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Kitchener Centre Debate Fiasco

For me, the Kitchener-Waterloo debate at Grey Silo golf course on Thursday was a disaster. First of all, it was held at a golf course. Although I was able to bike to the location, it appears I was the only person to do so -- everybody else drove. Taking public transit was not a feasible option -- the nearest bus stop was a full kilometre away, was serviced once an hour (with service ending at 9pm or so), and involved a long walk along an unlit path (way to make women feel safe, debate organizers!).

Of course, that did not stop the Record and Rogers from patting themselves on the back about their friendliness to women. Not only did they crow about a "full slate of women candidates", but they boasted of their all-female media panel. Excuse me. The slate of candidates was not all women, unless Lou Reitzel (representing the Family Coalition and mysteriously missing from the debate despite the fact I am pretty sure I saw his car while biking to the golf course) is not as male as his name and picture would indicate. The number of women candidates in the riding was not a fluke (the parties are trying to dethrone Elizabeth Witmer, after all) but nobody blinks an eye at the all-male slates of Kitchener Centre.

That wasn't the disaster. The disaster is that my guerilla tactic of putting literature at the literature table was soundly denied. Fine, but the reason they offered me was idiotic: I was not allowed to put out my literature because it was partisan and they only wanted neutral information there. Excuse me? They only wanted neutral information at a debate? Since when is that standard practice? Some group with "I am a voter" stickers was allowed to put out their stickers, but there was no room at the table for actual partisan discussion about the referendum. Thank God the rep from Referendum Ontario was present, or there would have been no referendum information allowed at all. (Mind you, unlike the KPL debate the referendum officer was not allowed to address the audience beforehand, and I know that she asked to do so.)

In fact, after denying me the privilege of leaving my literature out, they confiscated the referendum literature that Judy Greenwood- Speers left out on her table -- namely, the black OCA pamphlets that Judy had ordered for her campaign. That is the degree to which the Record and Rogers television wants you to "understand the question" -- they want you to rely on neutral information that is handcuffed from either explaining the system clearly or answering any of the questions that Ontarians are most interested in. For example, the Referendum Ontario officers are not allowed to show the sample MMP ballot published in the OCA materials. They certainly don't link to either Vote for MMP or the NoMMP campaigns, and last time the referendum officer checked their only link to the OCA materials was buried deep in a FAQ section.

Meanwhile, when asked about the referendum in a question from the media panel, Louise Ervin flubbed basic information about the referendum proposal. On the one hand she claimed to have studied the proposal "throughly", and in the next breath she stated that she did not like MMP because there would be 30 (sic) appointed MPPs, because rural areas and the North will lose (as if they don't already), and because she feels list MPPs won't open constituency offices. Good grief. If she's going to trot out hoary old fairy tales about list MPPs, it would help her credibility if she actually got the number of list MPPs in the propsal correct -- there are 39, not 30. I am pretty sure this is not a slip of the tongue, because she repeated the number 30 twice. That's right. One of the candidates in the debate can't even get basic details about the system correct, but in response to my angry question about publicizing the referendum she had the audacity to say that the Referendum Ontario information was adequate.

The other candidates at least acknowledged the importance of the referendum, although none of them had any answers as to how we get the word out in two weeks. Greenwood-Speers claimed she spent a third of her war chest on referendum advertising before Sept 10 (which is true -- they bought radio advertising), Catherine Fife spun some story about how the referendum was designed to fail, and Elizabeth Witmer tried to defuse the situation by congratulating "my group" for being out at festivals. (Thanks, Ms Witmer. But I don't need congratulations. I need to get the word out, and it is blatantly obvious that even the Record has no intention of letting us do so.) In other words, not one of the candidates had any good information about how we address the 47% of people who claim to know nothing about the referendum, and how to address the 41% who say they know only a little. (These numbers were froma recent Globe and Mail poll.)

Not surprisingly, Greenwood-Speers and Fife came out in favour of the referendum (although Fife certainly has not been emphasizing it much in her campaign), while Witmer came out decidedly neutral. She would not answer whether she would support the proposal (a theme of the night), and she told all of us to go out and learn as much as we could before Oct 10 (and how do you propose we do that, Ms Witmer?). Later it came out that Witmer is a member of Equal Voice, a multipartisan group that is strongly in favour of MMP. So I can see how she might have been in a bind -- her party does not want to openly support the proposal, while an advocacy group that is important to her does.

In other news, the debate was stuffed. Every party did its best to get members at the debate, and a long lineup of planted questions formed almost immediately. However, there was a twist -- Catherine Fife's team seemed to have done the most stuffing, so she got a lot of attention. Her group of applauders applauded the most loudly, and many of the early planted questions were softballs lobbed solely in her direction. It's a shame. Fife has the most well-organized (and maybe the best-funded) campaign. She is a reasonably good and experienced candidate. And I am fairly certain that not only will she lose the riding, but that she won't even come in second. Feel free to dream the dream if you wish. I'm through with those fairy tales. I have been burned by an abundance of lawn signs too many times before.

