By Andrew Mitchell
Never let it be said that Whistlerites are apathetic.
On Tuesday, the three candidates for the West Vancouver-Garibaldi riding formally introduced themselves to the community at a Whistler Chamber of Commerce-sponsored all candidates meeting and answered questions from the audience. Joan McIntyre represented the B.C. Liberal Party, Lyle Fenton the New Democratic Party of B.C. and Dennis Perry the Green Party of B.C.
Of the approximately 80 people who turned out for the event, almost 20 asked questions of the candidates before moderator William Roberts of the Whistler Forum for Dialogue at last called the event after an hour and a half of speaking.
For undecided voters, the evening clearly showed the different strategies that are being employed by the different candidates and political parties, as well as a glimpse of how the candidates would represent this riding.
For the NDP candidate, the plan was to attack the Liberal record on health care and education, and to warn voters that the Liberal Party strategy was to privatize Crown corporations and public services. The NDP would work to restore social programs that have been cut.
For the Liberal candidate, the strategy was to point to the economic recovery in the province, and to let voters know that more money would be spent on health, education and social programs now that the province is on firm financial footing. McIntyre also pointed to the record of the previous NDP government, while suggesting that the Green Party platform would be a disaster for the provincial economy.
For the Green candidate, the strategy was to run an outsider campaign by painting the Greens as a strong, independent voice in the province that would represent communities rather than central political parties. Perry also worked to establish the partyÕs credibility on economic issues, while promoting new social spending through taxes.
Judging by the applause from the crowd, all of the candidates scored points during the meeting Ñ even if their statements often contradicted one another and left voters more confused than enlightened on various issues.
For example, both Fenton and Perry accused the Liberals of cutting funding for education and health care, while McIntyre argued that the Liberals had actually increased funding in those areas.
There were also conflicting facts presented over the fate of social programs like special education, support for seniors, and environmental policy.
Questions relating specifically to Whistler were rare, although the PiqueÕs G.D. Maxwell asked Joan McIntyre point blank where WhistlerÕs financial tools were hiding. Whistler was promised financial tools, specifically the ability to create a tax on tourists to help pay for municipal infrastructure, in a pre-Olympic agreement with the Liberal government.
McIntyre did not specifically commit to delivering financial tools, but did say that the province was still looking at the issue.
ÒLet me preface my answer by saying financial toolsÉis a tax,Ó she said. ÒWe appreciate that Whistler has a tax base of 10,000 providing services for 50,000É but before government gets involvedÉ we have to look at the impacts (of a new tax) on local residents and businesses, and make sure locals arenÕt being penalized.Ó
Dennis Perry, who supports financial tools, noted that Òa promise, is a promise, is a promise. Why it hasnÕt happened yetÉ that comes back to the general argument that we need accountable representation for communities, communities need a strong voice in the legislature.Ó
Lyle Fenton, who resides in Squamish, was not aware of the issue, but said he would look into it for this Sunday when he will speak at the Whistler Forum.
The Olympics were a minor issue at the presentation. Eckhard Zeidler got all three candidates to promise they would continue to support a green, sustainable legacy for the 2010 Winter Games after they were elected.
Education was a concern, with at least three questions to candidates on their plans for the education system, class sizes, and a new contract for teachers. McIntyre stood behind the provinceÕs record, as well as the decision to allow for larger class sizes after Grade 3, and to take class sizes out of the last teacher contract.
Perry and Fenton noted that funding has been cut from special programs, supported class size limitations, and said the province should negotiate in good faith with B.C. Teachers Federation on a new contract.
Several barbed questions were also directed at the Green PartyÕs platform, which includes several billion dollars in tax increases, as well as measures to get people out of their cars.
Perry responded that the platform was basically moot anyway because the Greens had no real chance of forming the next government Ñ rather than speak on specifics he said it was more valuable to use this opportunity to speak in general terms about the Green PartyÕs approach, which is to give more power to communities. He also urged people to vote yes on the STV referendum to ensure that communities would be represented by Green Party voices in future governments.
