An enthusiastic crowd of more than 200 filled a meeting room at the Days Inn on Tuesday night, (December 2,) for a first opportunity to hear all five contestants make their pitches for votes at a nomination meeting – not yet scheduled – to choose the party’s standard-bearer. At least 2,000 party members will likely be eligible to vote in a preferential ballot.
The nominee will replace Ted Hsu as the candidate after the one-term MP for Kingston and the Islands announced last summer that he won’t seek re-election in order to spend more time with his young family.
If anyone attending the debate had hoped for major differences among the five contenders, they may have been disappointed at the absence of fireworks. As it turned out, however, the audience welcomed the tone of mutual respect.
All five speakers were repeatedly greeted with enthusiastic applause as they responded to questions from the audience asking their views on topics, ranging from the environment, pipelines and the tar sands to affordable housing, student debt, infrastructure spending, poverty relief, missing aboriginal women, support for veterans and a long-hoped-for revival of prison farms at the Collins Bay institution in Kingston.
Hardly surprising was general agreement on what they all regard is an urgent need for Canadians to rid themselves, after almost ten years, of a top-down style of government led by an autocratic prime minister.
After outlining their respective backgrounds, ranging from business ownership, engineering, municipal politics, law and the military, challengers Bittu George, Mark Gerretsen, Rahime Juma, Bryon McConnell and Leanne Wight spent the evening responding to audience questions.
George’s pledge to work toward more accountability in government if he wins the riding was echoed by each of his opponents. “Many people feel that what they need doesn’t matter to government,” Leanne Wight said. “These are the very people like you and me and we deserve better.”
Bryon McConnell said Canada has been governed far too long by a small group on Parliament Hill, while the majority of MPs have little influence. Change is urgently needed in Ottawa, Mark Gerretsen agreed, stressing, “I want to be part of that change – I want to be part of that Liberal team.”
Federal involvement is needed to again pursue opportunities for sustainable business development and job creation in Kingston, they said, thanks largely to innovation that must be encouraged at Queen’s University, St. Lawrence College and research taking place at local hospitals – activities that Ottawa has been slow to promote since Stephen Harper came to power.
“We need to get that message across to government,” Juma said, “that we’re open to innovative business.”
On infrastructure spending, Bittu George agreed with Gerretsen on the need for full consultation among federal, provincial and municipal governments.
The one sign of diverging views came in response to a question about Canada’s military role in armed foreign conflicts, a reference to Stephen Harper’s “warmongering” tendencies, most recently in Iraq.
“What we do really well is promote peace,” Wight responded, a view shared by Bittu George and by Mark Gerretsen, who challenged Stephen Harper’s recent public stance in “poking the bear” – Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Rahime Juma and Bryon McConnell argued that Canada can’t always be expected to follow its traditional peacekeeping role when circumstances abroad call for military action. “There are times,” McConnell said, “when we have a role to play in the world.”
While opening the debate, Liberal Association President Ron Hartling recalled past nomination contests in which the eventual winner had not been the top performer in the initial debate but had rapidly honed those skills with experience. He concluded after the two-hour meeting that the five candidates had already set the bar extremely high with their excellent performances.
The second and third all-contestant debates will be held the evening of Thursday, January 8, and the afternoon of Sunday, January 18 at locations yet to be confirmed in the east and centre-west of the City. Details will be posted on our events page.