk spoke last, and she said that Canada needs to shore up its reputation as a protector of sustainability.

The next question from the floor was how to keep a focus on Canadian industry at an international level. Asterisk spoke first, saying that yes, the Green party does support heave industry, but she also admitted we'll never get the “dirty oil” label off the oilsands, so perhaps development could just slow down a bit. Next up was Jean, who mentioned that he has met with industry leaders, and agrees that things need to be done better. He brought up new pollution regulations that have been brought in, and pointed out that the oilsands are responsible for 6% of the nation's GDP. He also then said, “God knew what he was doing when he put the oilsands in Alberta, because we're responsible with them,” which did illicit some groans from the audience. Young then spoke last, speaking of the need for government to work jointly with industry to help better our communities.

The third question in this section caused a few chuckles in the audience, and that's when Jean specifically was asked about the never-ending stream of mail-outs we get from the Conservatives. Jean said that every party sends out these mail-outs, and he is trying to reduce the number he sends out. He did point out, though, that the riding of Athabasca-Fort McMurray is, geographically, one of the largest ridings in the country, and he's actually discovered the mail-outs to be one of the best ways to keep in touch with his constituents. He also said that each mail-out costs him 3 cents per flier Asterisk was up next, and said that there has to be a better way to keep in touch with the constituents, and focused on paperless ways like toll-free numbers, radio ads, and town hall forums. Young spoke last, saying that for her campaign, it cost her 14 cents per flier, and she also brought up town hall forums and more one-on-one time with constituents. She also then joked that a great way to recycle these political fliers is to shred them up and give them to farmers for their chicken coops.

Question 2

As you'll recall, for the second question, the candidates were asked to list three things to improve the lives of their constituents. Asterisk went first, listing cleaning up the oilsands, pledging $1 billion to municipalities, and more co-operation with the First Nations. Young summed up her three things with three F words: families, finance, and the future. For families, she emphasized the need for a child care plan. For finance, she brought up the plan to give post-secondary students a $1000 bursary, and for future, better care for seniors.

Jean spoke next, and the question about the mail-outs must have hit a nerve, because he spent a good portion of his time first elaborating on how he keeps in touch with constituents. He mentioned that yes, his office has a toll-free number so you can call him anytime, and he found town hall forums to be ineffective, as he tried them early in his career, and no one showed up. That did dovetail into the first thing on his list, though, which was listening to the constituents. Number two was continuing with the Conservative low-tax plan, and three was better health and safety monitoring.

The floor was then opened to questions. The first one was from a very angry man who said that the Conservative government has done “jack shit” [sic] for veterans, and what would their party do for the vets. Young was first to speak, and she brought up that she has family serving in the military, and we must create new programs to support them. Jean was next to speak, and was offended by the question, citing that the Conservatives have done quite a bit for the veterans, emphasizing $140 million pledged to patient care, the hiring of more mental health practitioners, and the creation of new programs. Asterisk spoke last, talking about ending the Conservative practice of giving soldiers a lump sum at the end of their service, and moving back to some form of pension plan. She also mentioned giving veterans the benefit of the doubt whenever necessary.

The next question came from a reporter for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. In one of Jean's earlier responses, Jean made an offhand comment about the First Nations “looking after themselves,” and she had taken offense to that. She then elaborated that the Conservatives have done very little to advance the First Nations, and what the other parties would do. Jean spoke first, saying that when he made that comment, he was speaking to the separation of government powers and that the First Nations govern themselves. He then went on to say that the federal government do have a responsibility to work more cooperatively with the First Nation, and that the aboriginal communities in this riding are doing quite well. Asterisk spoke next, talking how a lot of First Nations identity involves the environment, and there must be greater cooperation. Young spoke next, and revealed that she is of First Nations heritage. She then went on to say that there has to be greater assistance to get First Nations into post-secondary education.

This is the point where things stopped for a 15-minute break, and folks grabbed refreshments, and got in a little one-on-one time with the candidates. When the break was done, it was pointed out that things were running long, so for the rest of the evening, they would skip asking the general questions, and just move to questions on that topic.

Question 3

 Since question 3 pertained to the environment, most of the questions here were environmental in nature. First question asked was quite simple: “Global warming. What's your party's plan?” Jean spoke first, and that admitted yes, the planet is warming, so adaptation is the key strategy at this point. He brought up the Conservatives creating a green infrastructure, and also highlighted that Conservatives think that Kyoto will do no good because two of the planets biggest polluters – China and India – still aren't on board with it, so that's why the Conservatives think Copenhagen is a better plan. Young spoke next, reminiscing about taking ice from a nearby lake for water when she was a kid, and now that lake is dry. So she focused on long term reduction targets. Asterisk spoke last, pointing out that the Greens have the best platform on the environment. She brought up the need for a carbon tax, and pointed out that the province of Alberta already has one, and Alberta doesn't seem to have suffered. “Tax the things that are bad for you,” was a rallying cry for the Greens. She also then pointed out that she thought it was odd that Jean highlighted Copenhagen, as most of the world thought Canada was one of the most difficult and obstructionist countries in those negotiations.

