“Do you think Brian wears a toupée? I know that's a shallow question, but...” I was sitting with Nik Maak—author of the blog Kill Everything—in the auditorium of Glebe Collegiate. An Ottawa Centre all-candidates meeting had just wrapped up, and he was talking about Brian McGarry. Nik doesn't particularly like Mr. McGarry. I shook my head, and maybe mumbled something. But, before I could really answer, he was continuing. “If Gilligan and Mr. Howell had a love child, that's him. You know. He's kinda goofy, but kinda mean at the same time.” (Or maybe he said “stern”. I don't really remember.) I reflected on this for a moment.
“Yeah, and there's a bit of a physical resemblance, too” I admitted. “I guess that's why I think it's his real hair. He seems like the kind of guy who would grow hair like that.” It seemed unkind to be picking on McGarry—he hadn't had an entirely successful evening, after all. But he brings it on himself. His performance that evening practically demanded mockery.
Mike Cassidy happened to be sitting behind Nik. Before the meeting started, I overheard him say “He's really one of the more decent Conservative candidates...” It was clear he too was talking about McGarry. I'm not sure whether he meant in this election, or compared to candidates Cassidy had faced before. He had been leader of the Ontario NDP before Bob Rae. Like Bob Rae, he moved on to federal politics; but unlike Rae, he stayed with the NDP. He won Ottawa Centre in the federal election of 1984 by a margin of 54 votes. Presumably he's seen his share of Conservative candidates. But you also have to figure that if Mike Cassidy is being sympathetic to a Conservative, that Conservative isn't seen as much of a threat.
* * *
The format for this meeting was odd. There were the usual opening statements, then two prepared questions: one from a student; one from a community association representative. So far so good. The community associations and high school were hosting, so you'd expect them to give themselves some kind of panel questions. It was the way the floor questions were handled that was odd. There were no microphones. Instead, students collected written questions, which were then read by the moderator.
The goal, we were told, was to keep things moving quickly—to avoid wasting time at the microphones—so as to get to as many questions as possible. I'd come with a vague plan to ask a question about ACTA, but I didn't have anything written down. I was just going to wing it. So I tried, twice, to write something out while simultaneously taking notes. It didn't really work. So my question didn't make it into the pool.
My question was going to be something like this: The Canadian government has been participating in negotiations to establish an Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) for the past year. This treaty process has been widely criticized as being secretive, and undemocratic. Although the content of this treaty is unknown, it is rumoured to require member nations to divert public funds into the enforcement of private Intellectual Property rights, on behalf of rights holders—a proposition that was recently rejected by the Departments of Justice and Commerce in the US. In fact, Senators Leahy and Specter, authors of a bill that would have implemented such a provision published an open letter last week decrying the secrecy and the breadth of these treaty negotiations. When two of the strongest proponents of IP enforcement regimes, as well as most proponents of IP liberalization agree that the ACTA process is severely flawed, is it not time for the Canadian government to consider opening it up to a little public scrutiny?
It's too long, of course. I was working on editing it. Oh well. The thing is, you can probably predict what answers the candidates would have given, anyway. Still, it might have been nice to get them on the record on the subject.
Nik had a question too. He had brought his in written form, so was ready to toss it right into the basket when the students came around. His question, more or less, was why should we take seriously candidates who don't care to engage the electorate? The pointy end of that stick was directed at Penny Collenette, as much as it was at McGarry. Both of them begged off several of the “all-candidates” meetings, over the course of this campaign.
The moderator said she'd received more than 75 submissions. By the time Nik asked about McGarry's hair, we'd heard 42 of them. Nik's wasn't one of them. Somebody else asked a question about Conservative secretiveness and gag orders on local candidates, though. McGarry's response was adamant: there was no gag order on him. He'd answer any question, any time, with honesty and integrity. How this was going to happen when he'd elected not to attend six of the eight scheduled debates or all-candidates meetings in the riding wasn't clear.
To his credit, his campaign office was the only one that responded directly to my copyright policy questions. The response didn't really answer them—it was a canned statement about how “the Conservative government consulted widely with Canadians and stakeholders and delivered a made-in-Canada approach that struck a balance between protecting the rights of consumers while respecting the rights of creators and copyright owners” and how “[i]f elected, Brian will certainly ensure that your opinions on this matter are heard clearly from within the Government.” But it was a response. (For the record, I also received an invitation to a Policy Parlour discussion from Jen Hunter's assistant. I guess you could consider that a response, too.)
I'm still picking on McGarry. I can't help it. In response to a question about how to make communities more livable, most of the candidates talked about financial transfers to municipalities; McGarry talked about having been a school board trustee. When asked about the decline of voter participation, McGarry quite earnestly announced that he wasn't going to fine people for not voting. (Nobody had raised this possibility.) When asked what platform items might have to be delayed in the event of a severe economic downturn, McGarry's response was “I know what you want me to say: cut the arts! Well no way.” He then went on to talk about cutting four-lane highways. And when asked about whether he'd been interested in politics as a child, he went off on some tangent about how he used to be a Liberal, and how it was a shame he couldn't be one anymore. But the absolute topper has to be the question about abortion rights, to which he answered that one should “celebrate life...in most cases.”
Time and time again, he kept saying things that were just plain weird. Things that left me scratching my head, wondering what he was thinking—why he would say that.
One thing I have to say, though: both Paul Dewar and Penny Collenette remarked on how respectful the evening had been. Collenette went so far as to call it a “new model for politics”. I suppose that as far as the candidates were concerned, it was reasonably respectful. But I didn't feel a lot of respect from the audience directed towards Brian McGarry. When he mentioned a hearing problem, while asking for a somewhat strange and hostile question to be repeated to him, there was laughter, and not the laughing-with-you kind. That seemed uncalled for.
After all, it clearly wasn't his day.