Post-secondary tuition, military spending, the oil sands and the environment were among the hot button issues pressed at Thursday night’s all-candidates forum at the Prestige Harbourfront Resort.
Approximately 260 people attended the Salmon Arm Chamber of Commerce sponsored-event, which represented the last public go-round between Green candidate Greig Crockett, Liberal Janna Francis, the NDP’s Nikki Inouye and Conservative Colin Mayes prior to the May 2 election.
The majority of the questions, as well as the booing, was targeted at the incumbent Okanagan-Shuswap MP and the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Government priorities and military expenditures, such as the purchase of 65 new F-35 fighter jets, came under fire, with attendees arguing that resources would be better used on things like education, and more local needs such as a $5 million water system in Blind Bay.
Mayes defended his government’s record, arguing if you’re going to have a military, you have to equip them properly.
“When we became government, we were behind the eight-ball – we had aging Sea Kings, we had the F-18s that were up for replacement, we had armoured vehicles that were obsolete, we had helicopters that could hardly fly, so we had to do something,” said Mayes.
Mayes also came under fire for Canada’s waning reputation on the global stage, from losing a seat on the United Nations Security Council, to the government’s subsidizing of the oil sands industry.
Crockett was eager to comment, stating Canada has become a laughing stock to the rest of the world for its military aggression and its lacking action on climate change.
“I was mayor of the community for nine years, and you know, you’re up for criticism – if you’re doing anything, if you’re actually doing something, you’re going to be criticized,” said Mayes, who later explained the Conservatives would be eliminating accelerated capital costs payments to the oilsands industry by 2012.
Salmon Arm’s student population put in a strong showing at the forum, grilling the candidates on what they’d do to address skyrocketing student debt load and tuition increases and cuts to organizations that support women.
Mayes said he thought more should be done to address tuition. He noted how his government has put forward changes to make the repayment of student loans for graduated medical students less burdensome. Francis said the Liberals’ proposed Canadian Learning Passport would see students receive $1,000 ($1,500 for low income) each year from grades 9 to 12 for post-secondary education. Crockett said Greens would support a move to European models where there are zero tuition costs.
Regarding the funding of women’s programs and organizations, Francis said there used to be federal support available through the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
“We’ve gone backwards, we don’t have those advocacy groups, we don’t have those groups working in communities brining attention to the issues of violence against women – cutting those programs is not at all helpful and we must reinstitute them,” said Francis.
Asked what her party would do to help seniors living in poverty, Inouye said that CPP payments need to be increased, that pensioners need to be raised above the poverty line of $18,000.
All candidates were asked if they would be in favour of democratic reform and, in particular, moving away from the “first past the post” system to a “rep by pop” system. Mayes said the Conservatives will be bringing forward a bill that would assure the provinces have equal representation. Complicating this, however, is Quebec.
“They only want money for their province, their interests… There’s no easy answer to this,” said Mayes.
Crockett said the Greens are ardent supporters of proportional representation, while Francis said the Liberals would instruct Elections Canada to look at all options available and develop a process where everyone’s vote counts.
Health care was perceived unanimously by all of the candidates as being the number one issue for voters in the Okanagan-Shuswap. Inouye said the NDP would protect the health-care system and not support moves to privatization. Francis said that health-care needs to be sustainable. Crockett said the Greens support a single-tier universal health care system. And Mayes said Canada’s Health Act is not working and no longer sustainable, and that the government is committed to sitting down with the provinces and discussing the issues around wellness and healthy living.