Parkdale-Highpark Riding All Candidates Debate Response
Apr 29, 2011

Parkdale-Highpark Riding All Candidates Debate Response

This post covers the 2011 Federal Election for the riding of Parkdale-Highpark.

I recently attended the all candidates debate for the Parkdale-Highpark riding hosted by the BWVRA and wanted to share my thoughts on the debate, the candidates and various issues that were brought up. While this post will undoubtedly be specific to this riding, the themes are quite generalizable.

On the debate itself:

While it is late in the election cycle, I would encourage anyone to attend such community debates in the future. It was definitely a worthwhile experience and it is this kind of civic engagement which is sorely lacking in our society. I felt that my sense of the actual local candidates I was voting for vastly improved over my previous reading on the internet and helped to anchor the vote in terms of local candidates opposed to simply the party leaders and main policy platforms of the parties. Having effective people in governance - independent of which party they are for - that can shift the dialogue, sit on committees, take major posts and the like is important and sometimes lost in the national coverage of the leaders. One immediate demographic observation is that those attending were overwhelmingly Caucasian with perhaps less than 10% (by my very rough estimate) on other ethnicities; Parkdale-Highpark is 39% immigrant and this asymmetry represents a strong future need to try and get this missing demographic more engaged.

For the most part the debates were respectful, discussing policies opposed to personalities, and had appropriate responses and questions from the public. As is to be unfortunately expected there were a few people who asked very poor questions, rudely, and who shouted out of turn. Applause or mild noises of approval and disapproval when a speaker makes a comment that is approved or disapproved of is appropriate and helps increase public feedback in the proceedings but this level of civility was breached on a couple occasions. The correspondence between really bad questions and really rude presentations was very close and I would simply ask that if someone has a "question" to ask they do it at the microphone and have the decency to stand at the front while the politician answers opposed to walking away in anger.

On the candidates:

Taylor Train, the conservative and very unlikely to win, was a clear reflection of being a conservative candidate in a very left leaning riding. He self identified as being a progressive, urban, "red" conservative making it clear that he "believed in global warming", firmly and repeatedly differentiated himself from Stephen Harper and appears to agree with most of the other candidates on typically progressive issues such as the need for helping education, poor people, mentally handicapped people, funding the CBC, and similar issues. I quite liked almost everything he had to say, but what I couldn't determine was why he was running for the Conservative party and in this debate he wasn't able to differentiate himself from the positions of the other candidates.

My largest disagreement with Mr. Train - and that most disliked by the crowd - was that in response to repeated questions regarding environmentalism, global warming and the tar sands where his response focused on individualism with people taking the leading response to curb greenhouse gas emissions with things like drying clothes on clotheslines to save electricity. This individual approach should certainly be encouraged but it cannot be encouraged on its own as a comprehensive platform and must be accompanied by policies taken at a larger level than individuals. As a candidate running for federal office, issues like the Alberta tar sands must be addressed. Because this issue was clearly strongly felt by the public in this riding, it is a good demonstration of how a "blue conservative" could not possibly win because even while being as far left as he could while still running conservative, even his mildly conservatives leanings were very poorly received.

Sarah Newton, the Green candidate, was unfortunately unimpressive. I initially considered voting for the Green party because I believe issues of global warming, environmentalism and energy sustainability are underrepresented in the national discourse and that by voting green one could prioritize these issues and help with the framing. However, while they came up there was not a coherent, immediate and practical strategy outlined to deal with these issues. She was anti-nuclear, which I disagree with, and seemed very vague quoting Confucius and making comments about the need for a "counsel of wise people". Her largest point was deference to the wisdom, knowledge and experience of Elizabeth May and vaguely endorsed the NDP or asked people to engage in a vote swap with Saanich Gulf Island residents opposed to voting for her directly. I think the Green Party has an important role to play and I hope that May gets elected (although poll numbers are not in her favour) but if this riding is an indication the party still has a long way to go to ensure there are competent candidates available throughout the country.

Gerard Kennedy, the Liberal incumbent and front runner, spoke well and I approved of him quite strongly. Of the four candidates, he was by far the most well versed in specific and detailed policies and proposals opposed to speaking in terms of platitudes - although perhaps this was simply because he was an incumbent and most involved in the minutiae of government policy. Nonetheless, I appreciate discussions that focus on policy proposals and not broad personality comments or vague value judgements. He spoke very little about the Liberal party in general and was instead presenting his specific ideas and how he saw things. Most of the times that this differed from the standard Liberal party platform so often repeated elsewhere I completely agreed with him. Two issues I care about and have already mentioned - global warming and civic engagement - were both ones that he identified and spoke strongly and passionately about.

