The gloves came off early in the Whistler All-Candidates meeting on Wednesday night, as incumbent Conservative MP John Weston and Liberal Party challenger Dan Veniez got into a series of heated exchanges. Halfway through the campaign it was clear that there was no love lost between these two candidates.
In started in the opening statements. Weston said the Liberal Party was making "flamboyant promises" in their campaign that were "uncosted and unrealistic," while pointing to the Conservative's record on the economic recovery.
Veniez then used his opening statement to call attention to the "millions of dollars" that Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent on attack ads against Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. "That's what Conservatives do... They impugn your reputation. If they don't like you they fire you. They shut down Parliament." He also pointed out that the Conservative Party was the first in history to be found in Contempt of Parliament, though to be fair it was a highly partisan vote with Liberal, NDP and Bloc MPs voting together.
Then came a question on where the Liberal candidate stood on a coalition if it meant forming an alliance the Bloc Quebecois.
Veniez said it was obvious that the person asking the question had already made up their mind to vote Conservative then repeated the party line that the Liberal's goal was to win the election and that a coalition was not currently on the table.
However, like other Liberal candidates, he left the door open a crack: "Our duty as Parliamentarians is to work together, to consult, to make it work, and the tone and substance of the House of Commons is set by the Prime Minister. Under Harper we've seen more incivility and more corroding of the democratic process than under any leader in the recent history of Canada."
Weston used his next opportunity to speak to mention that Veniez called British Columbians whiners at the all-candidates meeting in West Vancouver: "We heard in West Vancouver (from Veniez) that British Columbians were whiners and complainers because they don't like how they were represented in Confederation," said Weston, before describing how the Democratic Representation Act - which would have given B.C. more seats in the House of Commons - died in Parliament because of the snap election call.
Veniez, who had the final word on that question, lost his temper. "John, your twisting of the facts borders on lies," he said, and then accused Weston of hiding behind his Blackberry and getting prompts from someone in the audience rather than speaking for himself.
Someone in the audience, which number about 70, called out, "that's a nasty comment," to which Veniez replied that what was nasty was the way Conservatives attack their opponents. "It's consistent with the attitude and mindset and general approach of Mr. Harper's Conservatives. It's embedded in their DNA. So stop it John. Stop it."
Weston did use another opportunity to deny Veniez's Blackberry accusation, pointing to his experience running for Party leader and standing as a candidate in two federal elections.
Points scored on both sides, the debate did get a lot more civil after that point - although it was pretty clear that there were some large points of contention on everything from military spending to health care spending.
Some of the credit for the change and tone belongs to Roger Lagassé, the body between Weston and Veniez, who was genuinely funny and seemed to enjoy the debate, and to eloquent but soft-spoken Green Party candidate Brendan Wauters. Both Lagassé, representing the Progressive Canadian Party, and Wauters scored points of the night, and earned their fair share of the audience applause (although Lagassé was rebuked near the end of the night after including a 9/11 conspiracy book in the list of book titles her recommended). Whether that will translate into any votes will be seen on May 2.
Terry Platt, the NDP candidate, could not make the Whistler Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate because of her mother's 75th birthday party. There was no explanation why the other four candidates - representing the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada, Canada Action Party, Western Block Party and Canadian Libertarian Party - were not in attendance.
After bios and statements, the candidates got into the questions from the public.
On the issue of coalitions directed to Veniez, the Liberal candidate said the goal was a Liberal majority - but he didn't rule out cooperation between opposition parties. Wauters said the Green Party was looking for a majority as well, but if there were a coalition he would hope that Green Party members would be in it. "We don't know if it's going to happen so it's an academic question at this point." Weston said that the Liberal Leader was on record in favour of coalitions, and said that the election was unnecessary. He also warned that more elections would likely come unless the Conservative Party could win a majority. "My opponent would say there's no such thing as an unnecessary election, but look at the $300 million (cost of the election) and all the bills that died on the table. It is unnecessary. Now, we're in election mode instead of debating the Democratic Representation Act in the House of Commons."
Legassé said he was in favour of coalitions, and that we wouldn't be in an election right now if the opposition parties had formed a coalition. He also didn't have an objection to separatists in a coalition, as long as they didn't discuss sovereignty. "I think it would be a good government, and (a coalition with Bloc Quebecois members) probably would have been positive."
The next question was aimed at Weston, and how the Conservative Party could justify military spending levels while claiming to be responsible spenders.
Weston pointed to the strength of the economy. "We're in the worst recession we've seen in some 80 years (but we've seen) six straight quarters of economic growth, 480,000 new jobs since July of 2009." He also said that the Liberal Party neglected the military during their tenure, and said he was proud that Canadians soldiers were viewed as the best equipped.
Weston also didn't shy away from the controversial purchase of new F-35 jets to replace Canada's aging F-18 air fleet. He pointed out that the Liberal Party started the process of purchasing the replacement jets, and that the Liberals would still have had to purchase new jets for the military.