As for new taxes for social programs, Perry said they would come from a five cent per litre gasoline tax that truck drivers, some businesses and low income people would be exempt from paying; from reinstating taxes that were cut by the Liberals; and from the resource industry by raising stumpage fees and energy royalties, and by withdrawing subsidies for industries like mining.
Fenton was quiet on the subject of taxes, but said the NDP does have a fiscal plan to restore funding to social programs without increasing taxes or cutting other services.
McIntyre acknowledged that some of the Liberal Party decisions have been tough, but said now that the economy was improving British Columbians could expect to see government funding increase in all areas.
Regional development was also an issue. In regards to the Pemberton Airport, all three candidates said the final decision belonged to the community.
ÒThe municipality should have the largest say, they are the ones that have to rezone and accommodate the development,Ó said Fenton.
Perry said he would prefer not to increase the runway to allow jets to land, but said the people of Pemberton should ultimately vote on just what kind of airport they would like to see.
McIntyre agreed. ÒWe will have to think twice about landing big jets in a community like Pemberton to service a place like Whistler,Ó she said.
One questioner asked what the vision was for tourism in Whistler and Sea to Sky communities.
McIntyre pointed to new regional tourism funding through the Union of B.C. Municipalities, the Liberal PartyÕs doubling funding for Tourism B.C. and increasing the percentage of hotel taxes going to Tourism B.C. by 2008, as well as the benefits of hosting the Olympics. Locally she did not have any specific ideas, but said she would find out how Whistler can benefit from these programs if she was elected.
Perry said he would restore funding to provincial parks, and kill the Liberal plan to build privately operated lodges within parks, while restoring the Ministry of Tourism.
On the same note, one member of the audience asked McIntyre if there were any future plans to privatize Crown land. She replied that privatization was not something that she would like to see.
Other general questions involved provincial policy on fish farms, on P3 agreements (public-private partnerships) for infrastructure projects, on local support for seniors, and where candidates stood on privatizing public lands.
Fenton came alive whenever the issue of privatization was raised, suggesting that the Liberal government planned to privatize ICBC, B.C. Hydro, and even provincial water Ñ ÒthatÕs nextÓ he said. He pointed to the fact that the government has already sold B.C. Rail to CN Rail, as well as privatized components of health care and B.C. Hydro.
ÒAccountability is not there like government is when it comes to the private sector,Ó he said. ÒPrivate companies love (P3Õs) becauseÉ they know theyÕre going to get a cheque from the governmentÉ but they assume none of the risk.Ó
He also suggested that the Liberal and Green Party approach to health care, which would see a mix of public and private health care, was dangerous.
ÒAnyone who says we can have private and public health care doesnÕt know what theyÕre saying,Ó he said. ÒLook at the American system. And there are companies in the States right now just waiting to get in here, it said as much in the Romanow Report. I think weÕre being set up, quite frankly.Ó
Perry said P3 agreements have to be evaluated individually, and that community needs should take precedence. He also supported a mix of private and public health care that is similar to successful universal health care services in Europe.
McIntyre said the reality is that P3 contracts were sometimes the only way to get projects off the ground, especially in small towns like Pemberton where there is a limited tax base and money for important large capital projects is hard to generate.
Each candidate was given two minutes at the end of the evening to sum up.
For McIntyre, the important message was for the province to stay the course, and not to slip back Òto NDP thinking and the consequences of the 1990ÕsÉ or the policies of the Greens which would cripple the recovery and our resource industries.Ó
Fenton noted that the Sea to Sky corridor has always been his home, and reiterated his record as a politician and environmental advocate. He promised to be a strong voice for the area in the legislature, and urged people to vote out the Campbell government. ÒGordon Campbell must be stopped if this wonderful place is to remain beautiful and affordable.Ó
Perry used the time to remind people of his business and environmental background, and to urge voters to pick the best candidate for their community, rather than a political party.
ÒI would suggest that you elect the best representative for the community,Ó he said. ÒWith the Olympics staring us in the faceÉ donÕt elect anybody who will go to Victoria and kowtow to powers that be. I would be a good representative for Sea to Sky country, and push for a sustainable Olympics.Ó