Friday’s federal election forum proved to be a big draw at Knox United Church.
A little too big, as it turned out. A line of spectators stretched around the building before the doors opened at 6:30 p.m., and by 6:50 a capacity crowd of more than 300 people had packed into the church for the moderated question-and-answer session with Courtenay-Alberni riding candidates John Duncan (Conservative), Gord Johns (NDP), Carrie Powell-Davidson (Liberal) and Glenn Sollitt (Green).
“We’d be thrilled to see any of you here on Sunday at 10 a.m.,” Knox United ministry and personnel representative Gerry Garnett said to laughter.
Early in the forum, moderator Mary Ellen Campbell asked each of the candidates to state their names when speaking, as many of those turned away at the door were listening in the parking lot through Knox’s radio transmission and were not always sure who was speaking.
The forum was organized by the Knox United Church Outreach Committee, in its first foray into an electoral candidates’ event. Intent on maintaining decorum, the committee established a firm set of ground rules spelled out in advance by Campbell, including no speaking by the public and no applause until the end of the evening.
For the most part, the audience held to those restrictions, which made the exceptions noteworthy.
After other candidates had replied to a question about student debt without addressing a specific fix, Sollitt spent a minute describing the Green Party’s budget development process to establish how it arrived at a five-year program for funding post-secondary education.
“We’d immediately eliminate interest on existing student loans and future student loans,” Sollitt began. “By year three we’d want to reduce existing loans down to a maximum of $10,000, regardless of their initial size. And by 2020 we will have absolutely free tuition for all post-secondary education.”
At that, a number of spectators broke into spontaneous applause, with a couple of whoops, as both Sollitt and Campbell waved them back to silence.
Later, a substantial number of the audience openly chuckled when Duncan responded to a question on how each party would balance economic development with environmental protection by saying, “Canada has some of the strongest environmental standards in the world.”
Duncan struck back at the end of his reply, drawing brief applause from supporters by saying, “We have done a lot of things right, and I am not impressed when others of my colleagues here talk down Canada as if we are doing everything wrong.”
That was the tone of the evening, with Duncan defending the current conservative government’s stable, predictable and competent governance as the three challengers attacked that governance and promised reforms ranging from proportional representation to repeal of security legislation (Bill C-51) and restoration of the Canada Health Accord.
After each candidate was given two minutes for an opening statement, Campbell asked three questions which had been provided in advance to the candidates. Additional questions were then read from audience submissions, with eleven questions chosen from more than 100 submitted.
Among the questions addressed in the forum were how each party would address childhood poverty, the Canada Health Accord, imprisonment and rehabilitation of criminals, food labeling for genetically modified products, balancing of the economy and the environment, a national child-care strategy, the cost of post-secondary education and Canada’s response to the refugee crisis in Syria and elsewhere.
The candidates were also asked to cite a pressing local concern each candidate would like to be tackled in Ottawa.
Duncan suggested a major public infrastructure investment for an alternate connector between Parksville-Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni.
“That would provide a very useful circle route, would provide a more efficient route, it would be a green project, and it would bring public safety and health to the table.”
Johns said if he had to pick a single issue, it would be tackling environmental degradation. “You can’t heal the economy if you don’t tackle the environment,” he said. “We need to invest in clean energy and mitigate climate change. The environment is the keystone of everything.”
Powell-Davidson noted the far-flung nature of the riding and said different communities would have different priorities.
“It’s a vast riding,” she said. “If I was just looking at here in Parksville, I would definitely be looking at getting federal funding for the water system we need. If I was looking at Port Alberni, the number one priority would be jobs. In Tofino it would be seniors’ facilities. They don’t have any.”
“But overall, No. 1 is improving the relationships between the federal government and communities and municipal governments, because there’s just a huge disenfranchisement that’s gone on there. Those relationships need to be built.”
Sollitt said the biggest single issue, here or anywhere in the country, is changing Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system.
“Despite there being a wide range of issues in this riding, the single-biggest one and the foremost issue I want to tackle is our electoral system. First-past-the-post in a small room will work, across the country it does not. We end up with false majorities, and it ends up with so many people whose votes really don’t count. What we need desperately is proportional representation.”