UPDATED: Candidates go head to head at first Chilliwack debate
Chilliwack's first major all-candidates' meeting outlined this season's big election issues, and pitted all the candidates against each other at a panel-style discussion. All eight Chilliwack and Chilliwack-Hope riding candidates butted heads on Thursday at the Best Western Rainbow Country Inn in a forum organized by the Chamber of Commerce.
The floor opened with a two-minute statement from each candidate about why they're running. Later, anonymous audience questions directed the debate towards Metro Vancouver's proposed waste-to-energy incinerator, Kinder Morgan's planned pipeline twinning, funding for teachers and special education, the high cost of higher education, and the continuation of B.C.'s Knowledge Network.
B.C. Conservative candidate Chad Eros, running in Chilliwack, spoke first.
"The Liberals and NDP want you to think that this is a two-party system, where you only have to be slightly better than the other party. But when the B.C. Conservatives cause or even win a minority government, they will see that they will have to be better than us too," said Eros.
John Martin disagreed in the value of a Conservative party in Chilliwack. As a Conservative in the byelection last year, he admitted to having his "butt kicked" by Gwen O'Mahony, and is now running as a Liberal.
"When the non-NDP vote is pursued by more than one party, the NDP is very likely to win. Even in a riding that they historically wouldn't have thought of coming their way," Martin said.
In reply, O'Mahony said she worked very hard for the people of Chilliwack in the last year, enjoyed the experience, and deserves to keep her MLA seat.
"This is a job we're applying for. I said last year...try me out for a year. Put me on probation, see what kind of representation I bring, and then you can decide if you want to renew that contract," said O'Mahony.
Sole Green Party candidate Kim Reimer was quick to speak about issues beyond water chlorination.
"In the last few months, I've become the leading voice for the chlorination of our water. Forcing chlorination on the most pristine water supply in Canada is an issue that's going to have experts clashing and people talking for years to come. While this is very important to me, it's opened my eyes to much broader issues," said Reimer.
Despite not receiving an invite to the meeting from the Chamber of Commerce, B.C. Excalibur Party leader and Chilliwack riding candidate Michael Halliday decided he deserved a seat at the table, so he just showed up.
"I asked, "Where's my seat?" said Halliday. "If I can't stand up for myself, I can't stand up for the province."
Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline divided candidates into two camps: those who felt the environmental risks were worth the financial reward, and those who didn't.
"Pipelines. They're everywhere. They've been proven to be one of the best forms of transportation for petroleum products. The other options are rail and truck transport...We are a petroleum-based economy, whether we like it or not," said B.C. Conservative candidate for Chilliwack-Hope Michael Henshall. He further stated that he wants to see the Northern Gateway and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipelines built in conjunction with refineries.
Earlier at the meeting, Henshall held up a ball and chain attached to a heavy-seeming white board, with $57 billion written on it, to demonstrate the provincial government debt.
"This is unsustainable, folks," he had said.
The B.C. Liberals didn't take as firm as a stance on the Northern Gateway project, with Chilliwack-Hope candidate Laurie Throness saying that a Liberal government would evaluate each energy project according to "stringent conditions" before allowing it through. But if it passes, the construction of a line to transport Alberta crude oil to Kitimat, B.C., is their preferred route.
"I hope that we can get to 'yes' on this. I hope that we can get to further development of our natural resources, minimizing the impact on the environment so it's safe," said Throness.
The New Democrats didn't waste time dismissing the project.
"Nobody wants it. The people in the community don't want it, First Nations communities don't want it. We have to think about our Coast, an area that has never been opened up before to this kind of tanker traffic...Do we want to go there? No. Not as a province," said O'Mahony.
The Green Party candidate agreed. And the Excalibur party thought the issue should be decided by referendum.
Protecting local air quality was the one unifying issue on Thursday. Chilliwack doesn't gain financially from Metro Vancouver's plan to open a waste-to-energy incinerator, and candidates were quick to bandwagon on existing fears about air quality.
"We have enough air shed problems with the morning commute in the Lower Mainland drifting out this way and getting caught in the Valley. We don't need an incinerator," said Liberal John Martin.
Funding for education at all levels was a hot topic at the debate.
"We have young people that cannot afford to go to school, and they can't afford to keep on going," said MacAhonic, whose New Democratic party's election platform includes substantial funding increases to skills training and student grants.
The Liberals denied that there is a problem in education funding.
"There's absolutely no government in history that has been as good to post-secondary education as this one," said Martin.
In response to a question about how to calm the tumultuous bargaining process between teachers and their employers, fellow Liberal candidate Throness referred to the government's proposal of a 10-year contract with teachers.
"We are seeking a 10-year deal so that we can have labour rest for a decade. I think that's a visionary proposal," said Throness.
But O'Mahony said that this process wasn't collaborative.
"You talk about this 10-year peace. But did anybody talk to the teachers about it?" said O'Mahony.
When considering how to make higher education more affordable, Conservative candidate Henshall suggested no-interest loans for graduates that remain in B.C. for five years, to prevent Alberta's lower taxation rate and higher wages from siphoning off B.C.'s new workforce.
Green Party candidate Reimer would like to see student financial aid allocated according to the students' abilities to pay, rather than their parents'.
Finally, one anonymous attendee asked all candidates whether the Knowledge Network was important enough for the government to restore full funding. Nobody had a firm solution.
"We will be looking at that, and we will be considering what we can do best to make sure that people in the province have access to these wonderful, unique programs that really have the flavour of our province," said NDP candidate MacAhonic.
In final remarks, the Liberals made clear that the current government is doing a fine job and should be re-elected.
"Look at the big picture. The balanced budgets, the taxes, the future vision. If the economy ain't broke, let's not fix it," said Throness.
Reimer suggested that she would act more independently once in Victoria, and not stick strictly to the party line.
"Chilliwack needs to be represented in Victoria. We need to make sure that our people are having their say in the decisions that get made. Some of the parties are forced to go by what their party policies are, and some are not."
The next all-candidates' meeting is on Tuesday, April 30, at 6 p.m. Organized by the WaterWealth Project, it will be at Sto:lo Resource Centre (Building 10), Coqualeetza Site, 7201 Vedder Road.email@example.com/akonevski