At Board of Change debate, four BC pols ruminate on how to keep public happy

Photo credit: www.JenniferStrangPhotography.com

There were four "old white men" on stage, moderator Robb Lucy said, apologetically. 

"Five!" corrected a heckler, to a joking glare from Lucy.

Their banter set the tone for an evening of comedic one-upmanship as four election hopefuls traded barbs.

Candidates from each of the four main provincial parties came to discuss issues of sustainability at Vancouver's Orpheum Annex Tuesday night. The event was hosted by the Board of Change, a not-for-profit which promotes sustainability in the business community. David Suzuki Foundation CEO Peter Robinson delivered the keynote address that highlighted the importance of sustainable progress.

Much of the debate centred on the Liberal and NDP candidates. Andrew Wilkinson, the Liberal candidate for Vancouver-Quilchena, spent a lot of time talking about what his party had accomplished, while Shane Simpson, the NDP incumbent for Vancouver-Hastings, focused his energy on criticizing the Liberal record.

Keeping voters happy

A prominent theme was the question of how to make policies around sustainability palatable to the public. Wilkinson explained that keeping voters happy was the reasoning behind keeping the carbon tax revenue-neutral. He suggested that using the revenue to fund greener developments such as public transit, as the NDP proposes, would be less popular than putting the money straight back into people's pockets.

Wilkinson stressed the need to convince the public before making any changes, saying the Liberals would “only govern with the consent of the governed.” His statement sparked mutters from the crowd about the HST.

The candidates generally agreed that incentives are better than punishments, with Simpson saying the NDP doesn’t believe in imposing consequences before the public agrees on the matter. Green party candidate Damian Kettlewell suggested that consequences are sometimes necessary, adding his party "believes in sticks that look like carrots.”

Both the NDP and Liberal candidates were calm and diplomatic. Simpson, the only incumbent in the room, did not even bring any notes to the table, while Wilkinson was surprisingly cool and confident for a new candidate.

Broad principles vs. specific ideas

As much of the discussion was about broad, philosophical points, Lucy asked the candidates to pin down one specific idea for sustainable development, which they would like to be their legacy. The NDP and Liberal candidates continued to talk broadly, while Kettlewell differentiated himself by pushing for a philosophy supported by the precautionary principle.

He explained that if an industrial practice might be harmful, it should be up to that industry to prove that it’s not harmful before it can be allowed to proceed. In his view, the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for liquefied natural gas would probably not pass this test.

The BC Conservative candidate, Duane Nickull, had a very specific cause: geothermal energy. He repeatedly touted it as an alternative to fossil fuel exploitation, to the point that Wilkinson questioned if Nickull was straying from his party line.

But Nickull stuck to his party’s guns by opposing the carbon tax and tepidly supporting oil and gas pipelines. “Stopping the pipeline is not going to stop the oil sands,” he said, and wondered if any of the other parties would really guarantee that the Enbridge or Kinder Morgan projects would not go through. He said that a pipeline, however unpopular, was at least more environmentally friendly than shipping oil and gas by rail or truck.

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