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KPL Debate: Children First!

I attended Wednesday's debate at the Kitchener Public Library somewhat reluctantly. I had been under the impression that the debate was for Kitchener Centre only, and I had already gone to one debate outside my riding. Somebody had to stuff the literature table with Fair Vote advertising, however, so I skipped gardening and made the trip. To my surprise, I discovered that candidates from both Kitchener-Waterloo and Kitchener Centre were on the panel.

This debate was entitled "Children First!" and it was put on the Child Care Action Network of Waterloo Region (CCAN), an advocacy group obsessed with daycare.

The Kitchener-Waterloo panellists consisted of: Louise Ervin (Liberal), Catherine Fife (NDP), Judy Greenwood-Speers (Green), and Elizabeth Witmer (PC). Absent was Lou Reitzel (Family Coalition), who also ran for the Family Coalition in 2003.

The Kitchener Centre panellists consisted of: JD McGuire (independent), John Milloy (Liberal), Rick Moffitt (NDP), and Bill Bernhardt (Family Coalition). Daniel Logan (Green) and Matt Stanson (PC) were conspicuously absent.

I was surprised to see the high turnout of panellists, because this debate was being held concurrently with another one put on by Faith FM. It is possible that the candidates that did not attend this debate attended the other one.

Before the panellists started Don Heroux from Referendum Ontario did give a quick speech about how important the referendum was and how everybody should vote. He did not actually explain either of the options, but at least he passed out the green brochures and raised some awareness that the referendum was happening.

Given the narrow focus of the debate I was surprised to see that many of the candidates had expertise in the area. Milloy and Witmer knew a fair amount as incumbents, and Witmer has been a public school board trustee in the past. This debate was on Fife's home turf, as she has apparently been active with CCAN as a school board liason. Greenwood- Speers claimed to have two sisters-in-law who are early childhood education workers, and Moffitt is a schoolteacher. Ervin and Bernhardt expressed less knowledge of daycare advocacy, but they both knew their talking points. Only JD McGuire seemed totally out of place.

Much of the debate focussed on how to spend taxpayer money: a $97 million infusion from the federal government that may or may not have been misplaced, and a $300 million commitment to daycare that the McGuinty government promised and may or may not have delivered on. Other issues that came up included special needs children (which veered into a discussion of autistic kids), salaries for Early Childhood Education workers, and a Liberal promise to introduce full- day Junior and Senior kindergarten, as well as some kind of full-day preschool program. Given that I neither have nor want children (sorry Bill Bernhardt) I can't say that I know a whole lot about child care nuances, so it was harder for me to pick out the good answers from the lousy ones. At the same time, it provided me a good opportunity to see these candidates in a different light.

Oddly enough, people were throwing around the M-word in the debate: minority, as in minority government. Should I believe that this is a possibility? I am inclined not to.

After watching Matt Stanson in the last Kitchener Centre debate, I worried that Louise Ervin could be another throwaway candidate. Although Ervin is certainly not as polished as her competition (all of whom are seasoned politicians or activists) she did not come across as being a terrible candidate. She did spend her time reciting Liberal promises and talking points, and she did read her opening and closing remarks from written comments, but she also brought up some points not from her notes. She mentioned the Early Childhood Educator (ECE) program at Conestoga College, and praised the past federal Liberal program on child care championed by Ken Dryden. When attacked about the Liberal government suing parents of autistic kids, she deftly blamed the previous PC government for initiating the court cases. She also championed more men entering the field, but her reasoning was iffy: she claimed that there were too many single moms raising children without a male role model, and that some of these educators could help fill that role.

To her detriment, right at the beginning of the debate she pulled out the tired old argument that the Liberals broke their promises because the Conservatives left them with a surprise deficit. Every government pulls this bait-and-switch, and I am sick and tired of it. You can be sure that if the Liberal lose this election their successors will take a look at the books and exclaim that -- horrors! -- those irresponsible Liberals left the financial books in terrible shape, and -- gosh! golly! gee! -- the new government would have to put their promises on hold as a result. And you wonder why we don't trust politicians?

