Thursday, October 10, 2019

Nickel Belt West Nipissing Chamber of Commerce Debate Highlights

I attended a really interesting debate last night that, unfortunately, meant almost nothing to anyone.  Hosted by the West Nipissing Chamber of Commerce, Nickel Belt party candidates gathered in Sturgeon Falls to face off against one another in front of an overwhelmingly partisan crowd, including a large contingent of "Team Serre" Liberals clad in soccer shirts.  If there was an undecided voter anywhere in the group of about 60 people, they must have been very confused.

Thank goodness for the media, though - the West Nipissing Tribune was there to report back to the wider Sturgeon Falls community.  What the Tribune reports will have a far more significant impact on how Nickel Belt voters in the eastern part of the massive district felt about the winners and losers of the debate than the actual debate itself.  

(from left to right: Aino Laamenen, CPC; Casey Lalonde, GPC; Mikko Paavola, PPC; Stef Paquette, NDP; Marc Serre, LPC)

West Nipissing Chamber of Commerce

Kudos to the West Nipissing Chamber of Commerce, though.  They hosted this important community function, and it was by far one of the smoothly run all-candidates meetings that I've attended.  Starting and ending largely on time, the questions asked by the Chamber and those selected from the audience were about important, local issues to West Nipissing - an often-overlooked part of the Sudbury-centric Nickel Belt.  

The Chamber also went out of its way to make sure that the debate didn't descend into the sort of free-for-all anarchy that the televised leaders debate did.  Strict moderation on time limits, while affording everyone an opportunity for a second shot at the question (including a rebuttal, if needed) created a really good opportunity for the candidates to get the word out about their platforms.

People's Party Candidate Mikko Paavola

This field of Nickel Belt election candidates is one of the strongest I've seen - even though all struggled a little bit last night with making the "local" connection in the context of Sturgeon Falls/West Nipissing in their answers (meaning their Sudbury bias was showing) and at least one last night was visibly not on her A-game.  But even the addition of the PPC candidate last night didn't hurt, I dislike reporting given the threat their party is to Canada's values.  But I can't deny that Mikko Paavola did his party credit last night by answering most questions by relating them back to his party's platform - in other words, providing voters with the sort of information that might help them decide whom to vote for based on where their party stands on particular issues.

Liberal Party Candidate Marc Serre

You'd think that would be a given for most candidates in a debate - but it isn't. And last night was no exception.  Sometimes candidates believe that they are able to skate through debates by moving things in a different direction. And that's exactly what the two perceived front-runners did.  We certainly learned a thing or two about Liberal MP Marc Serre's past four years in Ottawa - and what he believes he has personally done for West Nipissing and Nickel Belt.  But I don't think voters have much of an idea what his future plans are - or what the Liberals are proposing to do.  Serre spent most of the night coasting on his record.  But he also appeared to be the most knowledgeable person in the room about the ins and outs of how to get things done in Ottawa.  Four years on the government side's back benches will do that.

In fairness, Serre wasn't exactly the strongest candidate for the Liberals in 2014, but he nevertheless took down a bit an NDP titan in Nickel Belt's former MP, Claude Gravelle (NDP) - a serious scrapper if there ever was one.  Serre is far more polished this time out, and it's actually a bit of a joy to listen to him talk about his record in both official languages.  And he's not afraid to mix it up either with his political opponents when there's cause. And last night provided a little bit of that.

New Democratic Party Candidate Stef Paquette

In contrast to Serre, the NDP's Stef Paquette seemed more than a little lost when it comes to the ins and outs of how governments work, or what programs and polices can do.  Or even his own party's platform.  Paquette instead chose to rely on what seemed to me to be a smarmy style-over-substance but without much style, which he used repeatedly to attack the other candidates with, most particularly Serre.  This tactic might pay off to those who value and are motivated by political theatre in election season - and let's face it, there are a lot of people that fit into that category.  Certainly the New Democratic partisans in the room were impressed with Paquette, but I am certainly very interested in how his non-policy approach played out with the media.  

Green Party Candidate Casey Lalonde

While Serre and Paquette provided the biggest contrasts of the evening, I think that if anyone present was able to put their partisan interests aside, the only candidate of the beside Paavola who provided detailed information at times on her party's platform while giving voters ample reasons to select her for MP was the Green Party's Casey Lalonde.  And even Casey was a little off of her game last night.

