It was standing room only at Cutten Fields tonight as the four major party candidates for Guelph took part in the third debate of the election campaign. Hosted by the Guelph Chamber of Commerce and broadcast live to air on Rogers Channel 20, this debate was by far the most lively, and it was the first to include the Conservative candidate Gloria Kovach.
This debate, the first moderated by new Chamber of Commerce president Kithio Mwanzia, featured a departure in the typical format. There were questions about specific platform points put to each of the candidates, and lots of one-on-one exchanges on various campaign themes as well as questions from the audience and submitted queries from Chamber members and members of the general public. As consequence, the candidates had to make their points quickly, and had to be nimble in order to respond to attacks from the others.
Apropos, Kovach got the first word, by promising that her vote in the House of Commons will not be whipped, and that she has a proved track record in the community representing all her constituents, and not just the ones that agree with her. "I'm not an unknown quantity compared to others," she added, but was she talking about her fellow candidates that include the former Ontario Environmental Commissioner, a community activist, and the former head of the Chamber, or was she referred to previous Conservative candidate Marty Burke, who was a political neophyte in Guelph when he ran in 2011?
But if Kovach was referring to the former, and if that sounded combative, the other candidates took the bait. NDP candidate Andrew Seagram thanked the crowd for coming out saying that "it's important to show up for debates." Longfield, meanwhile, used his opening statement to challenge his colleagues to only take local money in fundraising for the campaign.
The first question directed to candidates about their party platforms also went to Kovach, specifically the announcement made by Stephen Harper Friday of "tax lock" legislation that will prevent future governments from raising taxes. Kovach reinforced Conservative talking points about record investment in infrastructure while lowering taxes and now balancing the budget two years in a row. Seagram called the "tax lock" a "dangerous idea," while Green Party candidate Gord Miller pointed out the issue of "dead cash" as reason to want to increase taxes on corporations as per the Green Party platform.
The topic of the NDP plan for cap and trade was where things started to get uncomfortable. Kovach repeated a talking point made by Stephen Harper from the Munk Debate wherein he took credit on behalf of the Conservative government for the elimination of coal fire plants in Ontario. "We're the first government to reduce greenhouse gases," she said proudly before the crowd broke out into a mix of boos and laughs. Kovach would try twice more to make the point.
Another area of contention involved a discussion about pensions. Kovach slammed Longfield for the provincial Liberals' plan to create an Ontario Pension Plan, slamming Longfield for "parading" Kathleen Wynne through Guelph while she was planning "job killing legislation." Longfield retorted that Wynne is creating the program "in a vacuum" without any support from the Federal government. Seagram too defended Wynne, albeit begrudgingly, noting Harper's refusal to meet with her, or any of the provincial and territorial leaders.
There was another tense moment for Kovach, who in an Environics Research poll released last week is 20 points behind Longfield. Answering a question on how to restrain program spending, Kovach responded that the key was to reducing red tape is to make things simpler for people be they small businesses, or immigrants. Someone from the crowd then cut off Kovach, yelling, "What about Syrian refugees?" which prompted Mwanzia to issue a warning to the audience about comments from the floor.
There were moments of agreement though. Both Kovach and Longfield agreed that more needed to be done to let foreign trained workers to be able to get certified in their chosen fields, Seagram echoed Miller's call for the elimination of paid internships, and all candidates agreed that Guelph was ideally positioned to be an agri-food/agri-business hub with just a little support from the Federal government. All candidates also pledged to be Guelph's representative in Ottawa and not the other way around.
Naturally, the biggest rift on stage was not between individual candidates, but between Kovach and the three left-of-centre candidates. The Longfield/Seagram/Miller coalition frequently agreed on the potential negative impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the need for increased action on climate change and pharmacare, and better relations between all levels of government. Many of the proposals from the candidates were technically on matters of provincial jurisdiction like healthcare, education and transit.
Overall, each of the candidates was able to stand their ground,and no knockout punch was landed. Even Kovach, who despite being the target of the other contenders and being the local voice of the incumbent government, managed to emerge unscathed by appealing to the crowd with a mix of Conservative bluster and her own assured record as a public servant in Guelph.
The debate format itself will surely be a point of discussion in the days to come. Some may argue that not enough time was allowed to vet the topics properly. At the same time though, a lot of ground was covered and the candidates had to make their points quickly and reign in the instinct to bloviate and attack. Still, it was a productive night, and not likely one that will make it any easier for the undecideds to make up their minds.
The next debate is this Thursday at noon in Peter Clark Hall at the University of Guelph.