Things got personal when more than 100 Parksville residents came out to watch federal candidates vie for their votes Monday evening.
The private, standing-room-only forum moderated by Chris Chilton at Craig Bay’s Beach Club Conservatory was the first local debate since the writ dropped.
All candidates from the major parties were present (Conservative, Liberal, Green and NDP), however Marxist-Leninist candidate Barbra Biley did not attend.
Given the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision to strike down legislation banning medically-assisted suicide, one resident asked how candidates would move forward in ensuring Canadians die with dignity.
Conservative candidate John Duncan, incumbent Vancouver Island North MP, got personal.
“My wife was told on December 11 that she was palliative,” Duncan told the audience, pausing for a moment carefully considering his next words.
“We had a cabal of doctors meet in a room and say unanimously that ‘your wife would not benefit from further treatment.’ So I took her — you want to talk two-tier healthcare — I took her to the States and I got a different opinion and she went through eight months of treatment and two weeks ago she was declared cancer free.”
The audience broke out in applause.
“So doctors can be wrong, and the state can be wrong — and anybody who thinks this is a clear cut issue needs to do a re-think,” said Duncan. “This is a very complicated issue with various points of view and various realities.”
While Duncan said he will accept the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the ban on physician-assisted death, he has yet to talk in specifics about what new legislation may look like.
Last February, the Supreme Court gave Parliament 12 months to draft new legislation around medically assisted death.
Green candidate Glenn Sollitt, Liberal candidate Carrie Powell-Davidson and NDP candidate Gord Johns all agreed Canadians deserve the right to die, pledging to move forward with changes to the current legislation.
An audience member asked: “If whoever it is becomes prime minister in a few months and they need to fill a seat in a thing called the Senate, would you accept a position in the Senate?”
Laughter erupted throughout the crowd in anticipation of the candidates responses.
“Absolutely no, I would never do that to you, I would never do that to my fellow countrymen and women, it would be fundamentally wrong — against the NDP (values),” Johns said emphatically, claiming the Senate has failed Canadians.
Johns referenced the late NDP Leader Jack Layton’s Climate Change Sustainability Act.
“It got sent to the Senate, it was passed in the House of Commons, one of the most important pieces of legislation of our time tackling climate change and it went to the Senate and it got sent back twice and it got defeated in the Senate… One-third of the Senate is under investigation. Senators average three days of work per month. It’s failing Canadians and it’s not working.”
Johns said the NDP is “determined” to abolish the Senate.
“Just three days a month, really?” asked Sollitt, momentarily contemplating a career jump in jest to a roar of laughter. “Despite that, no I would have to say no.”
Powell-Davidson said the Senate is “in pretty bad shape right now” but claimed that speaks more to the state of the government than the state of the purpose of the Senate.
“In its truest form the Senate is designed to be the somber second voice to assist Parliament in making decisions,” she said. “To my understanding if you have the Senate in place and it’s made up of experts and professionals it should be a very useful, purposeful tool… Would I accept a seat on the Senate? Certainly not the way it sits right now.”
Duncan echoed his fellow candidates responses saying he would not accept a seat on the Senate, but noted abolishing it may not be as easy as it sounds.
“The NDP likes to say ‘we’re committed to abolishing the Senate,'” he said. “You cannot do it, I’m sorry. It would be nice to have that option… Our British parliamentary system requires a Senate and anybody who thinks they can abolish it is just whistling up the chimney because the Supreme Court has clearly said that’s not possible.”
Duncan added that senators work three days a week, not a month.
Asked by a member of the audience if candidates would “be willing to vote your conscious or the collective conscious of your constituency if it isn’t in accord with that of your party,” Powell Davidson danced around a direct yes or no answer.
“I was excited to learn that the values and principles of the Liberal Party are very closely aligned to that of local government — openness, accountability, transparency,” said Powell-Davidson, a former two-term Parksville city councillor. “The other reason I was honoured to join this party was because we’re encouraged to be the voice of our communities — I was told from the get-go to get out there and learn the issues of my community, which I was already well acquainted with.”
When pressed for a yes or no answer from the audience, Powell-Davidson said: “Well, you know, we have a lot of discussion before we get into Parliament —“
She was cut off by heckles from the audience, one woman shouted “straddling the fence!”
“I understand what you’re saying,” said Powell-Davidson. “But I also have to remember once I get to Ottawa I am thinking in terms of the national good as well as the local good.”
“You’ve asked the question of the evening considering I’m the government whip,” said Duncan, noting there are various types of voting on: government legislation, opposition motions and private members motions and bills.
“On government business I will support the government,” he said.
In terms of private members bills and opposition motions, Duncan referenced a Macleans magazine survey measuring which political party was expressing the freest voting.
“It turned out to be the Conservative Party and the party that was most monolithic in voting was the NDP,” said Duncan. “This is contrary to their narrative but it’s not inconsistent with my observation as government whip.”
But contrary to Duncan, Johns vowed to “vote for my constituents first, always. I’m a born and raised Vancouver Islander and my roots run deep here.”
However, Johns confirmed “I’m not going to allude you to what you’re not going to get. I signed up for the NDP because I support the values and principles the NDP present… and I will stand up for those values and principles when I go to Ottawa.”
Simply put, Sollitt said yes.
“One of the reasons I’m running is that I think one of the problems we have in government is, sorry, whip votes… I think it stands in the way of democracy… It’s kind of terrifying to see the extent to which MPs are told how to vote,” said Sollitt.
“The Green Party doesn’t have a whip. I cannot be told how to vote. There’s nobody to tell me how to vote — so you will always be my boss and my only boss.”
The 2015 federal election is Oct. 19.