I know, I'm biased.  I'm trying really hard to park my bias when I write about these debates, but it's not as if it's something that I can stow in the closet completely.  Still, I know Lalonde's performance came as a complete surprise to just about everybody in the room last night, except for me (and maybe for Casey herself).  When the moderators told the candidates before the debate that there was a last minute rule change that gave candidates half the originally-planned amount of time to answer questions (from a minute and a half to just fourty-five seconds), I knew that only one candidate was going to benefit - and she did.

Lalonde has a rare gift in politics - but an important one.  She's got the gift of precision and synthesis. Without the use of notes which every other candidate relied on, Lalonde last night offered up a clinic to all in the room on how to think and speak on the fly, condensing elements of the Green Party's platform with her own personal experiences and knowledge of the issues, providing juicy-gel packed responses to all of the questions asked. That she speaks rather fast (all the time!) certainly didn't hurt either (if politics doesn't work out for Casey, she might want to consider a career as an auctioneer).

Conservative Party Candidate Aino Laamenen

Finally, the Conservative Party's Aino Laamenen appeared to be more than a little off last night.  After a decent and no doubt surprising-to-some performance at the 100 Debates on the Environment, Laamenen relied heavily on Conservative Party talking points and relating personal stories to the crowd which failed to connect or resonate, as they were only tangentially relevant to the questions asked. 

Now for some details.

Land Acknowledgement

It fell to Paquette to provide last night's land acknowledgement - and he was the fourth candidate to speak on a panel of 5 - and they all spoke after the introduction by the Chamber of Commerce.  The Chamber's oversight on this was unfortunate - and kudos to Paquette for rectifying the matter.  It's 2019.  There's no reason to get this kind of thing wrong any longer.  That said, I don't want this observation to detract from the well-ordered debate that the Chamber hosted.  And I'm sure they'll get it right the next time - right?

Climate Change

Although the focus of the Chamber's debate was on the local, small businesses that the Chamber champions, climate change certainly came up throughout the evening.  Since it's an issue that is near and dear to me, I'm going to take some time to focus on it.

I was extremely pleased to see Liberal MP Marc Serre engage in some on-the-spot fact checking on this topic, as Conservative Lamamenen kicked off the climate change discussion reading her party's talking point about what a terrible thing the carbon tax is and how it takes money away from people.  Serre was quick to jump in and remind everyone present that the government's plan includes a tax rebate which the PBO has said will leave most Canadians better off.  I suspect Laamenen claimed the rebate on her taxes, so it's interesting that she would have omitted acknowledging its existence - again.  Good for Serre - whom I've heard was instrumental in his Liberal caucus for ensuring the rebate portion of the federal carbon backstop would be primarily rebated to individuals and families. 

Paquette, however, proved to be a significant disappointment on climate change - again.  And this surprises me, because Paquette seems to be personally in tune with a number of other environmental issues of the day, and perhaps for the first time, the NDP has a credible plan to tackle the climate emergency (albeit still less than what Canada needs right now).  Paquette used his time on the topic of climate change to bash Green candidate Lalonde (for being critical of the Conservative's plan) and bash Serre and Justin Trudeau for providing Loblaws with a subsidy to purchase fridges.  

Let me comment a little about this.  I get where the NDP is coming from with regards to their opposition to 'corporate welfare' (although it seems to me that lately that opposition has been strictly targeted to businesses whose leaders have contributed to Liberal campaigns), but when I hear a New Democrat go after the Liberals for funding a project that will have a serious impact on reducing green house gas emissions by promoting a greater degree of energy efficiency - well that's why it continues to be clear to me that the NDP just doesn't understand the climate emergency.  Paquette invoked those Loblaws fridges twice last night in an attempt to smear the Liberals.  The format of the debate gave Serre little chance to respond, so Paquette's 'corporate welfare' point appeared to resonate - but for anyone paying attention, all it did was further muddy the waters on whether the NDP - despite a decent platform - really understands what the climate emergency is all about.

The PPC's Paavola, though, left no doubt in anyone's mind that he didn't believe that climate change was a thing.  Citing 'natural occurrences' and saying "Canada is only a small percentage of climate change," he tried to shame the others as 'climate alarmists'.  You could hear the eyes rolling.  But as I wrote earlier, he was at least able to coherently convey his Party's stance on the issues.

