Searching for democracy on a Sunday night – Liveblogging an Ottawa Centre all candidates’ debate

Check back at 7pm for full coverage of the Ottawa Centre Federal Candidates Forum, hosted by community associations representing Hampton-Iona, Hintonburg, Westboro, Westboro Beach and West Wellington, and moderated by CBC Radio’s Rita Celli. 

Check back at 7pm for full coverage of the Ottawa Centre Federal Candidates Forum, hosted by community associations representing Hampton-Iona, Hintonburg, Westboro, Westboro Beach and West Wellington, and moderated by CBC Radio’s Rita Celli. 

The candidates are:  NDP incumbent Paul Dewar, Penny Collenette (Liberal), Jennifer Hunter (Green Party), Brian McGarry (Conservative) and two independents: Pierre Soubliere and John Akpata. 

Full riding profile available here, courtesy of Pundits’ Guide. 

6:43:37 PM
Greetings from the Churchill Community Centre, y’all! Are you ready for some hot local-candidate-on-candidate debating action? I hope so, because we’ve sacrificed a night of lounging on the couch watching Alan Ball’s surreal take on Southern vampire culture to venture deep into the heart of Westboro Village to cover the latest skirmish in the Battle of Ottawa Centre. If you’re not up on the latest twists and turns, check the link above for a full riding profile, courtesy of the Pundit Guide.
First impressions – which I’ll try to squeeze in before the debate gets underway – the crowd is actually pretty damned impressive for a Sunday night — I don’t think there’s an empty seat in the room. More importantly, most of the people here seem to be actual voters, which is always refreshing to see, although along the opposite wall from where the media have set up camp, there are tables full of propaganda from each of the five campaigns on the scene tonight.

With less than ten minutes to go, the incumbent, Paul Dewar, looks surprisingly relaxed; he’s chatting with supporters who keep flocking to the front of the room. All five candidates seem to be in their seats already – the two women, Liberal Penny Collenette and the Greens’ Jen Hunter sandwiched in between Dewar and his Tory rival, Brian McGarry.

Best of all, from ITQ’s perspective, that is, though, is the fact that not just one but both independents are here. Oh, please let one of them be crazy — or at least eccentric. Is that so much to ask from democracy, really?

Okay, the string quartet over the loudspeaker was a good idea in theory, but y’all, it’s just deafening – and that was before the feedback sent us all into catatonic shock.

6:57:03 PM
The organizer is now apologizing for the lack of space — apparently they were serious when they said seating would be limited, because there are still people waiting outside. She assures the crowd that there will be more debates, so don’t despair if you can’t make it to this one.

6:59:47 PM
Ooh, with less than a minute to go, those sneaky candidates have swapped chairs on me. Curses! Thankfully, unlike committee members, they’re not so interchangeable as to be unidentifiable without nameplates (which they have, but I can’t see from this angle) – now McGarry is on the far right (literally, not figuratively), with Dewar to his immediate left, followed by John Akpata, Penny Dewar, Jen Hunter and Pierre Soubliere.

Meanwhile, beside me, a man without any identifiable buttonry is looking over a list of “our’ questions – who, exactly, the “us” of this “our” might be isn’t clear, but the questions have to do with land use.

I wonder just how many times tonight the candidates are going to have to apologetically explain that someone’s pet issue – parking meters, litter, those cryptofascist cat-leash laws – are, sadly, not under federal jurisdiction. My guess is at least once each, but we’ll see.

7:04:55 PM
Ooh, we’re on – and just so you don’t worry that this will turn into a committee meeting, with endless filibustering by loquacious candidates instead of Tory MPs, the organizers are armed with flourescent warning paddles – one of which denotes 20 seconds left, the other that time’s up – which, I’m assuming, can also be used to suppress those unwilling to shut up.

7:07:13 PM
Okay, here’s the format: each of the community associations involved in organizing the event get two questions, which they can put to whatever candidate they like, and the rest of the forum will be dedicated to questions from the audience. If the candidates go over the allotted time, the mic gets cut.

Ooh, so it’s Ethics committee rules. Harsh.

7:10:59 PM
And with that, it’s on.

7:12:20 PM
The first one-minute opening statement goes to Pierre Soubliere, who isn’t, in fact, an independent – he’s running for the Marxist-Leninist Party. Oh, I didn’t even dare hope that I’d be this lucky. A vote for the Marxist Leninist Party, you’ll be interested to know, is a vote to give power to the people. Yeeeaaahhhh!!

