Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Politics: Parkdale-High Park Debate

The six candidates gathered for the Parkdale-High Park candidates' debate

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Thomas "Tip" O'Neill famously stated that "All politics is local." Sometimes, local politics can be much more heartening than large-scale politics run through the national media. In advance of the double-booked televised debates coming tomorrow night, I had the opportunity to attend a live debate amongst the candidates to represent my local riding of Parkdale-High Park in parliament.

There was no debate about who could speak on stage. All candidates were invited to the evening event in the auditorium of Bishop Marocco School near the Dundas West subway station. Six actually showed up, the one exception being Marxist-Leninist candidate Lorne Gershuny.

Despite the event being run by volunteers, this could have passed for a professional event until a bucket was passed around to collect donations for the sound volunteers and the school toward the end. The sound system worked fine, the moderator did a good job of making certain that all voices were granted approximately equal time, and questioners were drawn from a hat to avoid packing of the microphone line by the various campaigns. The format was driven by questions from the audience, with only a very broad opening question from the moderator and a three-minute closing statement from each candidate to encroach on that time.

Christian Heritage Party candidate Andrew Borkowski expressed the conventional wisdom in the riding when he stated, "We all know what's going to happen here. It's either going to be the Liberals or the NDP, or maybe the Conservative will come up the middle." Based on the audience reaction during the introductions, NDP candidate Peggy Nash and Liberal candidate Gerard Kennedy clearly had largest fan bases, much louder than Green Party candidate Robert Rishchynski or Conservative Jilian Saweczko. In my portion of the audience, Nash's supporters seemed to be the very loudest, and Nash herself looked almost surprised at the decibel level. Borkowski and Marijuana Party candidate Terry Parker received only low-level polite applause.

Peggy Nash and Gerard Kennedy listened to an audience question

Indeed, most questioners addressed their questions to Nash and Kennedy. Usually, they were called "Peggy" and "Gerard" by everyone, showing the affection held by citizens for their current MP and one-time MPP. In fact, one questioner, clearly addressing the two, appeared to speak for many in stating, "There's a lot of talent on the stage and it's too bad we can only elect one of you." A heckler put it more bluntly to Kennedy, when he was speaking about stopping Stephen Harper: "Why didn't you run against an incumbent Conservative?"

Kennedy probably didn't help his case much by seeming to belittle some of Nash's local accomplishments and bashing some national NDP policies. Nash wasn't above the fray, fighting back with some pointed barbs about the Liberals' performance in the most recent parliament, and Kennedy was probably at his worst trying to defend actions taken by national leader St├ęphane Dion for which Kennedy really had no personal responsibility. I had picked out NDP and Liberal partisans in the crowd, and it seemed to me that the NDP supporters became much more upset by Kennedy than the Liberals became upset by Nash. Admittedly, neither crowd was likely to change their minds on this night, but those on the fence must have noted the difference.

The comic relief of the evening came from Parker, who didn't listen to some questions and needed them repeated, chose not to answer others, and either gave semi-coherent or extremely succinct answers to the rest. Borkowski also made quite an impression, gaining applause from the audience with his position against Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, but he nearly incited a riot with his position that Canadian-born acquaintances of terrorists should be deported from the country. A heckler barked: "And where would you send native terrorists?"

In contrast to his reception at the opening of the debate, after Rishchynski emphasized working with all other parties in his closing statement, he earned what sounded to me like the loudest applause during that segment. Notably, both Nash and Kennedy were vigorously clapping as well. It remains to be seen if that will translate into any votes for the Greens on October 14th.

For those in the riding who would like to see the candidates for themselves, two more debates are scheduled. One will take place at Swansea Town Hall next Tuesday evening at 7:30, and the final debate will place at Runnymede United Church next Wednesday evening at 7:00.

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