I attended the Kitchener Centre debate last night. I don't live in that riding anymore, but I was (and am) pretty much stressed to the breaking point, and I needed something to relax and entertain me. In addition, I infiltrated the literature table and snuck in some referendum literature.
The contenders were: J.D. McGuire (independent), Rick Moffitt (NDP), Matt Stanson (PC), Daniel Logan (Green), John Milloy (Liberal), and Bill Bernhardt (Family Coalition). All six contenders were white men, although two (McGuire and Logan) were younger than the archetypal politician. I am sure nobody really cares, although you can bet there will be all kinds of commentary on how the leading four contenders for Kitchener-Waterloo are women.
This was the third debate these folks had conducted, so they knew each other's talking points (and a few of them were willing to steal policies from other parties, which is what I like to see).
McGuire ran in the Kitchener Ward 2 elections last year against Len Carter and Berry Vrbanovic. He ran on a platform of independence from political party discipline. As such he tried to point out the misleading statements and empty slogans of the other politicians. However, he was fairly weak in exactly the area independents need to shine: offering creative ideas that differ from the traditional political parties. All too often he fell back on the old "I'll listen to what the voters want" excuse when stumped by questions. I don't think he's a joke candidate -- he's running on principles, not pragmatics -- but he himself claimed after the debate that only one independent has won office since 1934 (!) in Ontario. (Hey NoMMPers! Would you like to reconsider that "voters vote based on their local representative" fairy tale?) I definitely have to look that statistic up, but it demonstrates fairly clearly McGuire's chances.
Moffitt ran as a Kitchener regional candidate last election. He impressed me then with his knowledge of local issues and willingness to proposed unorthodox solutions. He was much less impressive in this debate. In addition to echoing the party line insistently (which pretty much every candidate did), his entire focus lie in accusing the Liberals of breaking promises (which, come to think of it, is also the NDP party line). Hearing him accuse the Liberals in response after response got tiring, and became particularly ineffective when Milloy zinged him with a "magic wand" accusation: the NDP likes to make promises, but when they had the opportunity to keep some of the same promises they accused the Liberals of breaking, the NDP fell through.
Moffitt did let a few shards of independent thinking filter through. He had some pragmatic insights on amalgamation (almagamating services has worked well in the region), and proposed indexing minimum wage and welfare rates to inflation (which is in the Green platform but as far as I know not in the NDP one). He also knew his talking points on the NDP platform, as well as the stats and figures about various issues (such as family farms and the negative income most farmers report). But he was a lot weaker in terms of local knowledge than I would expect, and all too often he spoke in vague generalities (for example, promising to use nurse practitioners more without stating how). In his favour, he was one of the more assertive and articulate speakers.
I was totally disappointed by Matt Stanson. In my opinion, he was by far the weakest candidate. His debate strategy consisted of reading from the Big Book of Tory Promises verbatim. To his credit, he's a good reader -- I did not fully realize that he was reading until quite late in the debate. That's okay, I guess. Although effective public speaking is a definite asset in a politician, it is probably good that polished extemporaneous oration does not override all other values. But for the life of me I had a hard time finding any other reasons to recommend him as a candidate either. When asked questions that he could not answer by reading the Big Book of Tory Promises (and/or accusing the Liberals of promise-breaking) he readily admitted defeat, even when asked basic questions about how to improve the education system. Much worse than this, he blatantly flubbed or ignored questions that were inconvenient -- the worst example being a question that asked "What was your government's biggest mistake when in power". Stanson spent his entire minute blaming the Liberals and accusing them of breaking promises, while both Moffitt and Milloy had the nerve to offer some kind of answer (Moffitt: electing Bob Rae, not indexing welfare to inflation; Milloy: underestimating the depth of need in Ontario).
Stanson did offer a handful of reasonable answers. He found a modicum of passion when discussing apprenticeship programs, because he got started in business through apprenticeship. He offered one good idea from a farmer's organization that was not in the PC platform: labelling foods from point of origin so consumers can choose to eat locally more easily. He also noted that 2/3 of Ontario's health budget goes to chronic disease, which is a good talking point that should be brought up (but may have come from the Big Book).
The most frightening thing about Stanson is that -- unless I am wrong and Kitchener Centre really is a Liberal stronghold -- he stands a pretty good chance of winning the riding. (Hey NoMMPers! What's that fairy tale again?) Let's hope he's got some strengths that are not readily apparent.
Dan Logan recited the Green Party platform fairly well. He did a much better job of relating Green policy in unorthodox ways. For example, one of the first questions had to do with the tradeoff between coal and nuclear power. Logan hit the home run by framing the question as one of conservation, stating that an investment in lower-energy appliances would cost less than building new nuclear reactors and would compensate for the 1/3 power that nuclear generates. Similarly, he reframed a question about developing the greenbelt into one about commuting and local job creation. Reframing questions is the Green Party's niche, and if nothing else Logan demonstrated some aptitude for identifying opportunities to his agenda.
Logan also showed some aptitude for thinking on his feet: he could not give specific recommendations for amalgamation, but did note that amalgamation did not work so well in Ottawa and Toronto. He did flub some questions and clearly did not know the issues as deeply as some of the other candidates, but overall he did a reasonable job. I would have liked to see a stronger knowledge of concrete steps to implement policy, as well as a stronger ability to relate local issues and concerns to provincial jurisdiction.