The next question was asked about water quality in the province, and that while water quality is largely a provincial issue, how bad does it have to get before the federal government steps in? Jean got to speak first, pointing out that he is a registered trapper back home in Fort Mac, and he goes fishing upstream of Fort Chipewyan whenever he can, and he hasn't suffered any ill effects yet. However, he did bring up a recent incident when he broke with party lines and sent a letter to Premier Stelmach asking for tighter environmental regulations on the Clearwater River. Going back to some earlier answers, he emphasized not so much the federal government stepping in, but working more cooperatively with the provinces. Asterisk spoke next, pointing out that many of the water monitoring organizations in Alberta are volunteer organizations, and encouraged people to get out and volunteer. Young spoke last, and also emphasized cooperation with the provinces, this time in setting up a new water strategy.

The final question was intriguing. The questioner asked that, in the rush to help the environment, something's got to give, so what will drop in priority to focus on the environment? Asterisk spoke of the Green's smart economic plan, and once again, “Tax the things that are bad for you.” Jean spoke about how the Conservative government has been lax in enforcing the Environmental Protection Act, citing that enforcement of it would shut down everything in Alberta. Young spoke about working on energy conservation measures.

(Sorry if this last paragraph seems disjointed...my notes aren't the best for this section. I think I was checking the score in the Montreal-Boston game on my BlackBerry during this one.)

Question 4 and More

Since things were really running late at this time, the decision was made to open the floor to all questions, but please, ask questions about the economy first.

The first question was a long rambling one, but I think the jist of it was creating a more equitable distribution of wealth. Asterisk was first, citing that there has been some disenfranchisement because of the current taxation system, and that the Green tax shift would help. She also then said that the Conservative's corporate tax cuts have not creative jobs. Jean speak next, and of course he disagreed, saying the Conservative's tax cuts have crated jobs. He also then spoke that the Conservative strategy is to reduce the taxes on your pre-tax income, to give you more money in your pocket. Young spoke last, emphasizing the need to create jobs, and to help low income owners.

Next up was from a person who had taken umbridge at a Conservative attack ad, attacking the cuts to healthcare made under the last Liberal government. Jean said that he can't justify the cuts the Liberals made, and that the Conservatives have increased health transfers by 33%. Young spoke next, saying that there were government surpluses before the Conservatives took charge, and that we wants to work to reduce wait times. Asterisk spoke last, bringing some old quotes from Stephen Harper that were in favour of privatized healthcare, and speaking of the Greens having a renewed commitment to the health act.

The second-last question of the night was about strengthening the manufacturing sector in the nation. Jean spoke first, saying that yes, a lot of Canadian companies are moving their manufacturing jobs overseas, but that's because those companies are doing really well. He then brought up that there's still a thriving manufacturing section in Canada. Young was next up, saying that a stronger manufacturing sector would help bring stability to the economy. Asterisk spoke to the marketing model of planned obsolesence, and how the manufactuing sector quickly creates waste management issues.

The final question of the next was again from that APTN reporter. She wanted to know more about the tax cuts to the oilsands. Jean spoke first again, citing that all the Conservatives really did was reverse everything the Liberals did in the 1990s, and what the Conservatives did was allow the oilsands to be developed more quickly and create jobs. Asterisk spoke next, saying that the government should be here to protect us and that the Conservative tax cuts where not a good thing. Young admitted that she needed more information, and would look it up and get back to the reporter.

Closing Statements

Liberal candidate Karen Young was first with her closing statements. Young said that she wants to work for the people. She wants to work to increase the status of women, to improve the lives of seniors, and to work with industry. She also emphasized that it's important to never forget where you came from.

Green candidate Jule Asterisk spoke next. She opened with the Serenity prayer, with an emphasis on the part about accepting the things you cannot change. From there, she moved on to helping those who fall through the cracks, and that we can achieve to be better.

Conservative candidate and incumbent Brain Jean spoke last. First up, he thanked his fellow candidates for having the courage to stand up and run for office, and that they do have some good points in their platforms. Going back to the discussion on the manufacturing sector, he pointed out that 20% of North America's cars are produced in Canada. He threw in the old conservative mantra that you can't tax your way to prosperity, and he reaffirmed the Conservative commitment to scrapping the long gun registry.

My Personal Opinion

I could tell that Asterisk and Young were still very new to this. They had a nervous waver in their voice and were leafing through their notes a lot. Jean was much more polished and much more confident, but hey, 7 years on the floor of the House of Commons has got to be great public speaking practice. And the way he thanked the other candidates in his closing statement struck me to be a very classy move, and I found that to be a great surprise. Jean probably does need to revise some of his talking points, though. Seriously, dude, Stephane Dion jokes are so 2007.

It was a good turnout, though. I don't think the crowd was very Conservative-friendly though, as whenever Jean started quoting the Conservative platform, it did illicit groans from the audience. But still, being in hostile territory, Jean behaved admirably.

I won't declare a winner, because hey, it's a forum, not a debate. But it was a very informative night and I learned a lot about the candidates.

Polls are on May 2. Don't forget to vote.

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