I attended the Kitchener-Waterloo debate at the University of Waterloo yesterday afternoon. Unless Fair Vote campaigning forces me to, I don't intend to attend any others; they are getting repetitive and (unlike the municipal debates, where people actually needed to learn about the candidates running) nobody appears to be googling to find out more information about candidates. (What's that fairy tale, NoMMPers? Oh! Right! Parties are a fiction and we vote for the best candidate independent of party!)
In attendance were the usual suspects: Louise Ervin (Liberal), Judy Greenwood-Speers (Green), Catherine Fife (NDP), and Elizabeth Witmer (PC). Once again absent was Lou Reitzel, whom I have never seen at a debate (and he ran in 2003 as well). I confirmed that Reitzel had been invited to the UW debate (twice, in fact), so I conclude he is not serious about running and therefore does not deserve anybody's vote.
The format of the debate was interesting: the Feds people had been collecting questions for the debate all week, and they used a selection of those questions for the "prepared" part. Most questions were directed at a single candidate, who had 60 seconds to respond. The other candidates then got 30 seconds to rebut. Thankfully, the timekeeper was pretty good at his job, so the debate covered quite a bit of ground.
As usual in university debates, most of the candidates emphasized the importance of education: accessibility and tuition and funding and so on. Fife said the NDP will freeze tuition; Greenwood-Speers said the Greenies will cap university tuition at $3000 and college education at $700; Ervin veered all over the place, mostly crowing about how much the Liberals have spent on universities, but promising a tuition freeze by the end of the debate; Witmer criticized "ad-hoc" freezes and promised some kind of stable accessible funding so all qualified students could attend university. Yawn. Only Greenwood-Speers broke out of the education mold in her opening statements, leading off with doom and gloom stories about the environment and climate change.
In the open Q&A one person asked each candidate directly how they would vote in the referendum. Fife and Greenwood-Speers repeated their answers from the Record debate. Ervin's handlers must have been at work; she scrupulously avoided talking about system details. She praised a citizens' group for coming up for a recommendation, said the Liberals would abide by the referendum results, and then complained about appointed MPPs, which goes to show how much she values the judgement of that citizens' group. Witmer gave the most interesting answer because -- once again -- she blatantly refused to answer the question. Instead she complained about the education campaign and said that the end results would not reflect the actual wishes of voters. I find her fence-sitting fascinating; I'm wondering if she actually supports MMP and is afraid of saying so.
Another person re-asked the "If you could keep one broken promise what would it be" question, and again Ervin ducked the question entirely, blaming the deficit instead. Does she not realize that she loses credibility by not tackling the question head on, and that she gains credibility by giving some answer, however spun?
The biggest gaffe of the afternoon was courtesy of Ervin and Witmer. One of the prepared questions asked about encouraging campus sustainability, and how the Liberals dropped this commitment in their latest book of promises. Ervin either misunderstood or ducked the question, talking about tuition and university operating costs. Witmer followed suit. Then Greenwood-Speers called them on it, reminding them that the question was about environmental sustainability. To her credit, at the end of the question Ervin pulled out of the tailspin by linking financial stability to campus sustainability (if universities are not funded, they won't build green buildings) but she had been looking rather foolish for a while.
I sound as if I am beating up on Ervin a lot, so let's talk about Elizabeth Witmer. I continue to be flabbergasted at the way she campaigns. She does sometimes spin issues in a PC way (talking about tax incentives rather than handouts, for example) but she goes on an on about issues that she had the ability to deal with when she was in cabinet. Most infuriatingly, she trotted out the old donkey of recognizing foreign credentials faster, saying that (somehow! some way!) she would work to get foreign doctors recognised. She talked about reducing poverty through affordable housing, improved education, community access centres -- when her government did its best to cut funding for all of these initiatives. She talked about making schools community hubs, when her government cut extra-curricular funding and antagonized teachers. It would be one thing if Witmer was some anonymous backbencher. But she was a high ranking cabinet minister who had the portfolios of the environment, of health and of education. She had a lot of power and she did not use it for much (although she did take credit for shutting down the Lakeview coal-powered generation station). Now that John Tory has taken the party in a more moderate direction, she's totally changed her tune (or maybe she hasn't -- I could easily believe that she has always campaigned from the left).
Here's my question: where's the local accountability? A steady stream of Young Conservatives smugly asked me how list members in MMP would be directly accountable by name to a group of voters. Of course, when framed in that sense MMP looks bad, because there is no local accountability by name -- only accountability by party. But these young PCs don't want their MPPs to be personally accountable to voters. They want me to choose between the Liberals and Conservatives. Riddle me this: if I am unhappy with both my Liberal and Conservative candidates, how can I express my dissatisfaction with both under FPTP? I can waste my vote by selecting a candidate who is not going to win (sorry Catherine Fife. Sorry Judy Greenwood-Speers), or I can decline my ballot and have those numbers ignored, or I can hold my nose and vote for one of the big parties hoping to punish the other one. What kind of accountability is that?
Let's make one thing perfectly clear: this is exactly the decision mainstream Kitchener-Waterloo voters faced in 2003. They had to decide between kicking Witmer out or punishing Sean Strickland (who was fleeing Waterloo City Council in the wake of the RIM Park scandal). I am certain that voters wanted to hold both of these candidates accountable, but they couldn't, so they swept away Strickland along with the rest of city council. That in itself was unusual (and perhaps I shouldn't even bring it up) because it was evidence of voters selecting candidates rather than parties, but you can be certain that Witmer would have had a much harder time keeping her job in 2003 if she had been running against somebody else (even Louise Ervin). Our candidates have little personal accountability to us because we tend to vote for parties rather than candidates, and on the odd occasion when personal accountability does come up, our options are incredibly limited. This is the utopia that FPTP defenders want us to live in for the next 20 years. MMP does not fix this problem on a local level, but at least I would have the option of expressing my dissatisfaction on a party level in some meaningful way.