Four federal election candidates courted voters last night in a debate hosted by the St Catharines-Thorold Chamber of Commerce. Two other candidates were not invited, but they made sure everyone knew about it. Christian Heritage Party candidate Dave Bylsma addressed the crowd before the debate -- with or without permission, I don't know -- to register his feelings about being excluded, and Communist Party candidate Saleh Waziruddin followed suit. A show of hands revealed audience support for including them. I sympathize, although the logistics of adding another two panellists were definitely against them.
The final panel, then, comprised (L-R in the photo) current Conservative MP Rick Dykstra, Liberal rival Andrew Gill, Green Party candidate Jennifer Mooradian and NDP man Mike Williams. The criterion for inclusion was that each party must have received two percent of the national vote in the last federal election. Although Wazirrudin said he would file a complaint with Elections Canada, the organizers claimed the criterion was in line with Elections Canada's own policy.
I'm a first-time federal voter, so the last few weeks have involved getting to grips with a swath of political issues as I weigh up how I should vote on May 2nd. One month ago I hadn't a clue how I would vote. By last week, I had a much better idea. After last night's debate, I have a real conflict. I know which candidate I would vote for if every vote mattered. But in the Canadian electoral system, the majority of votes are wasted votes. I know how I'd like to vote, but I also know how I should vote to avoid an outcome I don't want. When you feel you have to vote strategically instead of for the best candidate, something is wrong with your democracy.
With that in mind, here's my take on how the candidates did last night.
Rick Dykstra (Conservative)
Poor Dykstra. He was sick last night, and I could tell. I believe he had a chest infection and was running a fever. He was visibly uncomfortable and fed-up. However, he has a strong record as St Catharines' representative in Ottawa, and he relied on that. People tell me he has done a lot of good for the region, and from what I've seen of him, he's a politician who does actually care for the community round here. He argued his corner well in the debate, hampered only by his illness. One thing that stuck out very strongly was that he never once, to my knowledge, mentioned the Conservatives or Stephen Harper. He talked about himself, "the government" and "Ottawa," but I don't recall him saying either "Conservative" or "Harper." If that was a deliberate strategy, I think it indicates those two words are a liability for Dykstra in this election.
Interestingly, by the way, when the debate turned to partisanship, cross-party cooperation and "working together" (I don't recall anyone mentioning the dreaded COALITION), Dykstra defended the viability of a minority government. I agree with him, but I'm curious whether he's toeing the party line. All I've been hearing from the Conservatives nationally is that we have to elect a majority government to prevent, I dunno, a big earthquake or something. Perhaps Dykstra senses the fear of another Harper minority government swinging voters away from the Conservatives?
Andrew Gill (Liberal)
Gill could not have been more different from Dykstra. From the beginning he talked mostly about the Liberal Party, its platform and its leader, Michael Ignatieff. I honestly thought the "Red Book" was a pejorative used only by critics for its obvious Communist associations, until I heard Gill refer to the Liberal platform with the term. His frequent mentions of Ignatieff, sometimes as simply "the Leader," added to the aura of devotion to the Liberal Party. It was a long time before he even mentioned St Catharines. For most of his solutions, he deferred repetitively to the main Liberal ideas, such as the Learning Passport. I would really have appreciated some more independence and an attempt to engage specifically with local issues.
Jennifer Mooradian (Green)
I don't think I'm alone in saying that Mooradian was the real surprise of the evening. My perception of the Green Party has always been that it is a single-issue party, but last night I learned that its name is misleading. If Mooradian truly represents the Green Party of Canada, I'd say it is a genuine alternative for progressive voters, with workable, evidence-based policies formed around a clear vision of a strong economy coupled with social justice. Mooradian consistently presented the issues with clarity and directness, and proposed unambiguous solutions with reference to the way things are in practice. She was also remarkably non-combative.
But candidates like Mooradian face an uphill battle to win in this election. For one thing, the party name is a liability. If I, as someone who invests hours in following politics, thought the Green Party was all about environmentalism, what does the average voter think? I mentioned this to my mom; her response was that she associated the party with being "on the wrong side of the law" (a perception she confessed rather timidly). In her head were images of unruly hippies, illegal squatters and fierce Greenpeace protesters. This has got to be a real problem for the Green Party. Second, reasonable arguments and evidence-based policy don't automatically win an election. It's not the way the media or politics work these days. Third, most voters are, I think, motivated by self-interest. When asked about restrictions on Niagara's wines being sold outside Ontario, the other three panellists took for granted that all restrictions were a bad thing; Mooradian alone turned it around and questioned the effect on other provinces. Unfortunately, "Hang on, let's look at this from their perspective" isn't a vote-winner. It can be, but it needs marketing. And this is the challenge for Mooradian and the Green Party when it comes to evidence-based policies and social justice.
Mike Williams (NDP)
I've tweeted to and about Mike Williams, and I feel bad that's it's almost all been negative. He seems like a fine guy, and I'd be happy to sit down and have a beer with him any time. (If I were much of a beer-drinker.) Unfortunately, he is really out of his depth in this election. And he's admitted it time and again. In the recent Cogeco TV debate, he more or less said he didn't have a clue and that a vote for him would be a vote for Jack Layton. He'd work damned hard for St Catharines, he told viewers, but he didn't have the experience to know what he was doing. He began last night's debate with the same apologetic schtick: I'm just a guy who works in a factory; I've read my party platform, but I don't have it memorized. Read: I'll try, but don't expect much. I suspect the NDP had a hard time finding a candidate in a riding where the party has no chance of winning a seat, so Williams reluctantly stepped into the gap.
In the debate, his main tack was to be the angry dissenter, fed up with the system and fighting back on behalf of ordinary people. But while the bitterness undoubtedly reflected the feelings of a lot of people, he gave no idea how he could or would change things. He railed against the Conservative government but suggested few concrete alternatives. On being asked how he would solve underfunding, his answer was literally "more funding." His solutions conjured up images of a bottomless pot of money somewhere in Ottawa, where the only question is whether our pockets are big enough. He passed on one question because he didn't know the party policy and so chose not even to comment.
How It Ended (for Me)
By the end of the evening, I had a pretty clear opinion of how the four candidates did in the debate. Rick was fine, despite being sick; Andrew was disappointing; Mike did poorly, but I didn't expect great things anyway; Jennifer blew me away. I spoke to Jennifer at the end, and I told her quite bluntly: My fear is that if I vote for you, it's a wasted vote.
I'm a small-L liberal. Most of the things I cherish about Canada I owe to big-L Liberals. With the right leadership and platform, the Liberal Party could be for me. And I will probably vote for them, because it's the only viable choice for me in this two-party race. If the Conservatives form the next government, I'll be disappointed; even more if it's a majority. I don't have a huge issue with Dykstra winning here, per se. I don't want another Tory government, although Dykstra seems okay to me so far.
But if the electoral system really worked and every vote counted, and if I had the confidence it would change a damned thing, I'd be voting for Jennifer Mooradian on May 2nd. Unfortunately, I don't have that confidence. Because the system sucks.