Polite smattering of applause, and over to Greenie Jen Hunter, who is wearing the cutest gingham skirt, and has exactly the sort of blonde mane that you’d expect. She touts the balanced platform her party offers – from the environment to the economy to social justice – and gets a distinctly more enthusiastic reaction.

7:15:29 PM
Penny Collenette tells us that Stephane Dion has a plan, and reminds the crowd that this election is only happening because the PM “broke his own election law”, and then – oh, can life really be this perfect? – John Akpata takes the floor and introduces himself as a third-time candidate with the Marijuana Party. “Don’t do what doesn’t make sense” is the upshot of his opener, which is right up there with “Don’t do what Johnny Don’t Does” as far as catchy slogans, and then it’s time for Paul Dewar to dare the crowd to put him on the spot, and Brian McGarry to tell us how much the Conservatives have done in just 36 months.

7:18:46 PM
Okay, the crowd loved McGarry – biggest round of applause of the night, which makes me wonder, cynic that I am, if that means he was most successful in stacking the room with supporters. (Yes I’d say that regardless of which candidate inspired such a lively response.)

7:19:48 PM
And a question from the Hampton Community Group about the Civic Hospital; McGarry agrees that it is “ludicrous” to move the hospital out of the West End — is someone proposing that? huh — which seems to be the right answer, as far as the audience is concerned.

The audio system, on the other hand, is clearly not impressed; the microphones keep producing earbleedingly shrill flashes of feedback.

Dewar, the Marijuana Party and Penny Collenette also agree that it is absurd to even consider moving the Civic, although Collenette notes that this is one of the few instances where she might support using greenbelt land — in this case, land across the street from the existing building – in order to keep the hospital here.

Jen Hunter stresses the need to preserve green space, and Soubliere, the Marxist-Leninist, bemoans how health care is seen as a cost, not a right.

7:25:15 PM
And now, the first question from the audience! After a gentle warning from Celli to be succinct – only a minute per question, no exceptions – the co-founder of Grandmothers for Africa asks whether McGarry and Collenette support Canada meeting the 0.7% goal for foreign aid – and if so, how they plan on achieving that.

McGarry begins by basically disassociating himself and his party from the last forty years — “you remember who has been in power,” he says. “We’re a new party.” – and the gist of his response is — give us a stronger mandate — ideally a four year mandate — and we’ll see what we can do.

Penny Collenette, meanwhile, reminds the crowd that it was Lester B. Pearson who got the ball rolling, and points to commitments to increasing foreign aid in the Liberal platform.

Oh, and Soubliere pops in to remind everyone that the Conservatives have a “twisted’ idea of foreign aid, and that we’re in Afghanistan “illegally.” Which produces a range of responses, from applause to boos.

7:30:16 PM
A tricky question from the audience – small and medium-sized enterprises bidding on federal contracts – gets an enthusiastic, if entirely vague response from McGarry, who insists that he will stand up for small business – if anyone will, he will. “Whooooo!” yell his supporters.

Dewar, meanwhile, rolls his eyes at the chest-thumpery, and points to various million dollar contracts that have flowed outside the local economy. “Shame on the Conservatives for letting this file get out of their hands,” he says, to wild applause.

In response, McGarry would rather condemn the NDP platform for reimposing various corporate taxes. “Good plan, Jack,” he snarls.

7:33:51 PM
Another question for McGarry and Dewar – who seem to be seen as the main contenders here, interestingly, although the Conservative candidate came a distant third in the last election – on infrastructure, which seems to be a backhanded attack on the NDP. Dewar is ready for it, though, and rhymes off some of the spending plans from the party’s platform. Meanwhile, McGarry, who is weirdly complacent considering that he’s a challenger, once again goes after Dewar for the NDP’s tax plan. “This isn’t the party of Ed Broadbent,” he says “this is the party of Jack Layton”. He then delivers a rousing defence of corporate welfare bums – a Broadbentism, ironically – who, we’re to understand, are being given an unfair rap by those Laytonian socialists.

I have to say this is a weird tack for McGarry to take in front of this particular audience.

7:37:32 PM
Dewar, not surprisingly, takes issue with the suggestion that he’s out to get “small business”, and notes that Ed Broadbent is a member of the party to this day, and supports the platform.

Penny Collenette, meanwhile, wants us all to know that the Liberals “get it” – on cities, on small businesses, on municipal funding; you name it.

