Don Johnston (Liberal)

Don Johnston (Liberal)

Nelson election meeting informs audience, challenges candidates

Moderator Glenn Hicks provoked and guided candidates into an absorbing session

The 200 people at last night’s all candidates meeting at the Prestige in Nelson gave the candidates and moderator Glenn Hicks a standing ovation at the end of the two hour session. That’s because all five of them — David Wilks (Conservative), Don Johnston (Liberal), Wayne Stetski (NDP), Bill Green (Green), and radio newscaster Glenn Hicks, provided a thought-provoking, informative, and sometimes funny evening.

Hicks moved the evening along, not tolerating lengthy or empty answers, and posing questions that were often provocative. He was looking for candid answers in which the candidates came out from behind their talking points to reveal themselves. Sometimes he got that, other times not.

Hicks started by positing one challenge for each of the parties, and asking all members for their opinion. His first target was the Green Party.

The role of the Green Party

Hicks proposed that the Greens are a significant social movement but not an effective political movement.

“Bill Green, how do you feel when you see that it is all about the big shots talking about the economy? Don’t you feel marginalized, don’t you feel like the environment has been marginalized?”

“Not at all,” Green said. “I have talked to 2300 people, and it is true that the economy and jobs are front and centre, and that is an issue for the greens. Climate change is the key issue for us. Many people say Elizabeth May is the best leader. People are listening to us.”

Wayne Stetski, David Wilks (Bill Metcalfe photo)

Hicks asked the other three candidates about the Green Party as a political movement. Johnston and Stetski said with proportional representation the Greens would be an important political force. They shied away from commenting on the Greens in their present situation, as did Wilks, who said he has worked with Elizabeth May and respects her.

“Elizabeth May is a Canadian hero, in my opinion,” Johnston said.

The chances of the Liberal party in Kootenay Columbia

Hicks said it seems to be a given that the Liberals never win in this riding, and have not won “since Napoleon retreated from Moscow.”

He asked Don Johnston, “How on earth can a Liberal win in this riding? Isn’t this just about the NDP and the Conservatives?”

Johnston replied, “I was on CBC and the interviewer said you must feel like a stranger in a strange land, and I said listen, I am not a stranger, I grew up in Nelson (but I will concede the strange land part).  Then he said you have a huge mountain to climb, I said I live in the mountains, that does not scare me.”

Hicks then asked Stetski, “Isn’t this just about you and David Wilks?”

“I have been to six debates with Bill and Don,” Stetski said, “and when you look at what we are offering the people, we have a lot of the same interests on many things, and we are just arguing how far and how much of a priority.

“I am an fiscally responsible, liberal minded, green NDPer. When you look at the polls, they show that it is a 2-way race. The three of us have a bad habit of splitting the vote, so 39 percent of Canadians put Harper in. We need to move to proportional representation.”

Wilks said, “It has gone back and forth between the Conservatives and the NDP, so it is an uphill battle for the Liberals and the Greens. But anyone who wants to vote Green or vote Liberal should do that.”

Has the NDP lost its way?

Hicks proposed that the NDP has strayed from its “social, left-leaning base.”

“Wayne, do you know what you are getting into? Who is this party leader of yours? He does not seem like a natural NDPer in my books.”

Stetski said he has met Mulcair twice and that the NDP leader’s resignation as minister of the environment in Quebec on a matter of principle means Mulcair is “a man of integrity and that is the kind of man I want to work for.”

From left: moderator Glenn Hicks, Bill Green, Don Johnston, Wayne Stetski, David Wilks (Bill Metcalfe photo)

Wilks responded by saying that Mulcair is less inclined to work with other parties than the late Jack Layton was.

Hicks asked Bill Green, “We have the NDP, throwing a kaleidoscope at us like Stetski saying he is true blue orange green leftist centrist rightist. What do you say to that?”

“You are right,” Green said, “because some people think there is not much difference between the Greens, Liberals and NDP, but there are huge differences. One time I hear the NDP is about carbon pricing, then cap and trade, and where do they really stand on pipelines and on tanker traffic, that is not clear.”

Johnston said he is “confused by the NDP because at a time when we have to stimulate the economy, to create opportunities, we have the NDP going down the austerity path, it feels more like Margaret Thatcher.  Then we break down their policy issues, he is going to abolish the senate by the will power of his intellect. Daycare, their big plank, requires billions from the provinces and can not take place for years.”

Stetski responded that “the NDP continues to focus on families, bringing people out of poverty, seniors, jobs for youth. What we do not support, which the Liberals and the Conservatives do, are corporations and big business.  We are going to (increase) corporate taxes, while the Liberals would rather run a deficit. We have the fundamental values of compassion and care for people.”

Wilks and the Harper brand

“David Wilks, you have to be an apologist for one of the least likable men in the country,” Hicks said. “Do you have to avoid that when you knock on doors? Do you hope to be elected and hope Mr. unpopular goes away quietly in another year?

“I do what I need to do in the riding, and I can control what I do,” Wilks said. “I am proud of the economy what we have created and that is all because of Stephen Harper and he is the leader and I stand behind him. Look at 2004, 2006, 2011. That says something about the leadership of Stephen Harper.”