Where Logan fell down was in his election messaging. He reiterated the tired mantra that this would be the year that the Green Party would elect somebody, and that it might as well be in Kitchener Centre. Meanwhile, he did not raise the issue of the referendum once (which he later admitted was a mistake -- he said that in past debates somebody has raised the issue of a question, and he thought it would happen again).
In my opinion, John Milloy won the debate hands down. I know saying that reflects poorly on my character (am I turning into my parents?), but I came out of the debate with a lot more sympathy for the Liberals than I had going in. Milloy had a definite advantage in the debate -- incumbents always have more knowledge of what is going on, and they almost always express their talking points articulately -- but Milloy also had to defend his government's actions. Unlike all the other candidates, he couldn't rely solely on criticizing the records of other candidates. Furthermore, for the most part Milloy actually did attempt to defend his government's record instead of blaming it on Mike Harris and Bob Rae (although he contrasted the records of his government to these ones fairly often).
Milloy also pulled in a lot of local data in his arguments. He had no compunctions about pointing out all the pork he had brought in from the region -- the affordable housing, large donations to the Catholic Family Counselling centre to combat domestic violence, provincial funding for Highway 7 and the LRT, even the McMaster medical school. But it was also clear that he understood some of the subtleties of local concerns fairly well. For example, on the issue of amalgamation he said that the government would not stand in the way of grassroots recommendations. I don't know if I believe this, but it does show an understanding of the issues. He even had the guts to state that greenbelts were an effective defence against the Ontario Municipal Board, which demonstrated some understanding of one of the biggest barriers to land conservation in the province. (Mind you, he didn't offer to reform the OMB, but at least he understood the issues.)
Having said that, I am sure glad I don't live in Kitchener Centre, because under FPTP there is no way for me to distinguish my appreciation for John Milloy with my distrust of the Liberal government. Unlike many others I think that this "Fibber McGuinty" strategy is dumb (I don't like the Ontario Health Premium either, but unless we make some hard decisions we have to accept that healthcare is expensive and could bankrupt us) but I have found that the government has been rather sneaky with respect to several issues I care about -- most notably energy policy and electoral reform.
If appreciating John Milloy's performance sullies my character, I'm pretty sure my opinion of Bill Bernhardt's performance ruins it completely. Bernhardt was the least showy candidate, but he did a good job of expressing his socially and fiscally conservative platform. Even more shamefully, I found myself agreeing with several aspects of Family Coalition policy. One question asked the candidates to extend kindergarten to a full day, and Bernhardt clearly stated that it would be better for those kids to stay at home. He took a page from the Green party in discussing energy policy, stating a preference for local, decentralized energy production. I even found myself intrigued by his suggestion that maybe welfare should be merged with Family Services. Mind you, he also complained about the low birth rate (1.6% and falling!) and stated his party's preferences on marriage and family, neither of which I support. But I am pretty sure that finding any common ground with the Family Coalition is grounds for ostracization and maybe even public flogging, so I am glad nobody reads this far into my blog posts.
In addition to sticking to his values and articulating them clearly, Bernhardt demonstrated an ability to express himself concisely. On a few occasions he finished his responses well before the 1 minute limit. That flustered the moderator, who was used to every candidate using up the maximum amount of airtime possible. On the downside Bernhardt got into few specifics and demonstrated little local knowledge of situations, but at least he knew how to shut up when he ran out of things to say.
Occasionally Bernhardt also showed an ability to think on his feet. On at least one question he admitted that the Family Coalition did not have a clear policy (I think it was for apprenticeships), and then proceeded to suggest a policy that he thought would be in line with Family Coalition values. That impressed me a whole lot more than being able to orate from the Big Book of Tory Promises.
A few other notes about the debate: the backdrop for the candidates consisted of some curtains with the word VOTE stitched very faintly into the fabric. Maybe this was intended to be subliminal?
Overall, I was rather disappointed by the format. The televised portion of the debate consisted of five questions from the "media panel" and a single question from the audience. There's your democracy for you. It should come as no surprise that the Record happens to be ignoring the referendum in its debate series -- we wouldn't want the people to express themselves effectively, now would we?
After the debate some reporter asked me for my opinion. I stated outright that I thought Milloy won the debate, and if anything I bet that is what would get printed. But then she made some comment about this demonstrating the success of the democratic process, which I denied vehemently. But instead of recording my opinion faithfully, the "reporter" stated that we would have to agree to disagree, and did not write a single word of what I said. Since the reporter has no compunctions about twisting my words, let me state my position clearly: as an entertainment spectacle, Milloy won the debate. But as a democratic exercise the debate was an utter failure. Only two candidates -- Milloy and Stanson -- have any chance of taking this riding, which is a travesty given how weak a candidate Stanson is. Pretending that we somehow "served democracy" because every candidate got to express their opinion is obscene.
 Are the Tories and NDPers actually channelling the old Fibber McGee radio program with this nickname? I guess it's possible. I first learned about this program while listening to rebroadcasts on nostalgia radio stations; I suppose others might do the same.