Marijuana Party candidate Akpata – whose name I cannot, for some reason, remember – commiserates; he’s from Windsor, where small business has been hit hard too – and he doesn’t believe politicians who claim to care about the community either — not without proof. Lots of nodding and cheering at that. 

7:41:42 PM
Holy crap, there is a line of questioners that is, quite literally, out the door – and at the head right now is a gorgeous, and righteously outraged woman who is eviscerating McGarry over the cuts to arts funding. McGarry reminds her that – oh, man that was really bad – he reminded her that under the Conservative plan, she can take time off to have a baby, and be covered by maternity leave. Her lip curls, and her eyebrow goes up; the room titters at the exquisite inappropriateness of his response. Yes, the young, independent artist and entrepreneur really wanted to hear that she can get help from the government if she has a baby, and wants to stay home for a year to take care of it. (AFTERNOTE: He also points out that she would be eligible for employment insurance, which, I’m sure, is just what an idealistic young artist wants to hear.) 

Akpata, on the other hand, congratulates her for being an artist, praises the Canada Council, and just generally gives a barnstormer of a response. He even gets off a crowdpleaser line about the newly approved porn channel. Penny Collenette pokes her head into the audience-Akpata love-in to remind everyone that the Liberals would double funding for the Canada Council.

Oh, and then McGarry tries to do damage control by shaking his fist at the crowd and reminding them that not all artists grub for money from the government.

Wow. This guy – wow. I’m kind of stunned by how politically tone deaf he seems to be. When the Marijuana Party candidate is killing you on audience reaction, you have a serious problem reading the crowd.

7:48:11 PM
And now, a painfully dull question from a community association that has something to do with funding, and is far too specific for a meeting like this.

Everyone gives carefully generic answers, except for Akpata, who goes on a rant about the operational secrecy of the NCC, and predicts that if they don’t do something soon, the Rochester Fields “will turn into condos” – Isn’t that what always happens?

Paul Dewar declares himself a protector of Rochester Fields, but McGarry isn’t willing to go that far, but he admits that he doesn’t always see eye to eye with the NCC.

7:53:49 PM
And a question about the possibility of a coalition between the NDP and the Liberals: the answer, from both Dewar and Collenette, is no – although Dewar does bring up the whole “well, we wouldn’t close the door to working with other parties once elected to goverment” line. “Are you satisfied?” Celli asks the questioner. “Satisfied-ish,” he says.

7:56:47 PM
After a long, rambling question about water quality, Collenette leaps at the chance to once again tout past examples of her leader’s commitment to the environment – she’s just so eager, it’s hard not to give her the points for effort – and Dewar points out that his party brought in private members’ bills to deal with tailing ponds – I think that’s how you spell it – in Alberta, but also stresses the need for a clean water act. Don’t we have one of those? At least one? I’m sure I’ve sat through endless House debates over it.

8:01:10 PM
Sewage question – I missed the beginning, but it appears to have been mostly related to matters of not-federal-jurisdiction, although Dewar seizes the chance to brag about the fact that he was all over the toxic dumping before John Baird even knew what was happening with the Ottawa River. Brian McGarry reminds us that every single problem isn’t the fault of the Conservatives – “who have only been in power for two years,” and implores the audience to show a little love for his “brand new government.” What about all the good things they’ve been doing in the North, huh? What about that? Why all the blame? Not, he adds hastily, after suddenly realizing that he’s basically picking a fight with a random voter, that the questioner was doing that.

Does he really think going on the defensive is a good tactic? Because – it really, really isn’t.

Penny Collenette says something immediately forgettable about the Liberals, and then John Akpata gives a wildly entertaining mini-lecture on pigs, and how toxic they are, yet how tasty and delicious. He veers into crazyland with an aside on the evils of flouride in our drinking water, mistakes a supportive giggle from Green Jen as mocking laughter, and generally continues to make this entire debate worth sitting through.

Green Jen assures him she was laughing with him, not at him, and then the Marxist Leninist – who has been left out for the last half hour or so – reminds us that we can never forget who is taking advantage of our “natural wealth”. The running dog capitalists, that’s who! (Note: that was me, not him. But I’m sure it was the right answer.)

8:09:23 PM
Ahh, the inevitable question on proportional representation, and the futility of “participatory democracy” in a first-past-the-post system. Penny Collenette gamely takes first crack at answering it, and reminds the questioner that it was debated at the provincial level last year. She admits that she’s not yet convinced it’s the way to go, but says that if elected, she’ll make it the subject of her first “conversation” with constituents.