Peggy Nash, the NDP candidate and former MP in this riding, was also fairly good. I agreed with a lot of what she said. However, she was sticking very close to the party line, speaking of Layton often, and phrasing both her substantive policies and attacks in a way that was strikingly consistent with the party line. I believe that Gerard Kennedy - who has previously run for Liberal party leadership - demonstrated that he could reform the Liberal party and change the framing of discussion within it while Peggy Nash demonstrates that she is a representative of the homogenized NDP message without offering substantive changes to that platform. I was also disappointed at Peggy Nash's persistent attacks on the voting record issue.

On the voting record:

Of everything discussed by far the most contentious in terms of taking up time for back and forth discussions, showing some anger from the politicians and very strong engagement of the public on both sides was Peggy Nash's criticisms of Gerard Kennedy's voting record in particular the number of abstentions he had. I was disappointed that this issue which at its core is one about personalities was so touchy while policy differences didn't experience the same intensity of emotion. The actual debate discussion on this point surrounded the arithmetic. Peggy Nash quoted the total abstention numbers while Gerard Kennedy noted that many of these were from paired votes (such as when he and the environment minister would be away at a conference and both agree not to vote hence having it canceled out) which in recent sessions have not been recorded and times when he was present but abstained because he didn't agree with the Liberals position. I believe it is disingenuous for Peggy Nash not to mention these things, especially as she presents this issue front center during canvasing and on campaign literature and her insistent on the biased presentation of a negative attack was a strong mark against her in my books. While my sample size is but three, I noted two other people comment after the debate that her persistence in pushing this attack convinced them to vote Liberal.

Of course, it doesn't take much reading between the lines to pick up that the unstated implication is some form of  that Gerrard Kennedy isn't working very hard or doesn't respect democracy or something like this to which his level of abstentions is a proxy measure for. She cannot politically make such claims, but I am sure it is for reasons like this that it resonates with the public and why she focuses so heavily on this issue in her attack. I entirely reject the notion that how often one votes in parliament is at all a measure of these kind of personality traits. I want, of course, my politicians to work hard, respect democracy and be aiming to do what is best, but they don't necessarily optimize this by showing up at every one of the many procedural and trivial votes whose outcome is known before hand. It means actually working hard on issues, going internationally as shadow ministers where needed, coming back and spending lots of time in their own riding and the like. When you look at Gerrard Kennedy's record on these broader measures one certainly sees the picture of politician who works hard - as undoubtedly Peggy Nash would as well - and we should cast aside such a strong emphasis on these vague implications.

As a final note on this voting records issue, there is a strong parallel between Peggy Nash's comments and Jack Layton who has at the national level been attacking the voting records of Harper and Ignatieff. That she chose basically the identical attack to use versus Gerrard Kennedy fits very well with my previous comments that her platform and rhetoric matched Layton's very strongly. On the issue of Ignatieff's voting record, we have to be fair to the realpolitik that he was a new Liberal leader unelected by conventional party protocol after the Dion debacle and new that he had a short period of time before a new elections against national candidates who have been know to the Canadian public for years. It is natural that he spent a considerable time on his bus tour for the country - hence why he missed so many votes - trying to drum up support for a party and I think that had he not done this and had stayed in Ottawa for the last year and a half he would be heavily criticized by members of his own party which would very likely be less well off than it is today. One of course can change many aspects of Ignatieff's leadership, but the mere fact of him missing votes whose outcome was known before hand because of playing political catch up should not be seen as a strike against him.

Select other issues that came up:

One other "personality" issue was that Gerard Kennedy gave a spirited defense of Ignatieff's record abroad. To me, the fact that a person has been a journalist in some of the most war torn places of the planet where Canadians are currently fighting, that a person has been a significant academic at some of the world's most prestigious institutions and the like are all positive aspects. Having read a couple of Ignatieff's books, that record outside of Canada is commendable and much of my past criticisms of Ignatieff come from the fact that I don't see the journalist and academic I read in the politician I see on the television. As Gerard Kennedy noted, if we cannot give any semblance of respect to such an international record - indeed if we feel it is compelling to use as a personality attack ad - what kind of message does that send to the very international population of Canada? As always, I ask that people focus on policies not personality attacks but if one must resort to personality attacks at least chose ones that are reasonable. This one and the voting record one are not.

