So, I went to the all candidates meeting last night. The room was packed, with people of all ages (but let's face it mostly middle aged and up). It was a pretty tame affair overall, in a question and answer format. There was no debate as such. I will give you my impressions as dispassionately as I am able.
Liz Witmer (PC), the incumbent, is an old pro at these things. She is the most polished performer and most accomplished at sounding positive, but saying little. She had little trouble with the format and she had a good rapport with the audience. It is easy to see why she is successful. She is a good retail politician. Ms. Witmer, also did not have to defend government policy (although she did have to defend funding religious schools), which was the Liberal candidate's problem.
Judy Greenwood-Spears (Green), is a character. She is tough as nails and would be a formidable MMP. She made a bit of a connection with the crowd as the in-your-face, straight-talking, anti-politician. She had a little trouble keeping her answers to the time alloted.
Catherine Fife (NDP) is young, articulate and knows the issues. She presented herself as the "change" candidate. She is very, very charismatic in a situation like the one last night and I would say the audience liked her the best (whether they would vote for her is another question) at a gut level.
Louise Ervin (Liberal) is another old political pro. She, like Liz Witmer, has spent years in local school board politics. Unlike Witmer, she seemed ill at ease with the format. I suspect it was partly because she had to defend Dalton McGuinty most of the evening (an unenviable task). I would say, of the four, Ervin made the least connection with the room.
I won't go into too much detail about the questions, as they were your standard audience questions about the coal-fired electrical plant closure, taxes, abortion, and deadbeat parents. I do want to talk about how the candidates dealt with electoral reform and the election itself.
The question of the referendum came up a couple of times. One of the media representatives (who were there during the first hour), ask how each candidate was going to vote. Not surprisingly, Catherine Fife and Judy Greenwood-Spears were the most supportive of the MMP side.
Louise Ervin gave what could only be described as a train wreck of an answer. She started by saying she had educated herself on the issue and then proceeded to tell the audience that MMP would reduce the number of MPP's who are responsible to the people and increase the number of MPP's "appointed" by parties. She also claimed that MMP would hurt rural areas and the North. In other words, it looks to me like her "education" was limited to visiting the NOMMP website. Sadly, with this format, she went unchallenged, as there was no way to rebut her nonsense. This answer would however come back to haunt her later in the evening.
Liz Witmer gave a most interesting answer to the question. She said that the question of the referendum was coming up all over the riding as she knocked on doors. She then sidestepped how she was going to vote on the question herself. Her tone suggested to me however, that she had the feeling that MMP was popular and she did not want to alienate voters by condemning it. Her non-answer gave me some hope.
The issue of voting came up a couple of more times. Once, Louise Ervin flat out said that a vote for the NDP was a vote for "funding religious schools", i.e. a vote for Liz Witmer. Then, a Liberal plant got up and again, quite brazenly, asked the Green and NDP candidates why anyone would vote for them as they would be "wasting their vote" if they wanted to get rid of Liz Witmer. He then went on to describe the glories of strategic voting (the life's blood of the Liberal Party). Judy Greenwood-Spears gave him a poisonous look and said something to the effect that her goal was to get every vote in the riding and win. In other words, she was no protest candidate. Louise Ervin, to her credit, did not take the bait and advocate strategic voting. Even she could see that that message wasn't going to fly in this room.
Finally, a gentleman from Fair Vote Ontario made an opening remark about how we had three candidates who think the referendum is a good thing and one (Ervin) who didn't know anything about how list candidates were elected. That got a laugh from the audience (you had to be there, this guy was good). He then asked the candidates why the education campaign around the referendum has been so terrible. The opposition candidates agreed it was awful (and it is) and Louise Ervin gave a rambling answer about personal responsibility when it comes to referendum education.
That's it really. It was an interesting evening and from a partisan point of view (since I intend to vote NDP in this election), I would say that Catherine Fife did very, very well. Does she have a chance against Liz Witmer? Wow, that is going to be a pretty tall order. Witmer is an institution in this riding. However, the religious schools question, mixed with a desire for change, could give Fife an opportunity (since Ervin is most definitely not a "change" candidate). It is a long shot, but I wouldn't say it is impossible.
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