Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2012/ Pre-Byelection Blather

Pre-Byelection Blather

Yes, I know. I wish I had some self-control, too. But asking me to refrain from blogging about elections is like asking me to stop stuffing my face with starchy food.

Here are my predictions, so that I can munch on vegetarian crow come Friday:

I do not think I believe any of these predictions strongly, but now that they are written out in electrons I can't take them back.

What's at Stake?

I always thought that byelections would be much more like municipal elections -- the emphasis would be on candidates, rather than parties and party leaders. In my view, that has not been the case in this campaign. Instead, the campaign messages have been treating this as a full-blown campaign. The PCs are promising to freeze public sector wages and to initiate apprenticeship programs, as if they will form the government upon winning this byelection. The Greens are pretending that they will dismantle the separate school system with their one MPP.

Certainly, the future of the Liberal government could be at stake, but let's not forget that there are two byelections at play. The Liberals have to win in both Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo to get their majority, and even then the majority will be fragile (especially since the Speaker of the House is Liberal).

From one perspective, this byelection is a referendum on how quickly we want to go to the polls again:

Locally, I am not sure how much is at stake. By electing a new MPP we will be creating a new incumbent, which has long term implications.

All-Candidates Meetings

I attended two all-candidates meetings this campaign. One was put on by the "KW Common Front," and seemed to be organized primarily by the Social Planning Council. I also attended an all-candidates meeting held by the Chamber of Commerce at Kitchener City Hall. (At the latter event, the moderator commented on how nice the facility was. That was a snarkworthy comment, given that Peter Braid skipped an all-candidates meeting at Kitchener City Hall because it was outside the riding boundary.)

The two meetings were quite different. The KW Common Front was half meet-and-greet, half debate. Their agenda was to get candidates to commit to eliminating poverty in Waterloo Region. The first part of the meeting consisted of small group discussions -- there were a bunch of tables in the room, and each table was assigned a moderator and a topic. We (and the candidates) were supposed to circulate the room and voice our opinions on different topics, but the members of my table (on education) mostly stayed put. After the small group discussion the candidates each introduced themselves, and then they answered some questions submitted by the audience (which were selected by the moderator).

Six candidates attended this meeting: Stacey Danckert (Green), Eric Davis (Liberal), Allan Dietweiller (Libertarian), Catherine Fife (NDP), and Elizabeth Rowley (Communist) and John Turmel (Pauper's) . Some candidates made jabs at Tracey Weiler (PC) for not attending.

The Social Planning Council format is interesting enough, but it is not that effective. (I will refrain from generalizing this sentiment to the Social Planning Council as a whole.) We do not get much opportunity to compare the candidates against each other, and the small group discussions are too short to get deeply into topics -- especially if we are supposed to be circulating between tables.

I felt aggravated that the all-candidates meeting started half an hour late. That cut into discussion time and time to hear from the candidates. The Social Planning Council has organized events like this several times; I think they could have done a better job of keeping the event running.

I also felt uneasy at how arbitrary the moderation was of the candidates. The moderator chose the order in which candidates could answer questions without a noticeable pattern, and in outlining the rules for the closing remarks she demanded that candidates answer the question of whether they would work to fight for a poverty-free Ontario. (All of the candidates answered yes, I think. I would have answered in the negative; in addition to being a leading question I do not believe that it is possible to have no poverty, especially when anti-poverty advocates keep moving the goalposts.)

The Chamber of Commerce all-candidates meeting was the polar opposite of the KW Common Front one. For one thing it was deliberately set up to be a "some-candidates" meeting -- only the PC, Liberal, Green and NDP candidates were invited, and none of the four expressed any solidarity with the candidates that were left out. Two other candidates were in attendance, though. Elizabeth Rowley expressed her disagreement with not being invited at the beginning of the debate, and was escorted off the premises for her demonstration. Allan Dietweller expressed his frustrations at the end of the debate, but nobody was listening by then.

There were no audience questions; all of the questions were pre-selected by the Chamber of Commerce, and the majority of them had to do with improving business conditions. There were a couple of interesting features in the format, however: candidates were allowed rebuttals regardless of whether they were mentioned by name, and the moderator stated that he was not holding candidates to tight time limits. I would have stuck with time limits, but the rebuttals process worked pretty well. The moderator also demanded that there be no applause for candidates until the end, but the audience did not comply with this.

The second Chamber of Commerce question concerned "pooled pension plans" that the federal government has proposed. It caught every candidate off-guard except for Tracey Weiler (who has connections to the Chamber of Commerce, but who also probably knew more about the topic than other candidates).

