In what was one of the last opportunities to debate publicly prior to Monday’s federal election, five of six candidates vying for the South Surrey-White Rock riding touched on a range of topics during an all-candidates forum Tuesday evening.
The meeting, held at Southridge School, saw candidates Pixie Hobby (NDP), Judy Higginbotham (Liberal), Dianne Watts (Conservative), Larry Colero (Green) and Brian Marlatt (Progressive Canadian) answer questions on issues ranging from supporting small business and balancing the budget, to a national housing strategy, pension benefits for seniors, Bill C-51, legalizing marijuana, Surrey’s gang problem and environmental protection, among others.
(A sixth candidate, Libertarian Bonnie Hu, did not take part in the debate because she could not be reached by event organizers, South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce executive director Cliff Annable told Peace Arch News.)
The questions were pre-submitted by attendees and vetted by a three-person panel before being approved, moderator Gary Hollick told the crowd of approximately 250.
On the subject of whether they’d support a supplementary pension for seniors, all candidates – who each had one minute to respond – agreed seniors’ support is integral.
Marlatt said his party would support such a plan, while Watts pointed to work the Conservatives have done on the issue, including tax credits for seniors and pension income-splitting. Colero said “I honestly don’t know” if his party would support a supplementary pension plan but suggested implementing a “guaranteed livable income” for seniors as an alternative to multiple pension programs, which he said “could overlap.”
Hobby used the question to address various seniors issues, suggesting an “overhaul” of the national health-care plan and a seniors-housing strategy is necessary, and also pushing for the cancellation of the planned change to the age of qualification for Old Age Security pensions, to 67 from 65.
Higginbotham agreed on returning the age to 65, and said the Liberals would work with the provinces to enhance the Canada Pension Plan, “unlike (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper, who doesn’t meet with the premiers very often.”
Higginbotham was not the only voice to criticize the incumbent leader.
Marlatt took issue with an earlier statement from Watts about her party’s proven commitment to infrastructure improvements.
“We’ve seen a lot of filling potholes being called the Canadian Action Plan, but that isn’t infrastructure, it’s maintenance,” he said.
Watts drew boos from the audience when the subject of environmental protection was broached – something the former Surrey mayor referred to as “a highly loaded question.” (The moderator later noted the question came from an elementary school student.)
On same topic, Hobby made repeated references to Harper’s party “gutting” the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, calling it “shameful,” while Colero called Bill C-51 – the Conservatives’ Anti-Terrorism Act passed in June – “a wrecking ball to democracy.”
Colero, Hobby and Marlatt said they would scrap Bill C-51 entirely, while Higginbotham – whose party supported the bill – said the Liberals would repeal “problematic elements” of it because “some of it is quite Draconian.”
Watts defended the bill, saying it “further strengthens law enforcement” but noted she would be open to listening to criticisms.
“If we can do better, I’m open to listening, but it has gone through and it is law,” she said.
Watts and Hobby were the only candidates who said a balanced budget in the first year of the next government is vital. The other three suggested immediately balancing the budget would, in the words of Marlatt, “bind the hands” of leaders with regard to investing in infrastructure and other programs.
Colero said: “Anyone can balance the budget by selling the house and not feeding the kids.”
Watts said her party has balanced the budget while still providing $84 billion for infrastructure improvements, and she touched on the topic of supporting small businesses.
“When I hear the Liberals say that small business is a tax haven for the rich, it’s an affront to the (thousands) of small-business owners in our community,” she said.
Higginbotham said her party is committed to balancing the budget by 2019, but in the meantime would invest in small business, boost taxes for the wealthiest one per cent, create more jobs and ensure all Canadians earn a living wage.
The 1½-hour forum ended with each candidate reading a closing statement, which most used to outline their platforms.
Marlatt also used his three-minute slot to further criticize Watts, calling her a “falling-star Harper candidate” who “is being embarrassed by her party”; Hobby said the NDP would “re-prioritize federal spending” putting Canadians first; Higginbotham reiterated her party’s stance on infrastructure investment; Watts pointed to her years of work in the community as both a city councillor and mayor; and Colero encouraged voters to “elect people with integrity.”
The meeting was hosted by the chamber, the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board and CARP. The Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing provided interpreters.
The final all-candidates meeting is set for Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m., when the Canadian Federation of University Women’s White Rock-South Surrey Club will host candidates at the White Rock Community Centre (15154 Russell Ave. The meeting will focus on topics of interest to women – including education, trades and technology, affordable daycare, housing and accessible health care.
Advance voting way, way up
Early birds were out in force for the Oct. 19 federal election, with an estimated 71 per cent increase in voters Canada-wide making it to advance polls last weekend compared to the 2011 election.
Elections Canada estimates that 507,920 people voted in B.C. polling stations, up from 259,278 in the 2011 vote.
In South Surrey-White Rock, 12,105 (16% of eligible voters) voted early, compared to 7,635 (9%) who used the advance poll in 2011 prior to redistribution of South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale.
In Surrey-Newton, 10,658 (17%) voted last weekend, compared to 5,781 (8%) in the previous Newton-North Delta riding.