Conservatives take heat at crowded Kitchener Centre debate

The room was packed with several hundred voters, but it was the stage that appeared even more crowded as seven candidates took part in Thursday night’s Kitchener Centre debate, hosted by the Waterloo Region Record.

There were the Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green parties, represented by Stephen Woodworth, Karen Redman, Peter Thurley and Laurier philosophy professor Byron Williston, respectively. Also present were Mark Corbiere of the Leninist-Marxist party, the Communist party’s Marty Suter as well as independent candidate Alan Rimmer.

All seven were at The Tannery on Kitchener’s Charles Street, answering questions from members of the media, people in the audience and those watching the debate online.

While the candidates involved in the debate may have been a little different than usual, the evening’s proceedings went the way of most political debates; with the incumbent and his party, coming under fire. Woodworth, who is seeking re-election in the riding, was challenged all night, not only from his competitors, but also the crowd.

Along with being booed and jeered throughout his opening remarks and most answers he offered, Woodworth was also repeatedly challenged by the other candidates.

First, after a question about what each party would to do end poverty, Thurley questioned Woodworth’s vote against an NDP bill that was aimed at ending poverty, asking “Why is our own representative not doing what it takes to stop poverty?”

And later, after offering an answer to an audience question about gay rights, particularly amongst the elderly, Corbiere quipped “Mr. Woodworth, I don’t think that was the question at all.”

The candidates presented and defended their party platforms on all the issues that have become standard to this year’s election. They answered questions on matters such as the economy, protecting and helping seniors, Stephen Harper’s government being held in contempt of Parliament and education.

When it came to education the candidates party allegiances truly shone through.

Liberal candidate Redman echoed Michael Ignatieff’s catchphrase “If you get the grades you get to go,” while reinforcing the benefits of her party’s “Canadian Learning Passport” program which will give post-secondary students a grant of $1,000 per year.

Meanwhile, Corbiere and Suter, the Leninst-Marxist and Communist candidates respectively, emphasized the need for free tuition to post-secondary institutions, with Suter referencing the fact that Cuba offers free post-secondary education to its citizens.

“The solution is not loans, it’s not even grants, the solution is to eliminate tuition fees and that can be done,” he said. “Cuba, a very poor country, they don’t have a lot of things, but they have free university education for everybody. If they can afford it, we can here.”

Rimmer, a retired teacher, also advocated for an elimination of tuition fees, believing that universities have shifted to “the model of a big business.”

Williston and Thurley took a less extreme route, calling for a reduction in tuition fees, with Thurley equating the average $21,000-debt university students graduate with “a small mortgage.”

In his response, Woodworth cited the investments the Conservative government made in student loans, while dismissing the Liberal education plan.

“This is an area where we just can’t accept platitudes,” said Woodworth. “We can’t expect fancy names like ‘learning passport’ and think we’ve got the job done.”

While Woodworth took the brunt of the challenges from the audience, at one point having four straight questions directed only at him, Redman was also specifically called out. Going along with Igantieff’s much publicized low parliamentary attendance rate, one audience member called in to question Redman’s attendance during her time as chief opposition whip from 2006-08, asking “if elected will you make more of an effort to show up and will your leader do the same?”

Inciting the applause of a vocal Liberal contingent on hand, Redman answered that she was present at every vote during her time as whip and accounted for the other absences by expressing her wariness of the media reaction to private interest votes.

The debate then ended much the same way it began, with Woodworth being drowned out by a chorus of laughter, booing and groans after he called the election “unnecessary” in his closing remarks.

The Waterloo Region Record will be hosting a debate for the Kitchener-Waterloo riding, which encompasses Laurier, the University of Waterloo and Conestoga College, on Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. at RIM Park’s Forbes room.