When the seven candidates running in the Nanaimo-Alberni riding took their places at the first all candidates debate in Port Alberni, they faced a lively and partisan crowd.
That came clear even as they were introduced to the approximately 160 people who packed into the Capital Theatre Monday night.
As Liberal Renee Miller, Marxist-Leninist Barbara Biley, the Pirate Party’s Jesse Schroeder, Christian Heritage Party hopeful Frank Wagner and Conservative James Lunney were introduced, they were greeted with polite applause. When Green candidate Myron Jespersen was introduced, the room erupted in cheers, a noise only eclipsed by the response to the NDP’s Zeni Maartman.
That response pretty much set the tone for the two-hour debate, which saw an unflinching Lunney fend off attacks from the left of him and the right — but mainly from the two microphones on floor of the theatre in front of him.
The battle began early, with Miller’s opening statement launching the first salvo.
“Lunney said this election is something not asked for by the Canadian people, but I can assure you, this election started one year ago, with the attack ads,” Miller said. “Those are American-style politics, not what we want here.”
Lunney kept his opening statement to detailing his party’s record and offering a critique of the Liberal and NDP platforms.
“We kept taxes low and our plan worked,” he said, “with 480,000 jobs created. The opposition parties know our plan is working and voting it down was a risky gamble.”
Similarly, Maartman kept her remarks positive — at least in the beginning. In fact, her first jab wasn’t at Lunney, but rather, Miller.
“This election is between New Democrats and Conservatives in this riding,” she said. “Only New Democrats can deliver the change we need in Nanaimo-Alberni.”
Biley, Jespersen, Schroeder and Wagner also concentrated on enunciating their party’s platforms and kept their knives sheathed early on.
When it came time for questions from the floor however, the political blood began to flow.
“How do you see a Conservative majority government?” was the question from provincial NDP MLA Scott Fraser that really opened the flood gates.
“I need to change my pants,” quipped Schroeder, to loud applause and laughter.
Miller was equally succinct.
“We know what a Harper majority looks like,” she said. “It looks like fascism.”
Maartman discounted the possibility entirely.
“There will never be a Conservative majority because the NDP will not let it happen,” she said.
Jespersen tried to pour oil on the troubled waters, stressing that he would respect whatever the outcome, as it will be the will of the Canadian people. It was too little, too late, however.
Lunney, meanwhile, kept his cool.
“The NDP has one candidate at this table and another that seems to want to take her place,” he shot back. “What’s at stake here is that a vote for Jack [Layton and the NDP] is a vote to support Michael Ignatieff who will try to form a government with the help of the high-spending NDP.”
The rest of the debate, which covered issues such as the purchase of fighter jets, pension reform, forest policy, fish farming, Medicare and marijuana law reform, among others, was similarly spirited, with the moderator having to call for order on several occasions.
“Please treat all the candidates with equal respect,” he was forced to say at one point, when the shouting and heckling against Lunney became too much.
While the three main parties duked it out with the help — or hindrance — of the audience, the four representatives of the smaller parties for the most part kept on message, whether it was Wagner’s call to stand up against abortion, Schroeder’s plan to open up the Internet and patent laws, Jespersen’s focus on the environment and jobs, or Biley’s call for a reform of how the government works in Ottawa.
The first all candidates debate in Oceanside is slated for 7 p.m. on Monday, April 25 at the Craig Bay Beach Club at 1300 Gabriola Drive.
The action continues the following night, April 26, at the Parksville Community and Conference Centre, starting at 7 p.m. The forum is sponsored jointly by the Parksville and Qualicum Beach chambers of commerce.