Lalonde and Serre provided the most credible responses on this topic - although Serre did go on to make one of the most wild and untrue claims of the evening when he said that all of the emissions from the Trans Mountain pipeline were factored into the Liberals plan, and that the Liberals have no intention of expanding oil production in Alberta.

Sorry, Marc - you're either misinformed, mistaken or deliberately repeating a completely misleading Liberal talking point.  First, about those emissions: while it is true that the National Energy Board looked at the total greenhouse gas emissions that are expected to be generated from constructing the twinned pipeline, it only took a basic look at upstream impacts and failed to look at downstream emissions impacts at all.  Critics have cited this as a deficiency in the review process for years and years - so long, in fact, that when Serre ran as a Liberal candidate for the first time in 2014, his party was promising to change the review process so that all greenhouse gas emissions would be factored into a review.  It's one of the failings of his party that while in government the Liberals failed to keep their promise.  And now Serre was caught last night trying to pretend that his party did keep it.

Second, about expanding oil production in Alberta.  While it is true that the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline by the Government of Canada will not in and of itself lead to expanded production of the tar sands, remember that the only reason the Liberals bought the pipeline in the first place was to see the twinning job completed.  Not only will the twinning project cost between $10 and $13 billion (of taxpayer's money), it will lead to an almost doubling of production in the tar sands.  The only reason the pipeline needs to be twinned at all is because Alberta and Canada are planning on expanding production. So claiming that the pipeline won't lead to further production was completely disingenuous.

That no one called Serre out on what had to be the biggest lie of the evening did not reflect particularly well on any of the candidates, in my opinion.  I suspect a different outcome tonight if he Serre tries to pull this same fast one again.

More Fact Checking

At one point in the evening, the NDP's Stef Paquette tried to credit his party with bringing in a national medicare plan.  Liberal Serre was having none of that - he gave a mini-clinic of his own on the history of medicare in Canada, while making a strong point about federal-provincial issues.  Serre quite correctly pointed out that it was a Liberal government that brought in medicare.  

At another point in the debate, on a question pertaining to Veterans, People's Party candidate Mikko Paavola did a little fact-checking of his own - using his cell phone to look up his party's position on veteran's issues.  Good for Paavola to use his ability (and the extra time he had as the last candidate to answer this question) to look up the answer, and good for him to praise the free WiFi available at the Marcel Noelle Centre (and good of him to let everyone else in the room know about it), but I'll be honest here - I'm not sure this is what candidates ought to be doing in the midst of an all-candidate's debate.  That said, I am rethinking just how I actually do feel about it after Paavola's mid-debate 'fact checking' last night.

On the matter of indigenous relations, the NDP's Paquette, after effectively railing at the Trudeau government for not having an indigenous Minister of Indigenous Services, took a swipe at the present Minister's Irish ancestry.  Paquette had been in the process of making a cogent point - that the NDP would ensure that an indigenous person filled the role of Minister - but ended up sounding off-putting by insinuating that the current Minister, Liberal Seamus O'Regan, who Paquette characterized as an "Irishman" somehow impacted his ability to be an effective Minister.

Fact check here.  O'Regan was born in Canada, not Ireland. His father, also named Seamus O'Regan, was Irish - but his mother was not.  So I get that maybe characterizing Seamus as being "half Irish" would have been technically correct. But what would actually be most appropriate would be to identify O'Regan by what he really is - a Canadian and a proud Newfoundlander - rather than trying to denigrate him and his Liberal government via his Irish heritage.  I'm surprised Paquette went there, because he had been effectively making his point before turning off many in the crowd, like myself, who have an Irish or Newfoundland heritage.

Up Next

I'll link to the West Nipissing Tribune article when it appears, as I believe that the way that last night's debate is discussed in the media will have more of an impact than the debate itself.  I find it interesting that today, Abacus Data is declaring Jagmeet Singh the winner of Monday's nationally televised leader's debate based on polling of people who watched the debate (or part of it) AND on those who didn't watch but heard about it from others.  Think about that for a moment.  From whom did they hear about the debate?  From family and friends who might be partisan?  Maybe. But more likely from the media - which, love it or hate it, still matters.

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and/or Canada)

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