Retired broadcaster Kevin Burke was happy to see so may people turn out to the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre for the all candidates forum Monday night. Looking at the audience filling the seats to the back of the long room, the moderator for the evening said it was a good sign to see so many people demonstrating their belief in democracy.
And with six candidates on stage, it promised to be a full evening. The three major parties — Liberal, Conservative and New Democrats — were all represented, along with the Green Party and two independents.
A random draw before the event gave Conservative candidate Dan Albas the first kick at the can. Albas wasted no time in aligning his image with that of retiring MP Stockwell Day, who for a decade has kept Okanagan Coquihalla a Conservative stronghold.
Like Day, Albas said, he has a tradition of being responsible to voters, which the Penticton councillor and small business owner promised to continue if he is sent to Ottawa. He also linked himself with Day on economic policy, saying his record on council showed his record of accomplishment as a fiscal conservative.
Albas also set the tone for most of his remarks during the evening, keeping close to the Conservative Party line and stating that Canadians did not want an election, something which Liberal candidate John Kidder disagreed with, both in his opening remarks and throughout the evening.
“I guess we’ve been knocking on different doors, Dan,” said Kidder. He said he has been hearing from people who are concerned about the Conservative government’s direction on issues like health care and education, not just the economy.
Kidder said it was time to return to first principles and that a bigger vision of the country as a whole is needed than what is being shown.
“We need to shift focus to building community,” he said. The focus, he continued, should be on creating a government that works.
There were few, if any, surprises in the questions put to the candidates. They covered the usual range of election topics, from jobs to education and health care. The opening question of the evening addressed the agriculture sector, though, for a change, it wasn’t focused on tree fruits, but rather the laws restricting interprovincial trade in wines.
Sean Upshaw, who calls himself an independent conservative candidate, noted that the law in question dated from 1928. He, along with Albas, relied on the Conservative Party record, citing MP Ron Cannan’s private member’s bill to repeal the prohibition-era statute.
His comments and Albas’s echoed each others through most of the evening, as both stuck close to the Conservative Party playbook. Not surprisingly, all of the candidates at the forum agreed with the concept that the archaic law needs to be revised or repealed.
Upshaw, a West Kelowna real estate agent, chose to run as an independent after not being able to meet deadlines for the short Conservative nomination process. Upshaw said he isn’t trying to split the conservative vote, but rather thinks he would be the better representative for the riding, describing himself as a people’s politician who cares about both the young and older constituents of the riding.
And with many grey heads in the audience, it was inevitable that a question about pension reform and aid for seniors would come up. Not unsurprisingly, all candidates once again expressed support for seniors, promising that their party would increase aid to seniors should they take power.
“It’s despicable that seniors are in poverty,” said David Finnis, the former Summerland councillor who is running for the NDP. Change is needed in Ottawa he said, and a move away from what he calls an unco-operative Conservative leadership. Medicare, Finnis continued, is a great example of what can be done if the parties in a minority government work together.
Dan Bouchard, the youngest candidate on the podium, probably made the greatest emotional impact on the audience. The Green Party candidate addressed the need for change in environmental policy and almost every other sector of the economy.
Politicians are bickering like school children, Bouchard said. Parliament needs to change, he added, making an appeal for the support of the mostly older audience.
“We need you, we can’t do it without you,” he said. “You have to vote Green for the sake of my generation.”
The second independent candidate, Dietrich Wittel, gave the impression that he was running, not so much because he thought he could win, but rather to introduce issues like genetically modified foods, education and health care reform into the debate. But when it came to his closing remarks, the Penticton doctor directed his support to a fellow candidate.
“I have some advice for you,” he said. “Vote for Dan Bouchard. I agree with everything he says.”