By Dale Miller
All six Calgary West federal election candidates faced off peacefully in front of 250 spectators at the University of Calgary on Wed., June 16. Staying true to the venue, the major discussion topic was post secondary education.
Candidates fielded questions from both the gallery and a panel made up of Students’ Union President Bryan West, Graduate Students’ Association President Calvin Seaman and U of C Political Science professor Doreen Barrie. The questions covered many major election issues including health care, the environment and gay marriage.
One highlight of question period was when West asked Rob Anders, Calgary West’s Conservative Member of Parliament: "Why should those citizens in this riding that support post-secondary education trust you to defend their interests in Parliament if voted in for another term?"
"Vote back in the Liberals and get more broken promises and get more cuts and get people who tell you something but never deliver," said Anders. "People in this riding are concerned about taxes, about waste and about healthcare."
West was not at all pleased with Anders’ response.
"I didn’t get a direct answer at all," said West after the debate. "I think Anders’ record is dismal, he hasn’t done anything for the university in the last seven years-I don’t think he wants to."
The best gauge of the candidates’ stances on post-secondary education were their opening statements.
First alphabetically was Anders, who took criticism from all sides for ignoring post-secondary education in Parliament and his prohibitive stance on gay marriages. On post-secondary education and most other issues, he cautiously toed the party line, and insisted Canadians were more interested in tax cuts and health care.
"The first thing we want to see is changes to the student loan program," said Anders. "We want to increase maximum student loan limits, broaden the definition of eligible expenses to help cut down on some of your costs and increase family income thresholds. The second thing is [to] help Canadians save for education through a registered lifetime savings program that will allow people to withdraw their savings tax free to pay for higher education. The third thing is hopefully to improve spaces at the university."
With the Canadian Action Party not likely to win any federal seats, James Kohut used poetry to endear himself to the gallery. His focus was on Canadian nationalism.
"Liberal Conservative, Tory, same bad education story," chimed Kohut in one of the many variations of the rhyme. "The system has been badly eroded through a lack of funds. Canada is importing educated workers to fill jobs that Canadians should be filling-this must stop."
Tim Patterson of the New Democratic Party kept a low profile during the forums, persistently proclaiming himself and his party to be a positive choice.
"This election is about choice, it’s about a positive choice," said Patterson. "It’s about providing short term and long term strategies, not only for post secondary education, but for issues that are important to you, like the environment and health care. It’s about a vision that includes everybody with nobody left behind."
U of C student and Green Party candidate Danielle Roberts won the hearts of the crowd with her sincere, albeit inexperienced orating. Her strategy was to connect to students by pointing out problems she has faced as a student.
"I’m a second-year university student," said Roberts. "One of the reasons I’m running is because I have student loans. I have loans from the bank, I’ve asked my parents and grandparents. I know what it’s like to not have money, to have to have to work 20 hours a week while taking four courses just so you can eat."
The best-received candidate of the day was Justin Thompson of the Liberal Party. Being a Liberal in a traditionally Conservative riding, his role as underdog was a complete reversal of his party’s in the election as a whole. Thompson played on the gallery’s discontent with Anders, offering himself as an effective representative for the university.
"We have a unique election going on here in Calgary West, it’s about something much bigger than political parties, it’s about representation," said Thompson. "For the last seven years Rob Anders has used his position to support his extreme views, and this is the first day in fact that I’ve heard Mr. Anders talk about the importance of access to post secondary education."
Last on the bill was Andre Vachon of the Marxist-Leninist Party, who had surprisingly little to say at the forums.
"The program of our party put as simply as possible is to stop paying the rich and increase funding for social programs," said Vachon. "Of course health and education are the two great pillars of society, and we don’t think that investments in education is a drain on society."
The only disturbance during the forum occurred when a member of the gallery questioned candidates about gay marriage, which raised a sharp rebuke by Harper, and cheers of support from three members of the gay community who were in attendance.