It is easy to speak in idealisms and propose ideas as if we had the power to simply implement them. This is a problem that asymmetrically besets the left over the right. Conservatives are relatively less interested in government action and therefore policies of non governmental action face less difficulties from political realities that obstruct implementation. On the left, politicians can fall into a trap of proposing grand government schemes that are infeasible because of various political and legal realities. One theme that came up repeatedly was with regards to jurisdiction. The federal government - what these politicians are being elected to - has certain things it has jurisdiction towards and certain things that it doesn't which are left to provinces or cities. Frequently, there would be wide agreement among all four candidates about things like "tuition fees being too high" or "high school infrastructure being lacking"  and wishful conjecture about the need to fix these problems. It was Gerard Kennedy who notes the realpolitik issues that the federal government does not actually have the jurisdiction to set things like tuition fees - those are set by the province. One can argue whether the policies proposed by the liberal platform are good ones but they work within the context of augmenting a system whereby the provinces have control over tuition fees despite our platitudes not necessarily feeling bound by such constraints. Such realism is important for the outcome of political discussions to have meaningful effects.

All in all the debates were a worthwhile experience and I unfortunately have not given justice to exploring many of the policy issues raised. Initially I was open to the Liberal, NDP and Green candidates as potentially getting my vote. While I will postpone a full discussion of who I will vote for and why since it is not and should not be determined by the outcome of a single debate, as the above discussion has most likely revealed the debate was "won" in my view by Gerard Kennedy who has demonstrated to me a clear ability to bring issues I care about to the table and to frame the discussion both within the Liberal party and without in a pragmatic way that shows signs of progress. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Fed Up with Social Climbers Using the Good People Of Parkdale-High Park to Further Their Own Careers said...

I totally disagree with your take on the Liberal candidate, and the reasons why he impressed you.
He IS in Parliament, so obviously he would present as the most well-versed and up to date, because he should be. But he is a user - he USED this riding when he was an MPP to launch a career in federal politics, and he abandoned his constituents just under a year before the last provincial election - leaving us without a by-election - to pursue the grandiose ideal that he was beloved enough to be elected Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. So we had ZERO representation at Queen's Park. I will not forget that. Not that he was useful as a provincial rep before that; Kennedy got too wrapped up in trying to impress his Party, and regularly abandoned the needs of the riding - by claiming that he couldn't introduce any bills that would benefit Parkdale-High Park specifically because that is not how it is done, and he could be accused of partiality. Well - isn't that the promise he made to the voters and why we elected him in the first place - to be partial to our needs? NB: He breaks promises. Kennedy also created a train wreck of his community relations. Eagerly setting up community liaison committees during the honeymoon period post-election, they quickly fell by the wayside, and I know personally that - having signed up for every committee - not one meeting was ever called! So much for caring about what the constituents think. Also noteworthy is the fact that he is solidly reviled by the Liberal Party itself. Kennedy, as you will recall, was the 'King-Maker' for Dion - when, realizing that he was not going to win the nomination to be leader, he strategically threw his few supporters behind Stefan Dion - a fatal blow to the Liberal Party's credibility and popularity that has set them decades back - in a misguided effort to stop Rae (and Ignatieff) from getting the nod. And the whole mess was orchestrated by Kennedy!

So - without the support of his colleagues, then what can we expect from him for our riding?! Nothing - which is exactly what we've gotten since the last election. And promises of more to come. Kennedy missed 122 votes in Parliament, with the 6th worst attendance record of the over 300 MPs.... As a voter, do you not wonder what the man was doing if he was not there to vote when we hired him to represent us at the table? I sure do .... and will vote accordingly.

bazie said...

Were you at the debate? Most of those things you mentioned I didn't discuss simply because they were not brought up at the debate. The only thing that was brought up that you mentioned was the attendance record. As I noted in my post, when you claim the 122 figure you are ignoring a) paired abstentions which are no longer recorded in the ledger because of the conservatives and b) present but abstained votes like for instance if he doesn't support the liberal position on the columbia free trade and is there for the debates but abstains to show he doesn't support it. The attack is an exaggerated one and as I described a pretty irrelevant one. One of course wants politicians to work hard and represent us...but not missing every single procedural and predetermined vote doesn't necessarily optimize this. It is a personality attack.

As for his leadership run, I don't see how trying to run for leadership is in itself a strike against him. Perhaps he should have known he wouldn't win and you can hold that against him but the act itself is fine. And it is pretty standard policy if I understand correctly not to give up ones ridings for a leadership run to bielection....across all parties.

As for voting for Dion, again I don't see how the act of endorsing one politician over another when you are going to lose is bad in and of itself. Such endorsements are common and totally acceptable. You can be made, if you must, that he supported Dion over Rae but not that he was a "King-Maker".

As for partiality, he is completely correct. Politicians do of course need to represent their ridings interests, but special favors and perks slipped into bills to help out one riding at the expense of another is detrimental to egalitarian democracy. It is wrong when conservatives do it so conservative ridings are disproportionately favoured for example in Muskota. And it is wrong for the left to advocate for these kinds of US style special favors from our politicians.

In general, I would suggest focusing more on the policies opposed to personality insinuations.

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