Brian McGarry, who is getting cranky, agrees that “we don’t want Toronto running the country” but doesn’t seem to have anything else to say on the subject, other than acknowledge that there is an imbalance.
John Akpata, who may, in fact, actually be Wikipedia wandering the earth disguised in human form, reels off a bunch of stats about who does and doesn’t vote, and how so many people vote for parties other than the main six. Finally, Comrade Soubliere seems to concur on the basic unfairness of it all.

8:13:47 PM
And now, a transparent attack on the NDP from a Tory plant, who excoriates Dewar for its support of the infamous Durban conference on anti-racism – “which turned into a gongshow” – and then quotes Warren Kinsella’s blog to back up whatever it is he’s trying to allege, which seems to be that the NDP supports gongshows, even those of an anti-semitic bent.

Dewar reminds him that Canada is one of only two countries to pull out of the “prepcon” for the upcoming conference – Durban II – completely, and gives a fairly measured explanation of what, exactly, he and his party have recommended.

McGarry, meanwhile, says he’s “damned proud” that Canada isn’t going to the conference. He also notes that he’s “just become aware” of a disturbing statistic — that a group representing just 1% of the population suffers from more than 20% of the abuse. Of course, he doesn’t say what that group is, so the whole line just hangs there sounding — odd. I mean, I’m assuming he’s talking about anti-semitic incidents, but he doesn’t actually say that. He just gives his line and scowls. 

8:18:14 PM
And a plant for Akpata with a question about Health Canada’s track record on providing medicinal marijuana – Collenette admits she isn’t well briefed on the issue, McGarry grumbles, Akpata offers to brief everyone, Green Jen is cute as a button and has a mom who has benefited from medicinal marijuana, and then Akpata gets his moment to rant on his favourite subject.

8:20:13 PM
Well, that’s sweet – a questioner just offered an open invitation to two of the candidates to clarify something in their respective party’s platform that has been misrepresented in the media. Green Jen takes on the controversy over “strategic voting”, which – she says – her leader never endorsed; Penny Collenette wants everyone to know that her party won’t spend the country into deficit.

8:22:21 PM
Ooh, a wee troublemaker at the mic – she demands to know why Dewar’s campaign website lists one of his achievements as “keeping the portrait gallery in Ottawa” – which is by no means a sure thing. Dewar explains that he was the one who filed the ATI requet that revealed the secret backroom machinations that would otherwise have resulted in the decision going ahead without the bidding process.

McGarry also wants the gallery to stay here, but dismisses the rallies and other efforts by the community to keep it here – “this gallery won’t be kept here by photo ops or skating up the canal” – the only way, he says, is by electing him to government, which produces open snickers from the crowd. He then delivers a rousing defence of Calgary, unwisely attempts to employ sarcasm, and then is mercifully cut off by the Time Paddle. Penny Collenette gives a rah-rah for the gallery, and that’s about it.

8:29:26 PM
If there’s one thing that the whole panel can agree on – and actually, there may only be this one thing – it is that the National Capital Commission is a shadowy and very probably sinister organization, and no good can come of its nefarious backroom dealmaking.

Penny Collenette, brightly, suggests looking at the enabling act itself to see if it could use some tweaking, since it hasn’t been amended since original drafting, back in the 1950s, and doesn’t even include the concept of “green space.”

8:32:13 PM
Awesomely, Comrade Soubliere just disproved my above point by defending the NCC. Go state!

8:33:21 PM
Our latest questioner has a dilemna – he wants to vote for Penny, because he loves the Green Shift, but he also has a soft spot for Paul Dewar. What is he to do? Penny sweetly says it’s too bad they aren’t running together – I can hear the howls of horror from the respective war rooms from here – but humbly suggests that he vote for her, because even though she can’t promise she’ll be at the cabinet table, like McGarry – who, I fear, may be headed for crushing disappointment on the off-chance that he pulls off a win in this riding. Dewar suggests abolishing the Senate, which isn’t actually as non sequiteurial as it sounds, since the question was about proportional representation and democratic reform.

8:36:50 PM
Oh, this is going to be fun: a question for McGarry on decriminalization of marijuana, and he once again goes on the defensive, and snarls that he doesn’t support it, period. The questioner then reveals that she has epilepsy, and looks forward to being put in jail for seeking out effective treatment for her condition. Oh, and to not voting for Brian McGarry, but that part probably wasn’t sarcastic.