Moving on, Catherine Fife knew her stuff. She did recite NDP platform promises a few times, but most of her responses dealt with the specifics of child care. She was strongly in favour of fully-funded child care spaces and early childhood education, claiming several times that institutionalized programs helps kids do better. I remain skeptical, but Fife did bring up one factor that was somewhat convincing -- Waterloo Region accepts the fifth-highest number of immigrants (in Ontario? Canada?) and those kids might benefit from ESL at an early age.

Fife also used her knowledge to poke holes in the claims other candidates made. For example, when Milloy claimed that the eligibility rules for child care were changed to make it more accessible to the middle class, Fife rebutted that funding had not gone up accordingly, and that child care centres had to go crawling to regional government to make up the shortfall. She also emphasized capital cost funding as being crucial to getting new daycare spaces built. While everybody else made claims that ECEs should be paid more, Fife noted that the existing educators have problems getting enough shifts to make a living wage. It's perhaps not surprising that she did well in this debate; I'm curious to see how well she does when asked about topics she's not so involved in.

Greenwood-Speers represented her party well. As Daniel Logan did in the Record debate, Greenwood-Speers frequently recast questions in a different light. When the subject of autism came up, she talked about pesticide bans preventing autism. I don't know (and would tend to doubt) whether the relationship between pesticides and autism is well- established, but it shows the typical Green strategy of casting issues in terms of prevention. Similarly, her opening remarks focussed on increasing wages for people to Low Income Cut Off levels as a way of helping families raise healthier kids. Again, I am ambivalent of such promises, but it does recast the issue in a broader light.

Greenwood-Speers also showed guts in taking a number of stances that were probably unpopular with the crowd. Her verbal slugging match with Rick Moffitt impressed me most; she maintained that full-day Junior/Senior Kindergarten was a lousy idea for two reasons: kids need flexibility in their learning and kindergarten teachers are expensive. Moffitt countered by saying that kindergarten teachers were qualified and that kids "deserved the best", and Greenwood-Speers slugged back by saying that ECEs were qualified enough, and that it would be more cost-effective to pay $40K/year for such workers than $70K/year for kindergarten teachers. If nothing else, this exchange did show that Greenwood-Speers understands that taxpayer money is a limited resource, which seemed to be largely missing from this debate (and her promises to increase income levels for everybody). Greenwood-Speers took another gutsy position in sticking with the Green promise to eliminate the Catholic school board, which she claimed would save $500 million a year. I question whether her math always works out (and that bothers me) but overall Greenwood-Speers did show a fair amount of insight into the issues of this debate.

I appreciated that Greenwood-Speers devoted a fair chunk of her closing comments to the referendum, urging people to vote in favour of MMP. I am also glad that she limited this topic to her closing comments; there is no point in pushing the referendum if you don't also have good insight into the other issues at hand (otherwise, why would you even vote Green?).

In terms of Kitchener-Waterloo, that leaves Witmer (who for some reason was seated apart from her competition). Given the nature of her responses, I am surprised that Witmer is a Conservative, never mind that she was a cabinet minister under Mike Harris. She came out strongly in favour of additional daycare centred around public schools. In her final comments, she outlined her priorities for daycare: better wages for daycare workers, additional training for these workers, and for all levels of government to work together to fund these spaces. Earlier she promised to eliminate (at what cost?) the waiting list for autistic kids.

This is a conservative? About the only ways in which she came across as representing her ideology was an insistence that parents be allowed to choose their daycare provider, and a call to investigate where the $97 million dollar federal contribution for day care went.

Like several other candidates, Witmer related her own personal frustrations in seeking child care when she decided to go back to work. Maybe one reason she is so strongly in favour of regulated care is because she needed to depend on babysitting when she pursued her career. In any case, this is one area in which I would not expect a male Conservative candidate to share her perspective.

