The following is a re-print of my column at Our Burlington online newspaper.
Candidates representing Ontario’s three main parties in the Oct. 6 election faced off last Tuesday at a question and answer event hosted by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce. The Q&A format gave little opportunity for the cut-and-thrust I enjoy in these all-candidate encounters; however, the event did provide an opportunity to see the politicians in action.
Considering that every response given was already available on the parties’ websites, I could just as well have stayed home and surfed the Internet. There was nothing new, nothing spontaneous, no insights gained. So I won’t give a detailed reportage—that’s already been done elsewhere in these pages. My objective was to take the measure of the candidates themselves and get a view of how well they think on their feet and how persuasive they are.
Anyone who attended expecting spirited debate left disappointed. The candidates mainly read from prepared notes, giving the impression these were not the well-prepared, self-confident, facts-at-their-fingertips sorts one might hope for, or even expect, from politicians seeking high office. Quite a contrast to the polished performances we saw later that day on the televised Leaders’ Debate. I place great emphasis on “form” at such events. After all, candidates have every reason to be well prepared and at their best, just as their leaders were—none of them read from briefing notes.
Is it too much to ask that candidates memorize their party platforms and related statistics? And, when questions are not specifically covered by party material, don’t we expect them to speak from their hearts? Furthermore, not answering the question asked and not answering in the allotted time may well be symptomatic of not properly preparing oneself and/or lacking personal discipline.
Liberal candidate Karmel Sakran was the least effective performer. Given his legal background, I expected more from him, and his audience deserved better. He spoke with his head down as he read in a monotone from prepared notes, as might a shy grade niner seeking the class presidency. And he so poorly planned the length of his opening remarks, he barely got the chance to tell us who he was and to give his connection to Burlington before running over his allotted time. Throughout the morning, he offered little eye-contact, no spark, no spontaneity. And he also ran over his allotted time before completing his closing statement.
Mr. Sakran did, however, introduce the main elements of his party’s platform and defended its record in government. He also showed he knows our community. Unfortunately, however, he read answers without enthusiasm and was unconvincing. When he had nothing specific in his briefing notes to cover a question, he seemed to select a phrase—like “health care”—and matched it to a general response from his notes, ignoring the question’s context. I only remember him answering two questions in an impromptu fashion, looking up at the audience and without reading from his papers. They related to an immigrant business tax credit, which he defended ably, and the relocation of a gas plant in Oakville. All candidates were, uncharacteristically for the morning, spontaneous and animated as they agreed that the gas plant should not relocate to Burlington.
Those already inclined to vote Liberal, are unlikely to have changed their minds because of this event. But, while he might not have harmed himself or his party, he missed an opportunity to shine and convince voters in attendance and watching on Cogeco Cable that he was ready and able to take over from the retiring incumbent MPP Joyce Savoline.
Conversely, New Democrat Peggy Russell made a lot of eye-contact and showed flashes of passion, although, she also depended too heavily on prepared text. At one point, she read the wrong prepared answer. And there were opinions she expressed that I found curious:
First, on the issue of education, she blamed former premier Mike Harris for the lost schooldays due to strikes. I don’t remember Mike Harris locking out the teachers as much as the teachers withholding their labour at the expense of students. But I quibble.
Secondly, Ms. Russell claimed small businesses will benefit from a higher minimum wage, because workers would have more to spend. Following her logic, businesses should all give massive across-the-board raises to their employees. How strange it is they haven’t cottoned on to this NDP strategy?
Ms. Russell also went overtime on several responses, but she seemed sincere and seemed to “own” her answers. In my view, she won the morning in that she was passionate, made eye-contact and showed a level of political maturity not as evident in her rivals.
I rated the PC candidate Jane McKenna’s performance somewhere between that of her rivals. Following the pattern of the morning, she referred too frequently to her briefing notes, but, at least, she was animated and made far more eye-contact with her audience than did Mr. Sakran. She also, for the most part, finished her statements and answers within the allotted times. And she gave the best closing statement of the three.
She sounded nervous at times, but her deliveries, even when read out, seemed to be her own opinions and beliefs. That is, she, like Peggy Russell, seemed to own her answers despite them being couched in party rhetoric.
Ms. McKenna gave clear, unambiguous responses, convincing me that (a) while the mid-peninsula highway is important to Ontario’s future economy, it would not be crossing Burlington’s section of the fragile Niagara Escarpment; and (b) Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital will receive provincial funding for its expansion project, should the PCs gain power. And, on a couple of occasions when she did not have an answer to a question, she said so without trying to retrofit her prepared text and offering it in place of a meaningful and specific answer.
So there you have it: an astonishingly amateurish affair with an NDP winner, a solid performance by the PC and a lackluster one by the Liberal.