I used to feel that all-candidates meetings were important to the electoral process. They provide an opportunity to see the candidates in action, and to evaluate them against each other. Against all evidence, I stubbornly clung to the notion that it was important to vote for individuals to represent us, as opposed to letting the candidate serve as nothing more than a figurehead for his or her party. I used to get quite angry when candidates skipped all-candidates meetings; in my mind it demonstrated that the candidates were not willing to face the electorate.

Now my feelings are muddled. I don't think any of my justifications for supporting all-candidates meetings are entirely wrong, but they seem more and more irrelevant:

Because I live as a tenant who is not supposed to answer the door, I have never been canvassed by an election candidate. So all-candidates meetings are still an okay option for me to see the candidates in action. But for the general public they may well be a waste of time.

I am still upset that so-called "all-candidates" meetings do not permit all candidates to participate. I know why the mainstream debates did so (because there are 10 candidates and also to avoid John Turmel) but it offends my rapidly-diminishing respect for democracy that a candidate who signs up for an election campaign cannot participate in all-candidate forums.

The Candidates

I don't know why this matters, but here are my impressions of the candidates, based upon their performances at the all-candidates meetings and their campaign literature.

To avoid repeating myself seven times: unless otherwise specified, the candidates seemed personable. I do not know how committed they were to their talking points, but when they hit issues of personal importance their enthusiasm started to show.

Stacey Danckert did a good job of relating Green Party policy issues (energy pricing, merging the separate and public school systems) into questions where they were not directly addressed. In her favour, she did not derail questions obnoxiously. Beyond the talking points, I am not convinced she knew a whole lot about provincial politics or local issues, although she did express a few good points that were off-script, in particular when she related the problems of increased class sizes and earlier classes at the university level.

I keep feeling that Eric Davis ought to be a stronger candidate than he seems to be. At the anti-poverty meeting he admitted that he did not know issues of poverty "inside and out", but his campaign literature states that he was president of the Waterloo Region branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. How somebody could be president of the CMHA and not see its relationships to poverty boggles my mind. In the Chamber of Commerce debate he was relentless in sticking to his talking points, repeating the same points in response to different questions. He did push back against Catherine Fife and Tracey Weiler on a few issues, which I guess is to his credit. I think his performance as a candidate was stronger than the last provincial election, but stating that "only Eric Davis has the strength and experience to maintain stability in our schools" (which is what his campaign literature reads) is a real stretch.

Allan Dietweiller was the Libertarian candidate, and he genuinely surprised me by coming across as a nice guy with a lot of compassion in his heart. On the one hand he talks about how our province's fiscal policies are bankrupting us, and that the government does not have solutions to our problems. But he also related a story about being on welfare and how a friend helped him get a job, and expressed that we have to work together, because there is greed in the world. He acknowledged that the poor face real barriers (transportation, caring for disabled family members, lack of skills). He might be a Libertarian -- he was one of two candidates that seriously acknowledged our debt issues -- but I doubt he is on Ayn Rand's Christmas list. I kind of wish he had been allowed to speak at other all-candidates meetings.

Catherine Fife is clearly the most polished candidate in this election. She has lots of political experience as a trustee and former provincial candidate. Her big issues are child care and education, and she took on all comers in these areas. Her message went over well at the anti-poverty debate, but (to her credit?) she stuck to her message at the Chamber of Commerce as well. She argued that corporate taxes need to be higher, not lower. She occasionally ducked questions (such as the pooled pension plan question, which she took as an opportunity to talk about poverty) and she dodged Eric Davis's accusation that the NDP had no plan to keep the deficit in check. One of her main talking points concerned minority government; she kept hammering that the NDP worked with the Liberals to get some of the things they wanted in the budget, while the PCs walked away. Fife is very clearly a politician, for all the good and bad that implies.

Elizabeth Rowley was also a school trustee. When she sat at our education table during the anti-poverty debate she came across as personable and polite -- she advocated that we get rid of the separate school system, and when the chair of the separate school teacher association (who was also at the table) pushed back, they had a cordial exchange. But when she took the podium she spoke with the passion that you would expect from a Communist Party organizer. She railed against governments, low corporate taxes, closing mental health group homes, and mainstream parties. She railed for more medicare, more affordable housing, more pensions, more rent controls, and asserted that we could pay for these things with increased taxes. The anti-poverty crowd lapped up her message; she may have been the most popular speaker at the meeting. At the Chamber of Commerce debate she showed guts by loudly (but politely -- she apologised for the disruption) protesting the exclusion of smaller party candidates from the debate. Then she allowed herself to be quietly escorted off the premises. Like Dietweiller, I feel that she would have spiced up the Chamber of Commerce all-candidates meeting considerably.

