The three front-running candidates in Nanaimo’s crucial byelection sparred face-to-face in a debate at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre on Monday.
The hour-and-a-half debate, hosted by the non-partisan Forum for Millennial Leadership (FML) and moderated by Global BC’s Richard Zussman, kept a low-key and respectful tone, and saw all three candidates avoid personal attacks.
If you missed the debate, you can watch the entire conversation on the Global BC Facebook page.
The vote is of major consequence. The byelection is to fill the seat vacated by former NDP MLA Leonard Krog, now mayor of Nanaimo.
A BC Liberal win would create a 43-43 tie in the BC Legislature, potentially prompting a provincial election.
Despite that, all three candidates tried to greater or lesser extent to avoid making the debate about the fate of B.C., and focus on local issues.
NDP candidate and former MP Sheila Malcolmson was the most overt about the vote’s potential repercussions.
In her opening remarks, she told the audience, “There are two paths and the stakes are high,” arguing voters were making the choice between investments in housing or a return to “16 years of BC Liberal rule.”
Throughout the debate she leaned hard on the populist aspects of the NDP government’s 18 months in office, including cuts to MSP and ferry fares, and cash for housing and child care.
WATCH: NDP government calls critical Nanaimo byelection
Businessman and BC Liberal candidate Tony Harris, by contrast, sought to cast the vote as one on local issues, not provincial ones, telling the audience “it’s about us.” He argued that Nanaimo has been taken for granted for too long, promising to be a local voice in Victoria.
“I hope I get a chance to do my job,” he quipped, when asked directly if he hoped to trigger a provincial election.
Former teacher and BC Green candidate Michele Ney sought to characterize herself as a safe third option — a voice to bring accountability to the NDP government, while maintaining stability in Victoria.
“The byelection right now, with the other two parties, is a battle for power. I’m here to work with the government to push them toward better, bolder policy solutions.”
As expected, the debate’s most contentious moments surrounded the NDP’s controversial speculation tax.
“I categorically object to it. I don’t think that it’s a progressive tax, it’s a regressive tax and the implementation was botched,” said Harris, who portrayed the tax as wasteful and bureaucratic.
Harris argued the key to the city’s housing woes is to have an MLA working aggressively with local politicians on zoning issues to create more supply.
Malcolmson wasted no time criticizing the Liberal record on the housing file, accusing the party of letting the situation devolve into a crisis.
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“They had 16 years to introduce those kinds of measures, and none of them got done,” she said.
Malcolmson argued that 99 per cent of homeowners won’t have to pay the tax, calling it one of several tools the government is using.
As for the “negative-option billing” paperwork that all homeowners must fill out if they wish to avoid the tax, she sought to downplay the controversy.
“It was modeled on the Vancouver method and that was non controversial at the time. There was high compliance,” she said.
Ney argued local municipalities should be able to decide whether or not to have speculation tax, and should be in control of any money raised, but wouldn’t commit to whether Nanaimo should be exempted.
“It is not a policy that the Greens would ever propose on their own if they were the leaders of the government,” she said.
One of the more interesting moments in the debate came when Harris was asked about photos that circulated on social media of Harris wearing a red “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hat and dressed as Donald Trump.
Harris explained the photos were a part of a “SNL”-style gag with friends on a ski trip meant to mock Trump.
“The reality is I did it, I was having fun, and in retrospect everything changes,” he said.
“But that being said, it’s this kind of thing that keeps people out of politics. Everybody under the age of 35 has a digital history going back to when they were young,” he said.
Ney drew perhaps her loudest applause from the audience when asked about comments from Premier John Horgan about her candidacy drawing on the fame of her father, a former Mayor and MLA,
“I can’t speak for Tony, but our fathers were friends and they were well known in Nanaimo. But I have 32 years in public service, where did my 32 years get lost in all of this?” she asked.
Transportation took front seat in the debate, coming up several times.
Both Malcolmson and Harris said they backed a potential fast passenger ferry between Nanaimo and Vancouver, with Malcolmson saying she’d been pushing for the project with Ottawa since 2014.
“I hear everything from tech to longshoreman, they could get jobs on the mainland, bring that money back,” she said, adding that the NDP government had made it a priority infrastructure ask from the federal government.
Harris, too, backed the plan, saying growth in Helijet and sea plane traffic proved the demand, but noting that those forms of transportation are too expensive for most.
Ney didn’t reject the plan outright, but said she had concerns about potential environmental impacts from the boats, and raised concerns about whether taxpayers would be on the hook for the project.
Harris also took a shot on the ridesharing file, arguing Nanaimo — as a spread-out city — is underserved by transportation options.
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“We do have so many different neighborhoods that people would like to access … and I think that that alienates different parts of our community,” he said.
Malcolmson fired back that the Liberals had failed to implement ridesharing during their term, touting the NDP’s own, long delayed legislation that is meant to have the services in place by some point in 2019.
Harris repeatedly steered the conversation back to job creation, laying out a plan that called for an investment in Nanaimo’s university and a tertiary hospital that he said would draw in tech companies, along with sales, support and research opportunities, along with exploring an expansion of Nanaimo’s port.
WATCH: How important is Nanaimo byelection to BC NDP?
Malcolmson touted the NDP’s Community Benefits Agreement which prioritizes union labour on government infrastructure projects, while guaranteeing spaces for apprentices, women and Indigenous workers.
Ney called for an investment in science, innovation and technology education, which she said would lead to clean tech jobs and could establish Nanaimo as a tech hub with high paying jobs.
As for whether the Greens could split the vote and deliver a Liberal win, Ney rejected the assertion, arguing her party was the only one to grow its vote share in the 2017 election, drawing from disenfranchised and non-voters looking for a unique platform.
Early voting in the byelection begins Tuesday, while voting day is Jan. 30.