Legasse´, who's central plank is to bring Canadian soldiers home from Afghanistan, talked about the cost in Canadian and Afghan lives, and suggested that $1.45 million people have been killed in a conflict that is probably illegal to start with.
Veniez said the purchase was not cost-effective because the contract was given without being tendered.
"This is the first time in Canadian history that a procurement has been made on an tendered basis," he said. "This is our money. The case has not been made that F-35s are what we need, and the case has not been made that it should have been untendered. And the case has certainly not been made to spend $30 billion on planes without engines.
"The planes must be replaced, and we're sure that this isn't the way to do it."
Wauters said we could equip soldiers in the most high-tech gear, but the question should be asked why we're putting them into harm's way to begin with. "It's difficult to understand why we're there," he said, after suggesting that the money would be better spent on green technology that would render oil - and wars over oil - obsolete.
The next question was related to health care and directed at Dan Veniez - specifically where the money would come from to pay for the health care initiatives proposed in the Liberal Red Book.
"That's an easy one," said Veniez, who pointed to the $30 billion for F-35 planes. "Let me tell you where we could cut some more. $12 billion for prisons we don't need. $6 billion for corporate tax cuts when we already have one of the most competitive corporate tax regimes n the world."
Wauters again called for more investment in green technologies, which would free up more resources for health care.
Weston pointed to increased health care transfers to the provinces from the federal government, a program that he said former Prime Minister Paul Martin cut to balance the budget. As for the lower corporate taxes, he said any increase was a "job-killing tax."
"How do we afford the social services we are so proud of?" he asked. "We need a strong economy, and to be a place that companies like to exist. Companies like Tim Horton's are coming back to Canada because of the low tax regime, and the Liberals are threatening to kill that."
Legassé's response was to put military costs in real numbers. For example, if we spent $17 billion on war in Afghanistan that represents roughly $100 million for each riding in Canada, while the $30 billion jets represent $200 million.
"One way to get rid of health care is to blow your budget so you can't afford it," he said.
The next question was directed to Weston, and was in relation to the new visa requirements for visitors from Mexico and Venezuela.
Weston explained that the visas are temporary measures to curb the number of refuge claims from those countries and the Czech Republic. "When the number of refugee complaints drops off we will remove that requirement again," he said.
In the meantime, he pointed out the fact that the Canadian consulate in Mexico City added 100 staff to speed up the visa process.
Legassé said he was in favour of open borders with some security, then pointed out that a lot of the risk of open borders is the result of the heroin trade - something he says that the war in Afghanistan has increased.
Veniez said the visa issue is serious and affected Canada's standing with a major trading partner. "What we do with partners is we work out solutions - we don't slap visa restrictions unilaterally with no warning whatsoever."
Wauters pointed out that the number one employer in the world is tourism. "It's more than 10 per cent of global spending, which is amazing," he said. "There are two things we would do, which we've spelled out in our Green Vision document. We'd like to create a Department of Tourism, that's the first point... The second thing is to reverse the government's decision to eliminate the GST rebate for foreign visitors."
At that point there was a comment from the audience that suggested that while Canada made it easy for Mexicans to get visas, the same assistance hasn't been offered yet in Venezuela.
There were additional questions asked regarding sustainability and barriers to trade and labour within Canada, with very little contention from the candidates.
The final question asked by a Terry Platt supporter was why there weren't many young people in the audience and how candidates would increase the youth vote.
Wauters pointed out that the debate was on 4/20, which some people celebrate as a day to legalize marijuana. "The Green Party realizes that a $20 billion industry might be something to legalize and get taxes from. We realize that it's relatively innocuous next to cigarettes and alcohol - those are dangerous drugs."
He also pointed out that if young people actually voted, then polls show that the Green Party would have 30 to 35 seats in the House of Commons. "But they don't vote. They're disenchanted with the system."
He later added that youth were frustrated by the lack of support for the environment in policy. "They're looking at us, and what we are doing to the planet," he said. "They want to know why we're engaged in a growth economy in a limited world... we have to acknowledge the limitations (of the planet) and the current economic system doesn't do that."
Weston pointed to the federal government's support for the Volunteer Youth Forum in West Vancouver and events like Crankworx that young people support.
Legassé pointed to the debate that was held at Quest University on Thursday and suggested that the candidates ask the students why 40 per cent of eligible voters didn't cast ballots in the last election. He also suggested that a senate that was based on proportional representation could make people feel as though their votes counted.
Veniez said it was a serious question. "I think the central problem is us," he said. "These kids are smart, they're 10 times more engaged than we were at that age. But we make it tough for them to engage in the process because they're so turned off. They look at us and are rightly turned off by the lack of civility, the character assassination, and lack of addressing issues they really care about."
A member of the audience pointed out remarks that Veniez himself made earlier in the evening as an example of a lack of civility.
Veniez repeated that "the issue is us. We have to raise the bar of our democracy and raise the bar of public discourse."
Election day voting is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday, May 2 at the Whistler Conference Centre.