Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Agree-a-thon in Ottawa Centre

Ottawa Centre is a fairly diverse and politically active riding, as these things go. So at election time, it tends to put-on a fair number of different all-candidates debates--including some that one might call special interest debates. Last night, at the Ottawa Public Library, there were two. The first--arguably the main event--was hosted by Capital Xtra and EGALE, and dealt with Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Trans/Queer issues. The second was hosted by PSAC, and focused on issues of interest to public servants.

I'm not gay, and I haven't worked for the public service in many years, but I thought it might be of some interest, and I didn't have anything else in particular to do that evening. So I grabbed my netbook, and headed over to the library. I thought about trying to liveblog it, but I wasn't sure my battery would last the three hours, particularly with the wireless on, so I just took some notes instead. (Actually, I don't even know if there is wifi in the auditorium, anyway.)

In hindsight, that's probably just as well. Brian McGarry, the local Conservative candidate, declined the invitation to participate. Reportedly his wife is ill, so it might not have been part of the broader pattern of Conservative candidates declining to engage with the electorate during this campaign. And arguably it doesn't matter--in its entire history, the riding of Ottawa Centre has been held by a Conservative for a grand total of five months (Robert de Cotret, PC, who won a by-election in 1978, and then lost the seat again in the general election of 1979). But regardless, his absence removed most of the debate.

Instead, what took place was mostly an agree-a-thon between Paul Dewar (NDP, incumbent), Jen Hunter (Green Party), and Penny Collenette (Liberal Party). There were some themes that emerged in the candidates' responses to the questions, and some general patterns. But the details are perhaps not all that interesting. (If anyone does want the details, my raw notes are here.) The general pattern was this: Paul Dewar was the most familiar with the issues; Penny Collenette did more Harper-bashing, and seemed to be working from a script more of the time (at one point seeming to apologize for having an independent thought); Jen Hunter was clearly not working from a script, but might have benefited from one.

Which is not to say that the candidates always agreed on the policy questions--they didn't. For example, when asked about their positions on maintaining (or increasing) funding for HIV/AIDS research, Dewar gave a straight commitment to increase funding levels to at least $100 Million/year, and to fund new vaccine work from a separate pool not to be counted against that sum; Collenette stated there was no specific dollar figure in "her" platform for HIV/AIDS research funding, but that there was an overall $500 M/year commitment to increased research funding across the board; and Hunter said that prevention was a priority for the Green Party, and apologized for not having anything more specific to say on the subject. But on the question about abortion access, and attempts to enshrine fetal personhood within the law the candidates really had nothing to disagree about. Where they differed on that response had mostly to do with how much indignation they put into it.

Some of the policy differences that did exist were relatively subtle--on marijuana, Hunter spoke in favour of outright legalization, while the other two only offered decriminalization (and Collenette only for small quantities, with no definition of "small"). Others were arguably more substantial--on access to education, Collenette offered increased access to student loans (without a means test on parental income); Dewar offered a flat $1000/year grant for all undergraduate students; and Hunter offered automatic debt forgiveness for students who graduate. (Nobody asked for costing on any of these positions; it wasn't that kind of crowd.)

Naturally, there were some amusing moments of political theatre, too. One I enjoyed came when Hunter remarked about looking at things from the perspective of an opposition member "facing a sea of blue". Dewar and Collenette both visibly cringed, and at least one of them said "No!" out loud. (Hunter paused, then said "Well, not in Ottawa Centre. I get that! The audience laughed, appreciatively.)

One strange moment came relatively late in the first debate: Collenette, in response to a question about criminalization of HIV transmission asked if it was true that transmission rates were spiking among young women. "If that's true, it would be terrible to criminalize it," she said, or something to that effect. One of the panelists (Nicholas Little, I think) jumped on this, asking why only for young women and not gay men? Collenette got a little flustered, saying that wasn't what she meant but that as a woman it resonated that way for her and "sometimes we get to speak for ourselves, as women". Dewar essentially came to her rescue, jumping in with something reasonable that I didn't write down. Then Collenette asked the panel how many convictions there had been. They didn't know, but this kicked off something of a back and forth discussion amongst the candidates, the panelists and the moderator. It was all very collegial, and more than a little odd for a campaign debate.

Speaking of gaffes, it would be remiss of me not to point out that when an audience member asked a question about the SPP, Collenette not only didn't know that those negotiations had been kicked off by the Martin government, she didn't believe it and argued with the questioner about it. Dewar had a bit of a defensive moment when talking about voting in favour of the Conservative Tackling Violent Crime Act. Hunter didn't exactly have gaffes, she just wandered into non sequitur pretty frequently, got cut off for exceeding her time allotment, and generally seemed a little disorganized.

The quote of the night came from Penny Collenette. "The Liberal Party doesn't have a position on anal sex" is not a sentence one hears in most political debates.

The second half of the "debate" was, if anything even less controversial. All three candidates more or less fell over themselves to praise the quality of the Public Service. There were some differences of policy. Dewar was firmer against outsourcing and contracting out. The other two, while agreeing that there needed to be a core of permanent full time (and presumably unionized) public servants, figured there needed to be some degree of flexibility in staffing. But they all agreed that the present government was bargaining in bad faith, and that contract negotiations needed to be more respectful. There seemed to be something of a contest going on about who could use the word "respect" the most.

Dewar didn't harp as much as he might have on the fact that it was a Liberal government that was behind the major cuts during the Program Review of the 90s, but he did bring it up. He was also the only one with visual aides. Hunter had the "huh?" moment, when she responded to a question about selling off government buildings with a discussion about tele-work. And they all got in a few digs at McGarry for not being there to defend the government's record.

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