Education, the economy and Jumbo were hot topics at the second Cranbrook all candidates forum for the May 14 provincial election.
Held by Junior Chamber International Kootenays at the College of the Rockies (COTR) on Wednesday, May 1, the free event allowed Kootenay East constituents to pose questions to candidates Norma Blissett for the NDP and Bill Bennett for the B.C. Liberals.
Moderated by educator Brenda Tyson, the forum gave each candidate three minutes to introduce themselves, followed by a question and answer period where they had two minutes to respond, and concluded with closing remarks for five minutes for each candidate.
A wide variety of questions were submitted by the audience but themes of education and the economy came up more than once, as well as the controversial Jumbo Glacier Resort proposed for the Columbia Valley.
Discussion on education touched upon the B.C. Liberals proposed 10-year agreement with teachers.
“The 10-year agreement is an opportunity for teachers to know what they are going to get. We need to take the disruption and negativity out of schools,” said Bennett. “This is not about teachers – it’s about a system that doesn’t function. We have got to have the political courage to solve it.”
Blissett said 10 years is a long time.
“We do want stability – teachers don’t want job action either. But we are hoping to have a more flexible government to work with,” she said.
“A lot of people who support the NDP have high expectations. The financial situation is grim and I’m not sure we can make all of your dreams come true. I hope for understanding from my teacher friends.”
Blissett, a high school teacher and former forester, was asked if she would excuse herself from government’s negotiations with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation because of a conflict of interest if she is elected MLA.
“When the negotiations come up, I don’t think I’ll be involved. I don’t think I’ll be Minister of Education to start off,” she said.
Bennett suggested she would still be asked for input.
“MLAs discuss every issue in the caucus room. Every MLA has an opportunity to express their point of view,” he said.
Another question asked the candidates how they would support post-secondary education, outside of skills training.
“It has been a goal of mine to increase the nursing program at COTR to four years and we are almost there,” said Bennett.
“I want to train nurses here because if we train them here they will stay here. But it requires a strong enough economy so we can spend money on the things we need to do.”
Blissett said the NDP will introduce a needs-based student grant program.
“It’s a way to increase access to post-secondary education for students who can’t afford to go.”
The candidates were asked for their position on Jumbo Glacier Resort, the proposed all-seasons ski resort near Invermere where a municipality has just been created prior to construction of the resort.
“I am not in favour of Jumbo,” said Blissett. “We don’t need it, let alone that most people who live here including the Ktunaxa are opposed. I would rather support ski resorts that support towns, promote the tourism that exists and grow the local economy.”
Bennett said the creation of the Jumbo municipality was about due process.
“You can’t have a project like Jumbo in the approval process for 22 years and not see it through. At some point, the proponent deserves a decision,” he said.
Two questions related to the province’s involvement with local governments. First, the candidates were asked how their party proposes to help with the infrastructure deficit Cranbrook and many other Canadian municipalities are facing.
“This is a very serious issue for local government and it’s not easy to address it. Our government has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure in this riding over the past 10 years. We need a strong economy to do that,” said Bennett.
Blissett said infrastructure is an issue all over the country.
“I want to have a respectful relationship with local government. If I become MLA we need to form a team to work on issues in the area. There aren’t any easy answers and we all need to work together,” she said.
Another question asked how candidates will address the concerns of rural B.C.
“What makes it so good to live here is that we have everything we need in town then we are surrounded by beauty so I don’t want city growth to affect that,” said Blissett.
Bennett said he has a long track record of advocating for rural issues in the legislature.
“I have spent the past 12 years defending the interests of rural people all over the province. I am known as a champion for rural interests,” he said.
The debate kept coming back to talk about the economy. Blissett was asked why she thinks the 1990s were a positive period for B.C.’s economy.
“More people moved here in the 1990s than during the time of the B.C. Liberals,” she said, adding that there was higher growth in gross national product in the 1990s than since then.
But that’s not the point, Blissett went on.
“We need to manage the economy of today. It doesn’t matter about the economy of the 1990s – this is 2013 and there are very different issues now,” she said.
“We need a government that is focused on today and that will do a better job of managing the economy we have now.”
But Bennett said what happened to the economy during the last NDP government is very relevant.
“The best way to assess what will be done in the future is to assess what was done in the past,” he said.
“Anybody who was in business in the 1990s is going to know it was a terrible period and we simply are not going back to that.”
The contrast between the two candidates was clearest when they were asked whether they would work to reduce the size of government or increase it.
“Having a smaller government and a bigger economy is a goal of the B.C. Liberals,” said Bennett.
“That’s a good thing – spending more money should not a be a measurement of success. The goal should be to provide services for the least amount of money possible.”
Blissett said the B.C. Liberals have gone too far in reducing government ministries.
“There are 1,000 less people in the Ministry of Forests. They have had their staff and costs reduced to the point where they can’t do their jobs. We have to increase staff in the Ministry of Forests. I don’t mean big, fat government, but we do need to bring it back into balance.”
In closing, Blissett said voters’ choice on May 14 is about transparency.
“We are trying to be upfront and clear with what we want to do,” she said.
“We need to build credibility in government. I have met so many people who say they can’t believe anything any of us say. We have got to change that. We need to do a better job.
“We’re not here for one term. We intend to start a decade of NDP government. We are going to do a good enough job that you will vote us in again and again.”
In contrast, Bennett told his constituents that he has the experience to continue representing them in Victoria.
“You get your money’s worth from your local MLA,” he said. “I work pretty hard and I love the work.
“I have stood up for you in Victoria and I have the scars to show for it.”
Bennett said choosing change for its own sake is unwise.
“Why pick change when we have a strong economy?” he asked. “We all should consider what we have today in B.C. If you look around the world, economies are struggling. We are in pretty good shape.”
General voting day in the B.C. election is Tuesday, May 14 with booths open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. In Cranbrook, you can vote at College of the Rockies, the Prestige and the Fraternal Order of the Eagles Hall. Advance voting will be held at the Eagles Hall on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 8 to 11.