To the degree I could stifle my fuming enough to pay attention to the debate, Fife again had a strong debate. She did not hit as many home runs as she had in the "Children First!" one, but she also wasn't in her home turf. She parrotted the NDP policy, waffled on several issues without giving specifics (for example, to a softball question about people at NCR losing jobs, she couldn't do any better than to call for a "jobs commissioner" and to "look to the community for solutions"), and spent quite a bit of time criticizing the Liberals (although thankfully she did not sound like as much of a broken record as Rick Moffitt does). She tended to put a little more content into her responses than Witmer or Ervin (for example, in response to emergency room closures she noted that 40% of health care goes to seniors without seniors having a health strategy) but that is not saying a whole lot.

Meanwhile, the weakest candidate of the night was the one most likely to finish second in the riding -- Louise Ervin. She read the same opening comments that she had for the KPL debate, with the same bait and switch budget excuse. She had a few good points to make (she noted that we are getting 26 doctors in the region, for example) but she was not good with the tough questions. She couldn't tell us why the coal plants were not closed, and instead blathered on about wind turbines. She accused the NDP of supporting "private religious schools" in her closing remarks. She also refused to answer a question about what two Liberal broken promises she would have kept, a question that John Milloy was willing to answer in the Kitchener Centre debate. Meanwhile, when asked about why people should cast votes for candidates from smaller parties, she lost my vote for good when she said that strategic voting was just fine, and had a legitimate role to play in democracy, and that everybody can vote as they please so democracy is okay. (Yes, strategic voting will continue under MMP, and yes, it is unavoidable to some degree. We should still be working on ways to let people vote more honestly.) Time and time again she revealed herself to be a tool -- when asked to reconcile an article she wrote endorsing religious schools compared to her party's platform, she sided firmly with her party's platform. As far as I could remember she did not offer one innovative idea not from the party platform, but in her closing remarks she claimed to be a fresh voice with new ideas. Whatever.

Greenwood-Speers also cited her party's platform, but she again came out strongly as an individual with her own ideas. She had the most personal insight to offer in the debate, and I am pretty sure she had the best hit rate for answering questions head-on. Given that Greenwood-Speers openly supports the referendum (and had the guts to pass out books when she found out that hers had been confiscated) you folks aren't going to believe anything positive I have to say about her, so why don't I tell you how she lost my vote. First of all, she came out with a particularly obnoxious answer when asked how her party supported women. Instead of recognizing systemic barriers for women, she related her own bootstrap-pulling rags-to-riches tale of how she rose through the ranks at K-Mart, then rose through the ranks as a nurse, then rose through the ranks of the Green Party. She then told all the girls in the audience to aspire to the same. On one level I can agree with her response -- we have a personal responsibility to struggle against the barriers we face. On the other hand pretending that everybody is as strong as she is and therefore no explicit supports are necessary for women to succeed is gross. I admire Greenwood-Speers a lot, but I did not like this answer much at all.

I could have lived with that answer. Where she lost me once and for all was when somebody asked the sensible question of why people should vote for her small party when it would support her enemies (the same question in which Ervin defended strategic voting). Did Greenwood- Speers acknowledge electoral reality to any degree? Nope. Just like all the other candidates, she claimed that she could win the riding. In fact, she said that she was not out to split the vote, but to get all of the vote. In other words, she gave us a baldfaced, grandstanding lie, and furthermore it was the same lie that I hear each and every election coming from the smaller parties. I'm sorry. I am through with supporting candidates who make such statements, no matter how strong I think they are in other areas.

That leaves Elizabeth Witmer, who added to my bad mood in a big way. She was polished and knew her stuff, which is not surprising given that she has been in power since 1990. But several statements coming out of her mouth defied explanation. Witmer was a Minister of Health under Mike Harris. She had all kinds of opportunities to improve health care in Ontario. And she has the audacity to complain about the number of doctors leaving Ontario for other provinces and the United States? She complains about how long it takes to train foreign doctors? I don't have it in my notes, but I think she was even railing against wait times in emergency rooms. When she had the authority to do something about these things, she fell down on the job. Then she goes and blames the Liberal government. She spent a whole lot of energy blaming the Liberals, but when criticized about her own government she said that we should not dwell on the past, or fight the election of 2003 again. What?! She has a longstanding record that she proudly outlines in her campaign literature, but she doesn't want us examining her on that record?

One questioner complained that her newspaper advertisements did not outline her policy support or campaign promises. The questioner blamed Witmer for expecting people to dig deeply to find out what she stood for. Witmer's response? The questioner wasn't looking hard enough. If only the questioner would dig a little deeper, she would find all of Witmer's policy stances. In my view, that was outright arrogance.

There's no question that Witmer knows her stuff. She has been in power for 17 years -- she had better know her stuff. She even has some reasonable ideas (whether from her Big Book of Tory Promises or from her own head) of what changes to make in the near future. But the dissonance between what she says and campaigns about as compared to her actions as MPP are enormous, and she doesn't want us looking too closely at them. But what else do you expect when there is a two-party stranglehold on power?

To my knowledge, there are two debates left. I will be attending the UW one for certain, partially because I know that we will be allowed to have our literature there. But personally I think I am pretty sure how I plan to use my vote in this election. I'm going to decline it, just as I did in 2003. Why? Because as this debate demonstrated, we're looking at the same old tired story. I was hoping the story this election would be different -- that we as citizens would come together to change things for the better by taking an interest in the referendum. I was wrong. The politicians tell us the same lies election after election after election, and we are perfectly content to let them get away with it.

In other news: I have a few MMP 102 pieces queued up. I may publish them, but I need to polish them and cite my references and stuff.

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Mood: burned out