Hicks asked if Harper has perhaps passed his shelf life.

“We all have a shelf life,” Wilks said. “Look at it from the perspective of a grocery store, everything has a best before date, but it is still up to the clerk to take it off the shelf.”

Bill Green, Don Johnston (Bill Metcalfe photo)

Green said that on doorsteps, “90 per cent of people want change. A large number don’t know what they are going to vote. They are learning about the candidates.”

Johnston said that adamant Harper supporters close the door, with no conversation. “Those who are undecided, they still want to talk to you.”

Stetski said, “Harper has done a great job of convincing people of a lie, that he is the best at running the economy.”

Wilks on getting government grants

Just before the campaign officially started, David Wilks came to Nelson announcing several government grants for projects in the West Kootenay. Hicks asked about that.

“David, you have said that it is better to have an MP on the government side so then you can get the grants and the funding that you want. That does not sound very ethical. Are you suggesting that all the time we had (former Conservative MP) Jim Gouk under a Liberal government, that that was a waste of our time?”

Wilks said he made those funding announcements at that time because government spending must be frozen during elections.

“I used the Canada 150 grant and I contacted the minister of western economic development. I said, ‘I don’t know what is in the list for southern BC, because it is not my riding, but I do know that Salmo, Kaslo and Nelson are about to become part of my riding and it is important that they get something. I want you to make sure you get something for them, I don’t know what it is, but make sure they get it.’ I have direct contact with the minister, so as a result Nelson got three Canada 150 grants.”

Proportional representation

On proportional representation, Green said he doubts the NDP, if they win, will bring in proportional representation.

Stetski said his party is solid on its intention to bring in proportional representation by 2019. Wilks said three provinces have had failed referendums on proportional representation, and that speaks for itself.

“The Liberals have had 147 years to bring in proportional  representation,” Wilks said. “We are fine with first past the post.”

Some touchy questions

Near the end of the evening Hicks added some suspense by posing difficult questions to Johnston, Wilks, and Stetski about events in their pasts.

He asked Don Johnston what he had learned from being fired from his job as the CEO of the Columbia Basin Trust.

Momentarily visibly taken aback, Johnson said he did not agree with the premise of the question and that he thought Hicks had guaranteed in advance there would be no “gotcha” questions. Recovering quickly, Johnston said, “I left the Trust because I disagreed with the board of directors about the Columbia Basin management plan and about moving money out of the Basin to invest in other markets. I believed the endowment was to provide capital for the people of the area.

“The reason my contract was not renewed was because I was not prepared to give in on key principles. If you have principles and stick to them you might pay a price but you can sleep at night. I have not discussed this publicly because I thought the people that need to know about it, knew.”

Hicks then asked Stetski why he lost the election for a second term as Cranbrook’s mayor.

“You were pushed out of power by people on a fiscal responsibility ticket,” Hicks said. “You were seen as a tax-and-spend guy that was too expensive for the community, the epitome of the classic NDP that we envisage. Why would the NDP pick someone who had just lost to people who got in on fiscal responsibility?”

Stetski said he believed the role of the mayor was “to be concerned with the arts, seniors, youth, social issues. We did increase taxes by four per cent. I lost to potholes in the end, and they are an issue of course, but someone told me, Wayne, I think the issue is that you think too big, you think about all aspects of society and maybe that is not the role of municipal government.”

Hicks asked Wilks about an incident several years ago in which he was videoed saying that he opposed some parts of a federal omnibus bill but had no choice but to support it. “You said you were just an MP and you would get whipped into shape (if you opposed it).”

“What I told them,” Wilks replied, “was that there were parts of it that I was concerned about. It was a confidence motion vote. On a confidence motion you vote with the party, because if you vote against it two things happen. The next thing you are an independent, and the next thing is you will be removed from committees. Ninety per cent of the bill I had no problem with.”

Marijuana, infrastructure, pensions, energy

The meeting also dealt with marijuana legislation (the Greens and Liberals would legalize it, the NDP would decriminalize it, and the Conservatives would make no changes), and pensions (the Greens, NDP and Liberals would restructure, the Conservatives would freeze employer and employee contributions).

There was also discussion of infrastructure funding, the youth vote, and the lack of skilled workers.

On energy policy, Wilks defended the Conservative policies.

“A natural resource export country that is what we are and unfortunately, I stare at a coal pit every morning. The coal is 13 hours away from Vancouver and until we find a replacement for carbon, we need metallurgical coal. With regards to the oil sands, that is a huge resource for the economy of Canada and we need to balance that with an environmental policies.”

Stetski and Johnston said they would put a stop to subsidies to oil and gas and enable research and development into alternatives.

Green commented that the other parties all like to have one foot in each camp: we are a natural resource economy but we can balance that with environmental sustainability.

“The other parties all see a big role for government in bringing about a green economy,” Green said, “but we are in a private sector economy where the energy we need will be driven by private sector investment, and that means shifting investment from the fossil fuel industry to the renewable sector. And government’s role is to provide the incentives.”

The Libertarian candidate Christina Yahn did not attend the meeting. Tom Thomson of the chamber of commerce, who organized the meeting, said she did not respond to his attempts to contact her.