The four candidates running for the MLA seat in Kootenay West took questions from the media and public during a lightly attended forum hosted by the Castlegar Chamber of Commerce at the Sandman Hotel in Castlegar on Tuesday, May 7.
Candidates Glen Byle, Katrine Conroy, Joseph Hughes and Jim Postnikoff, along with members of the local media, were introduced by chamber president Stuart Ady before he turned the proceedings over to moderator Suzanne Lehbauer.
Questions from the audience of about 60 were wide ranging.
Hot-button issues like a regional hospital, jobs and job training, education, the Columbia River Treaty, environmental protections and the economy were most prevalent but the candidates also answered questions about rising electricity bills, road maintenance, and transitional funding for outgoing MLA’s.
While there were several minor violations from a time-keeping perspective, there was little in the way of head-to-head debate between the candidates.
In her opening comments Conroy went after the Liberals’ record on jobs and the economy, saying the government’s claims of a balanced budget were not true and that they had increased the provincial debt faster than at any other time.
Postnikoff countered those claims by saying the budget was balanced and mentioned it was important to look at the records of the past.
The format allowed each candidate a brief follow up to any question posed to the others, something almost all took advantage of until near the end of the evening when a number of people were still lined up behind the microphone.
As has been the pattern in recent match-ups between the candidates, Conroy (NDP) focused her attention on her experience as an MLA, citing numerous examples of the people and organizations she has worked with while doing the job; Postnikoff (BC Liberal) steered many of his answers to jobs and the economy; Byle (independent) spoke mostly about the benefits of a technology-based system of government that he feels would provide individuals with a more powerful voice in government; and Hughes, also an independent, expressed concern for the current state of affairs locally and regionally while promising an independent voice without party affiliation is the best way to affect real change.
All candidates agreed that improvement in local health care infrastructure was a necessity.
“The health care we don’t have in this area, is something we can’t stand for any longer,” said Postnikoff. “There are facilities being built all over the province; those facilities need to be built here.” He said changes were not going to come over night but the process should have been started years ago.
Hughes said advocacy for rural health care has been “quiet” for some years and was one of the things that spurred him into running for office. He mentioned his time as an advocate for a dementia care facility in Nakusp and took what would be the first of a couple of swipes at the administration of Interior Health.
Conroy said the process has been started and said the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital Board has put money aside and is working with stakeholders on getting it done.
Byle said while he had opinions on health care (he works in the industry) he believes taking the voices of all voters to government was more important — something he believes his technologically based system would do.
Glen Hicks, news director of HQ Kootenay.com, asked Postnikoff if the low turnout at the forum possibly meant that this constituency figures Conroy already had things wrapped up.
“I don’t think anybody thinks this is wrapped up by any means,” said Postnikoff, adding that it was important to look at past records, that he started late in the race and it takes time for people to understand the issues and that they have a choice.
Hughes suggested voter apathy may be a sign of the times and that people have given up because they believe no matter who they elect, fundamental change doesn’t happen.
“I think we would see an impressive change in voter turnout in this region in four years if I was elected, because would start to see they had a representative that truly wanted their input. The Kootenays would be much stronger and we would have a new identity if more people were involved in the process,” he said.
For her part, Conroy said she was taking nothing for granted and would continue to work hard to earn every vote.
Byle also touched on the voter apathy issue and got some laughs when he said although he doesn’t really identify with a particular party, it would probably be something like the “socialist redneck party.”
On a more serious note, when the topic of the proposed Site C dam came up, it was very clear where the candidates stood.
Hughes used words like devastation and suggested the dam was not in any way a green project.
Postnikoff said the dam would be built for the liquified natural gas sector and that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that needed to be acted on quickly lest B.C. be overtaken by competitors.
Conroy said she had huge concerns over flooding prime farmland and that any progress in the sector would need to find environmentally friendly ways of operating.
Byle again suggested that complex issues like Site C needed to have all of the details carefully examined by all voters, something his system would be designed to do.
On the topic of dams, there were also some clear divisions with respect to the Columbia River Treaty, which is up for review in 2014.
Hughes said termination of the agreement was an option if B.C. didn’t get “what it deserves.” He said B.C. has all of the assets that are on the table with respect to the treaty and didn’t want to see water become a commodity.
Conroy said that if the treaty was to be cancelled, things would revert to an agreement from 1908, which no one wants to see. She said the NDP forced the government to take action on the issue and through negotiations the best treaty possible would be maintained.
Postnikoff said the negotiations were a key issue and that he would work with all parties amicably and fairly and work out the best deal in today’s dollars.
Byle admitted to knowing nothing about the treaty until beginning his run for the MLA seat; which he said was not uncommon for voters but something his system would be designed to correct.
A question asked of Postnikoff, from The Castlegar News, was whether or not he supported changing the provincial election date to sometime in October so that the budget could be fully audited before politicians could use the numbers in their campaigns.
“There’s nothing that we can’t look at,” said Postnikoff. “If that’s the wish and it makes more sense to have a fully costed budget, that would be the thing for constituents to bring up and then MLA’s to take to the government to institute and initiate that process.”
Conroy followed up by saying that moving the election date is in the NDP platform, with a new date to be set for 2017 if they were elected.
“It will give people full opportunity to debate the budget so that there won’t be all the issues that we’ve had for the last eight years going into the election,” she said. Conroy also took the opportunity to mention the failed HST initiative as an example of what such a move might avoid.
Hughes pointed out the original idea for moving the date came from independent MLA’s, adding such fundamental changes only come from independents. He also pointed out that budgets proposed by either party are based on hypothetical factors and a move to a later election date would allow for better accounting.
Kyra Hoggan, Castlegar Source, asked Conroy about municipal engagement becoming more important as more and more responsibilities get downloaded from provincial and federal governments.
Conroy replied that although she doesn’t attend council meetings, she meets with all municipalities and regional district directors often, most times off the record in order to “get down to business” and speak frankly about issues. She took the opportunity to mention the controversial Jumbo resort development as an example of the kind of lack of community engagement the Liberals have demonstrated.
Postnikoff said he would make it a priority to personally meet with all of the mayors and directors of the region if elected.
There was little in the way of direct jabs from Byle and Hughes, but both Conroy and Postnikoff took opportunities at various times throughout the night to point out the perceived failings of each other’s party.
Closing statements saw both Conroy and Postnikoff drop the names of their party leaders and touch on major campaign themes, while Hughes and Byle restated their beliefs in the power of change.