Not surprisingly, Witmer also knew her issues. She boasted of achievements in newborn screening for diseases, and refuted Ervin's claim that suing the parents of autistic children was all the Conservatives' fault -- she claimed that the McGuinty government appealed a Supreme Court decision on funding autistic kids, and then he dragged Shelley Martel into court when she investigated the issue. Again, I don't know how true these claims are, but she clearly has some sense of developments in this area. Whether she should be trusted to back up her promises is another story -- she's been in power for a long time now, and it would appear that she has largely gone along with whatever her party elites want her to.

In terms of the Kitchener-Centre candidates: JD McGuire has a miserable outing. He did not offer one good answer in the entire debate. He made promises to learn about the issue, but did not demonstrate that he actually did any learning before walking into the room. If he wants to be taken seriously as an independent he has to do better than that.

Milloy again showed skill in this debate, but I realized that many of his defences (in this debate and the last) consist of telling us how much money his government spent on this and that. He occasionally showed good insight into issues (for example, he noted that special needs funding is a bigger issue than just daycare, and that organizations like KidAbility have a role to play in addressing this need) but I do not think he had as in-depth an understanding of the issues as the other candidates. Too often his responses would consist of relating how much taxpayer money he spent on an initiative, then a vague assertion that "we need to do more" without elaborating on what "more" would look like. For example, he did not offer a lot of innovative ideas in dealing with funding issues -- he basically told us that we need to pressure the federal government to pay for things.

On the other hand, I do find one aspect of Milloy's debating style very impressive: he doesn't shy away from questions. Even when other candidates take the discussion on tangents, his tendancy is to answer the questions that are posed directly. If nothing else, that demonstrates that he is paying attention and can stay focussed on the issue at hand.

Moffitt came out looking much better in this debate than he had in the last one I attended. He still harped on McGuinty's broken promises, but he toned the cheap political shots down enough to make some reasonable points. He rattled off lots of statistics of waiting lists and spaces that were available both locally and provincially, and held up Quebec's $10/day universal childcare system as a standard. He too was a strong advocate for nonprofit daycare programs run through schools. He too related a personal history of childcare: making a decision between sending his son to a daycare space out of his neighbourhood (so his son would be isolated when going to school) vs. staying local and struggling to find childcare at all. This helped bring his own emphasis on childcare issues into perspective. He did demonstrate some understanding of local issues (for example, that regional council picked up the funding slack from the provincial government for daycare, a point Fife also made) but his knowledge of local conditions did appear weaker than some other panelists. Given this, he did a reasonable job of defending his party's views.

Then there's Bill Bernhardt, who stuck to his guns and stuck out as the only fiscal and social conservative on the panel. He repeatedly asserted that it was foolish to expect governments to spend their money on child care instead of supporting parents to stay at home and raise their children well. Instead of advocating salaries for early childhood education workers he advocated training courses for parents, and unlike every other candidate he complained that we are institutionalizing kids in schools at an earlier and earlier age. He also criticized the divorce rate (which made me somewhat uncomfortable) and the way we let men impregnate their girlfriends then running away to let the mothers be single parents (which I claim the fifth about). Clearly he did not tell the audience what it wanted to hear, but I for one appreciated (and found myself agreeing) with a lot of this perspective (please don't flog me).

Although Bernhardt stuck to his values, he wasn't totally dogmatic about doing so. He stated that special needs kids do deserve government support, and he admitted that his ideal of stay at home parents was a long-term goal to be worked towards, leaving open the possibility of some government funding for daycare in the meantime.

Thankfully, I can genuinely say that I'm not a Family Coalition convert yet. Bernhardt fretted quite a bit about the low birth rate, which seems silly to me because there are lots of people in the world and we can get lots of immigrants (even Christian fundamentalist ones if Bernhardt wants) to move here just by increasing our quotas. Similarly, I was a bit uncomfortable with the degree to which he associated juvenile deliquency and drug use to public schooling.

Of course, Bernhardt's focus on family values meant that most of his comments seemed out of place in the debate. He clearly did not have a great understanding of the $97 million federal funding or the $300 million promises, or of wait lists and spaces available locally. Even opponents of childcare should know the facts, and Bernhardt didn't. Overall, though, I think that Bernhardt showed quite a lot of courage in showing up to this debate at all.

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Mood: who will think of the children?