On the other hand, John Turmel's schtick got quite tiring quite quickly, and I feel some guilty relief that he was not allowed into the debates. He is a one-trick pony, and that trick is monetary reform; to get us out of our debt problems he wants us to adopt the "Argentinian solution" of making our own currency that is accepted by the provincial government for taxes, hydro, licencing and housing. Like most social credit advocates, he believes that interest is evil, and that a lack of money is the root cause of all our fiscal problems. The sad thing is that I have a lot of sympathy for his message. I would not have wanted to live in Argentina during their debt crisis (Carrying guns everywhere? Living the survivalist dream? Not my scene, thanks.) but there is something to be said for unleashing creativity via alternative currencies. The problem is that this was Turmel's sole talking point, and he repeated it for every question, including a question about how he would deal with mental health issues. (It is true that currency is a shared delusion, but that is not what his Argentinian solution was addressing.) I wish him luck in his quest, but like so many others in the alternative currency movement, I would prefer not to share his company for long.

That leaves Tracey Weiler, whom I expect will be our next MPP. She diligently fawned over Elizabeth Witmer's accomplishments, and tried to portray her candidacy as an extension of those accomplishments. But she does not share Elizabeth Witmer's priorities, I think. Witmer talked a lot about early childhood education and health care. In the Chamber of Commerce debate, Weiler really started to shine when talking about the dangers of the provincial and debt. She noted that the only reason our debt is servicable is because interest rates are low. Her business background shows, as does her interest in fiscal conservatism. For the most part, she also stuck to her talking points: revamping the apprenticeship system (as if the party can do this?), freezing public sector wages, and blaming the Liberals for broken promises. I am sure she will grow into her role if elected.

The Issues

Despite talking about fiscal responsibility, all of the candidates in the Chamber of Commerce debate spouted delusion after delusion;

This annoys me. It is typical double-sided politispeak intended to mislead us. If we think the deficit is serious and needs to be eliminated, then let's talk seriously about how to eliminate it -- which may well involve cuts to the two sacred cows of education and medicare. If we don't think the deficit is serious and that we can keep spending as if debt isn't important then how does it help to pretend that it is? These kinds of lies are one reason we have less and less trust in politics.

I personally do think that debt has consequences. I am not convinced it is the most important issue we face in Ontario; I think that climate change and energy are two issues that matter more. (Ask Ontario apple farmers how unexpected weather events affect their finances. Ask any civilization how much it depends upon abundant (cheap?) energy to avoid collapse.) But if we are going to talk about debt reduction, then let's be serious about it.

That is one reason why I suspect a Liberal majority might not be the worst thing in the world. The Liberals seem committed to reducing expenses in some areas -- certainly my workplace has felt the impact, and will continue feeling it in the coming years. The Liberals are sending out last-minute scare pamphlets warning that the NDPs are incapable of opposing unions, and they might well be right. Strong stable government is exactly what FPTP advocates champion -- they champion it more than democracy, in fact. Maybe they should win this round.

One issue the Liberals have been suspiciously silent about during this campaign is green energy. The NDP and PCs hammered away at the delusion that energy needs to be cheap. They also made jabs about cancelled gas power plants. But the issue of the Green Energy Act and its effects (good or bad) has fallen off the radar of everybody but the Green Party.

I should probably save these rants for later blog posts, but I am upset with the sacred cows of education and medicare. I guess I am just resentful because my workplace's sector has been slashed, but both our education and our health care systems are deeply broken. Education is broken because of credential inflation, and health care because doctors have a stranglehold on the system. I do not think we have any realistic chance of eliminating our deficits unless we take on some of the challenges in these systems, but both education and health care advocacy groups are sufficiently powerful that this will never happen.

The Campaigning

Catherine Fife and Tracey Weiler have been campaigning hard, at least in our area. Eric Davis has as few lawn signs as Stacey Danckert in our neighbourhood, although I have seen a few elsewhere in town. I would have thought that the Liberals would have campaigned really hard, but I have not seen a lot of evidence of that. My landords' house has gotten some Liberal pamphlets in the last week of the campaign, but that was it.

I hear that other parts of Waterloo are seas of blue.

There is some group called "Fed Up Ontario" that is posting blue and orange "No Mr McGuinty. Not this time" signs. I don't know what their message is, other than not voting Liberal.

How to Vote?

I have not made up my mind about what to do on election day. My brain tells me to decline my ballot. Once again the FUD is compelling me to vote for a candidate, but I am not clear as to whom I support:

No doubt I will end up voting again, and then my candidate of choice will lose, and then I will kick myself for not declining my ballot.

How should you vote? I don't know, but here are some suggestions: