KELOWNA - If one thing was clear after Thursday night's forum it's that Christy Clark's byelection opponents were heavy on critique but light on their own political platforms.
Clark kept her cool while the night steadily unravelled with ominous warnings about the uncertain future ahead if she's to be elected MLA.
On the agenda were issues ranging from the condition of Westside Road, to private medical facilities and the future of farming and the candidates were efficacious in pointing out the stakes for residents in Westside Kelowna. They were less capable however of answering what exactly they would do to tackle the issues.
While the forum only allowed for predetermined discussion topics, half-scripted answers delivered by candidates were often interrupted by members of the audience.
Twice audience members spoke up, demanding: “So what are you going to do?”
All eight candidates running in the byelection were given two minutes each to address five key questions:
Westside Road and a second bridge for Okanagan Lake
When asked how they would solve local transportation problems, candidates emphasized the treacherous state of B.C.'s worst road but offered little direction on how it could to be fixed. Clark cited former Liberal MLA Ben Stewart's success in getting $8 in funding for the road, something she hopes to match in increase safety, “whether you're in a trailer, a school bus or a car,” she said.
B.C. Conservative Sean Upshaw cautioned against Clark's ambitious infrastructure plans. “I wonder whether she's Christy Clark or Kris Kringle based on all the promises that she makes,” he said, adding Westside Road “needs more than photo-ops” to get the necessary upgrades.
When it comes to the second crossing on Okanagan Lake NDP's Carole Gordon said it's “almost too late” to start planning.
“We need to move traffic through this corridor so the bridge doesn't become a parking lot like the way it used to be – and it's already starting to happen,” she said.
Independent candidate Korry Zepik offered a greener vision of the second crossing over the Okanagan Lake.
“We should make a bridge only let's see if we can make it a LRT (light rail train) bridge,” he said, to cut down on traffic and oil consumption.
“Jump on the train in downtown Westbank sit there, read the newspaper, until you get off in Rutland,” he says. Later in his closing statement Zepik conjured the apolocalyptic scenario of a "living hell" if exploitation of oil and gas resources continued to devastate the province.
Creating private sector jobs
When asked how she would support small businesses Clark was optimistic, laying out a plan to freeze the carbon tax and income taxes for five years and trim the RFP (request for proposal) process for small businesses from 70 to two pages. Gordon however reminded the audience unemployment is high in the Okanagan, adding “31,000 private sector jobs have been lost in two years under Christy Clark's leadership.”
Upshaw argued Clark's leadership has let provincial debt reach $57 billion and called the Liberals' plan to develop Liquid Natural Gas a “pipedream” too far down the road to help today's economy.
Independent candidate Dayleen Van Ryswyk skirted the issue, attacking Clark on failed promises of tax cuts for small business owners.
“I started my business without any help from anybody, I don't come from a rich family so I don't have a silver spoon in my mouth,” Van Ryswyk said.
Zepik suggested Kelowna develop it's own silicon valley to create technology based jobs with less environmental impact, while independent John Marks had the opposite idea, emphasizing the opportunity in the Northern Gateway pipeline to stimulate job growth.
Matching provincial funding with federal funding
West Kelowna mayor Doug Findlater submitted a question to candidates asking if they believe the provincial government should match federal funding for municipal infrastructure projects. It was an easy question for Clark, who gave an emphatic “yes – absolutely,” citing the $372 million already invested in transportation for the Central Okanagan and another $350 million for healthcare.
Gordon also echoed her approval but with more specific spending in mind.
“Our children and families can't simply get a drink of water in the parks,” she says, pointing to the lack of water fountains and clean drinking water for certain communities.
Van Ryswyk turned the question on its head, arguing the province just doesn't have the money.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no money,” she said.
Upshaw also poked a hole in Clark's optimism about the economy, recalling the downturn in 2008.
“You can be optimistic all you want, but if you can't pay the bills optimism soon turns to pessimism,” he said. Independent candidate Silverado Brooks Socrates suggested spending money outside provincial borders, on peace villages for example, to rebuild our provincial reputation as 'supernatural B.C.' instead of 'supertanker B.C.'
Making farming viable and appealing to younger generations
Candidates blamed agricultural struggles partly on the high turn around of agricultural ministers. Having four different ministers in five years creates what Gordon calls “wasted time.” Upshaw also noted how the promising work of former minister Norm Letnick was cut short when replaced by new minister Pat Pimm.
“We need to stop the revolving door on all these agricultural portfolios, we've had 12 in the last 20 years,” he said. Instead of relying upon migrant labor from Mexico, Upshaw says fair wages would encourage Kelowna residents to reconnect with farming.
“There's no shame in picking a cherry or an apple,” he said.
Zepik suggested the province get out of the Columbia River Treaty, which irrigates Washington farms with B.C. water, effectively subsidizing the very growers Okanagan farmers compete with.
But for Clark, the answer lies in the Asian market. Marketing B.C. cherries in China will boost revenues by another $20 million, she said.
“We need more customers for our agricultural products, that's how we raise the prices and we need to find those customers over in China,” she said.
Role of private healthcare
Last but not least, candidates were asked what role private facilities should play in solving the healthcare challenges of the constituency.
While B.C. has the lowest per capita cost for healthcare in Canada aside from Quebec, Clark says Kelowna needs to ensure its medical students actually end up practising in the Okanagan for the long term.
Gordon argued a public system is most cost-effective for residents.
“When you deliver services publicly people actually have better wages,” she said. Money should instead target the need of Westside residents' for better access to Kelowna General Hospital. “We have high vulnerability over here and we are not taking care of some of the people on this side of the lake,” she said.
Van Ryswyk firmly opposed the idea of having a private clinic on Westbank First Nation terrritory.
“Healthcare should be for everybody not just for the rich,” she said, adding that taxes on First Nation land would not go to the municipality.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Julie Whittet at email@example.com or call (250)718-0428.