Ideas, not name-calling, main focus at Don Valley West debate

While much of the 2015 federal election has been defined by barbed exchanges between the three leading national party leaders, those who attended the Don Valley West all-candidates’ meeting at Leaside Memorial Gardens on Oct. 7 expecting similar fireworks probably left disappointed.

With few exceptions, the exchanges among Conservative incumbent John Carmichael, Liberal candidate and former MP Rob Oliphant, and NDP candidate Syeda Riaz were civil and respectful.

As moderator Brian Athey, a board member of the Leaside Property Owners Association (LPOA), which organized the event, read from 24 audience-submitted questions covering everything from Canada Post home delivery to the Syrian refugee crisis, each candidate repeatedly chose to articulate their own opinion, or their party’s approach, over slinging verbal mud or responding to the occasional quip at their expense.

The audience, in turn, applauded each answer with the same level of enthusiasm — though cheers after certain statements were divided along party lines.

Leaside resident Karen Zeppa articulated an opinion shared by multiple attendees when she called it “one of the better debates I’ve been to locally.”

Athey and his co-organizer, LPOA co-president Carol Burtin Fripp, almost certainly played a role in maintaining the courteous tone: As questions were asked, each candidate had only a minute to stand and give their answer, lest Fripp ring a bell forcing them back into their seats.

Carmichael presented himself as a reliable, trustworthy member of parliament who would be honoured to continue providing his community with the same reliable, trustworthy service for another four years. He repeatedly praised the LPOA, mentioned his family’s connection to Leaside Memorial Arena, and structured his arguments around the Conservative party’s economic record.

He emphasized that since 2009, his party had introduced “1.3 million net new, well-paying jobs” after a recession “that nearly devastated our country,” reduced taxes “180 times, to the lowest level in over 50 years” and, of course, delivered a balanced budget two years in a row.

Oliphant presented himself as a folksy, confident, experienced and witty alternative to the Conservatives, often invoking leader Stephen Harper’s name rather than Carmichael’s.

“For many years we had a family cottage, and my grandfather had two rules,” Oliphant said when introducing himself. “The first was that no one stayed too long, and the second — leave the cottage a little bit better than you found it.”

“Frankly, Mr. Harper has stayed too long,” he said to laughter and applause. “After nine years, he has not left Canada better than he found it. In fact, he’s left it worse.”

Judging from their reactions, the audience was divided along party lines, with roughly a quarter cheering many of Carmichael’s talking points and the rest cheering many of Oliphant’s. The 23-year-old Riaz, a recent law school graduate student who joked about her slim chances of winning and elicited good-natured laughter from both sides, more than held her own against the two veterans, effectively presenting herself as a bright, passionate candidate who would be eager to learn on the job.

Two questions in particular highlighted the partisanship of the audience. The first evoked laughter before the candidates could even respond: “How do you feel about the current Canadian foreign policy, and what aspect of it, if any, would you change?” Athey said.

He asked Oliphant to respond first.

“In one minute?” the Liberal candidate said, to laughter.

“I’m not sure what this question is about, but I could have a good answer on Israel, I could have a good answer on the other parts of the Middle East, I could have a good answer on foreign aid, I could have a good answer on the Pacific Rim.”

“We need a Canada where when we go to the table, we go as a leader because people follow us. Where when we go to the UN, we actually get a seat at the security council and we don’t lose it,” Oliphant said to loud applause, including from Riaz.

Carmichael then stood and began listing the countries that have received Canadian support under the Conservatives, including Israel, the Ukraine, and Afghanistan — not to mention the recent conflict against ISIS.

“We are a country who stands with their allies and supports the freedom and democracy of those who want to experience it,” Carmichael said, followed by: “Our leader, Prime Minister Harper, is respected as one of the great leaders on the globe.”

At this the audience, including Riaz, immediately broke into laughter.

“I was in Europe, nobody even knew him,” one man said.

“I’ll just leave it at that,” Carmichael then said, as Athey reminded the audience to respect every candidate’s opportunity to speak.

Before giving her own answer Riaz apologized to Carmichael, saying she was raised to respect her elders.

The second partisan-highlighting question asked the candidates whether their parties would resurrect the long-form census.

“We’re very happy with the short-form census that was developed several years ago, as is the chief statistician of Statistics Canada,” Carmichael said, to some grumbling and possibly the quietest applause of the evening. “It provides all the information that’s required to meet the needs of the government and private sector.”

As CEO of the Asthma Society of Canada, Oliphant said he had first-hand experience with the public and private sector’s need for accurate statistics — and that the short-form census fell far short of providing them.

“The current chief statistician may support the government decision, and that’s the reason why we want Statistics Canada to become again an independent agency,” Oliphant said, to applause. “Because you’ll remember that the former chief statistician resigned.”

A question asking how the Liberals could be trusted to manage the economy yielded one of the night’s liveliest exchanges. Oliphant began by saying that between 1912 and 2006, when the Conservatives relied on a surplus left by former prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien, the party and its progressive predecessors never delivered a balanced budget, while the Chrétien and Martin Liberals did so nine years in a row.

Carmichael retorted that the Liberals balanced their budgets “on the back of Ontario,” by reducing transfer payments to each province, which the Conservatives have since increased.

Riaz then reminded the veteran candidates that both the Conservatives and the Liberals have balanced budgets by cutting various government services over the years, creating a vicious circle.

“When we wanted to get rid of the Conservatives, we got the Liberals. We wanted to get rid of the Liberals, so we got the Conservatives. And now we want to get rid of the Conservatives again, so we’re going to get the Liberals, and the Liberals and Conservatives are just going to keep on going,” Riaz said to chuckles that turned into loud laughter and applause.

She also noted that throughout Canada’s history, NDP governments have been the most fiscally responsible provincial governments, and that the party would reverse cuts to vital services such as EI and healthcare.

Afterward, the candidates themselves seemed as pleased with the debate as the audience was.

“It was a great evening with a lot of bases covered, and a lot of really thoughtful questions,” Oliphant said. “I think that’s what makes politics fun, and keeps me going every day.”

“It’s been a privilege to be here tonight,” Carmichael said. “I thank everybody for being respectful, and there were some great questions and discussions.”