Saanich North candidates challenged at public forum

Four Peninsula/Gulf Islands candidates in this month's provincial election grilled on B.C.'s record on child poverty.

Candidates in Saanich North and the Islands get the ground rules before a public forum in Sidney's Mary Winspear Centre Wednesday night.

Saanich North and the Islands candidates in the May 14 provincial election had just settled in to repeating their party platforms at a forum in Sidney when they were yanked into reality by moderator Stephen Andrew on the issue of child poverty.

“I’ve heard no satisfactory answer from this panel on this,” Andrew, a CTV reporter, said. “This is this province’s badge of shame.”

He asked the candidates what their actions would be — not party rhetoric — on alleviating child poverty in B.C.

NDP candidate Gary Holman said his party is planing on spending millions to get more affordable housing on the market, to help parents and therefore their children. Andrew called that a drop in the bucket on the issue, to which Holman agreed B.C. has no real strategy for dealing with poverty. He added the NDP will make a difference in its planned tax breaks and investments in housing, education and skills — but admitted that it would take time.

B.C. Liberal candidate Stephen Roberts sad B.C. needs to emulate successful examples of poverty reduction in other Canadian jurisdictions, admitting what his party has done over the last 12 years has not reached everyone who needs help.

The Green Party’s Adam Olsen says B.C. needs to have a strategy and that starts with a discussion.

“It’ll take work by the government in power and a commitment to follow through,” he said, adding the Green Party would funnel one per cent of the provincial budget top help with affordable housing for people in need.

Independent candidate Scott McEachern says he would want more of a discussion on the issue to let the people come up with solutions.

Wednesday night’s forum at the Mary Winspear Centre, sponsored by the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and the Peninsula News Review, saw more than 200 people turn out. The format saw the candidates hit with more than 20 questions from the crowd and the emcee. They were also given the chance to question their competition — giving Holman and Roberts the chance to spar.

“I see a lot of two-year studies in the NDP platform,” said Roberts, “but what are the NDP’s immediate job creation plans?”

Holman replied that his party will re-invest portions of the Liberal-created carbon tax into environmental retro-fits and bring back the Buy B.C. programs that encouraged local consumerism.

Roberts asked if the carbon tax would be used to pay for all of the NDP’s promises. Holman said no, and that the NDP would increase the corporate tax to its 2008 levels (12 per cent, as compared with 10 per cent now) to help pay for more programs.

For his part, Holman took direct aim at Olsen, asking if the Green Party platform was fully-costed. Olsen said no, it’s not, and that was addressed by the party leader Jane Sterk in Monday night’s televised leaders’ debate.

“We recognize where we stand in provincial politics,” said Olsen. “We don’t expect to form a government. But I do support a legislative budget officer, as I have questions about the NDP and Liberal budgets.”

Holman said having no costed platform leaves people wondering what to vote for. Olsen replied Green MLAs (should any get in) would still be able to make decisions on behalf of their constituents.

Olsen accused Holman later on of saying the Green Party would only split the vote in this riding, noting that people have more than the usual choices.

Holman said he lost the 2009 election by 260 votes and the Green Party got around 3,000, meaning some NDP votes went astray. This time, he said, he’s not taking any chances.

“Of course voters have their choice in this election,” Holman said, “but the issue is the platforms. The Greens have (an incomplete one), so what are you voting for?”

Questions on education, teacher contracts, health care and the economy were thrown at each candidate. They were given a chance to break with party policy in a question asking them if they represent their constituents at the cost of differing with their own party. Olsen led the responses stating he “would not be whipped,” as the Greens don’t have a party whip whose task it is, is to keep MLAs on message. It means, he said, the ability for Green MLAs to be more transparent with their constituents.

Holman said he’s proud of his party platform. He indicated he would not vary from that, adding he feels it fits with the needs of people in Saanich North and the Islands, and would require his efforts to make sure the NDP follows through.

Roberts said he does have political differences with some aspects of his party — especially when it comes to B.C. Ferries.

“I would not be in line with some in my party on this one,” he admitted.

McEachern, an independent, has no such party stipulations but did say he’d work with all MLAs to debate the issues.

Plenty of local issues were raised during the two-hour forum. The amalgamation of police services has been a hot topic on the South Island and each were asked how they’d handle the matter. To the candidate, they stressed caution on the issue and would not give a definitive answer, other than to say more discussion is needed.

Asked how they would work to make the ferries more affordable, the candidates offered a variety of ideas from pedestrian-only sea buses (Olsen) and extra revenue-generation such as gaming (Roberts), to transportation subsidies (McEachern) and rate freezes and administrative cuts (Holman).

As for transit service in West Sidney and on the Peninsula in general, Roberts said options such as overpasses and affordable housing would help keep more workers here and lessen the need for transit service. Olsen noted this was an issue that blends transit and community planning, requiring new growth on the Peninsula to allow people to be able to afford to live here. Holman said the NDP’s plan to re-invest some of the carbon tax into transit will help. McEachern stuck to his repeated mantra of talking with the people, adding he’s sure B.C. Transit could re-allocate services here from more idle routes.

Each candidate was also asked what they thought the number one issue is in Saanich North and the Islands. For McEachern, there are two: B.C. Ferrries and government waste. Holman said while the ferries rank up there, it’s growth issues on the Peninsula that stand out for him. Roberts said it’s the economy.

“With the economy, along comes everything else,” he said.

Olsen said with three municipalities, four First Nations and five Gulf Islands, the top issue he sees is a disconnect between local priorities and the provincial government.

In their closing statements, each candidate summed up their positions. Roberts stuck with the Liberal mantra of economy and job creation as top priorities. Olsen pointed out there are more than two choices on the ballot and encouraged people to seek out a collaborative voice in Victoria. McEachern said he wants to make a difference and help people. Holman emphasized his desire to see a change in government, achieved through his experience and commitment to the riding.

Voters go to the polls in the provincial election on May 14.