Akpata gives the usual streets-paved-with-hempbased-gold speech on how our GDP would quintuple if only the ganja was legalized – to snickers from the audience – but doesn’t seem fussed by the sceptics.

“Laugh away – it’s true, you can look it up.”

8:40:08 PM
A copyright question – usual digital rights management umbrella query – and Dewar comes out strongly in favour of user rights. Penny Collenette agrees that “balance” is important, but agrees with Dewar that the now-all-but-dead bill introduced by the Conservatives during the last session isn’t the answer.

8:41:25 PM
Another question from our community association sponsors – this time, on substance abuse prevention and treatment, particularly in Hintonberg, and adding alcohol as a treatable substance. Akpata condemns the practice of criminalizing abusers – and says that we need to change the programs, not just keep doing the same.

Brian McGarry, you will be shocked to learn, doesn’t support safe injection sites, but agrees that alcohol is a problem too. “Just ask Senatoer Marjorie Lebreton about that,” he suggests. Uh. He probably should have given some context to that comment, if the reaction of the girl sitting next to me is any indication of the lack of understanding amongst the audience, which has a lot of youngish people.

8:47:22 PM
A followup question on addiction and crime – sorry, falling behind here – which produces the by now predictable answers from the candidates – Akpata blames criminalization of behaviour, Green Jen wants to invest in programs and hug people, Penny Collenette is delighted by her party’s commitment to spent more on treatment.

8:49:22 PM
A man who appears on the verge of losing faith in democracy implores all candidates to commit to working together, even if there is a minority government, and not turn it into a dysfunctional snakepit like the last one. Penny Collenette meekly suggests that she’ll do her best, and McGarry mistakes the question for an attack — specifically for breaking the “fixed election date” law – and turns into David Tilson. Seriously. Totally cranky and only tangentially on topic.

8:52:50 PM
A gotcha moment – a questioner who tells the panel that she likes both the Greens and the Liberals, but can’t help but notice that the only candidate with a reusable water bottle is Paul Dewar. What gives?

The two of them both cop to bad optics – although each does her best to assure this is entirely uncharacteristic; Green Jen reuses glasses, bottles, you name it; Penny Collenette carries one with her everywhere she goes, but left it in her car.

Brian McGarry, meanwhile, would like to interject the fact that both he and his wife drive hybrids; they plant over a thousand trees a year, and you know those “green funerals” you may have heard of? Well, stay tuned.

8:56:44 PM
An admittedly long, rambly and hard to follow tirade/question on air pollution, and why neither the Liberals or the Tories have taken action to reduce the cancerous effects of diesel fuel, and McGarry manages to insult the questioner yet again when he says that he’s “not as well versed on the subject as [the questioner] is, because I’m a small business owner.”

He then blames the Liberals for doing nothing, and reminds everyone that cancer has struck his family three times. I’m sure somewhere in there he talked about the Conservatives’ Turning the Corner plan, but I probably missed it.

9:01:03 PM
“Two years is not a long time for a government,” McGarry begins what may be his final answer of the night, to a question that I couldn’t actually here, but I suspect that I won’t be able to figure out from the context, given McGarry’s now familiar style.

In those two years, though, his party has reduced taxes and the debt. The Liberals are “not the party of Lester B. Pearson,” Jack Layton “scoffs at free enterprise,” and I haven’t the slightest idea what the question actually was, because the answer is so weird, aggressive and — random.

9:03:52 PM
And – last question, I’m thinking, on the collapse of the US economy, and its effect on Canada. The questioner is sceptical of the PM’s statement that there isn’t likely to be a “spillover” effect on Canada, and McGarry picks a fight with him over the quote. “That’s not what he said,” he insists. “He said there might be a spillover.” After a few seconds, It becomes clear that this is what Harper apparently told McGarry, personally, when he ‘sat down with him’ and talked about it, so “don’t quote from the Globe and Mail” – quite frankly, he doesn’t care about it, even though I’m not sure how he thinks the rest of us are supposed to know what the PM did or didn’t say when he “sat down with the man.”  McGarry goes on along those lines for the rest of the allotted time, at which point the host steps in to thank the audience, and the candidates, and especially the radiant Rita Celli – and that’s it.

Wow. I think I have a crush on democracy. This was awesome. But now – I think I hear the sweet sounds of the True Blood theme music calling my name. Til tomorrow!