A month after Kootenay-Columbia NDP candidate Wayne Stetski challenged his opponents to form a debate committee, incumbent Conservative candidate David Wilks has responded with a plan of his own.
Stetski’s idea was to form a committee made up of a member from each candidate’s team, which would help co-ordinate and organize eight debates across the riding, to assure full candidate attendance.
“David Wilks must commit to be at an all-issues debate in every major community,” Stetski said while launching his challenge in early July. “That means we organize events in Revelstoke, Golden, Invermere, Kimberley, Cranbrook, Fernie, Creston and Nelson, and we cement it into our calendars.”
In response, Liberal candidate Don Johnston and Green candidate Bill Green quickly agreed to nominate a representative to the committee. Wilks, the lone standout, decided to decline the challenge after the two-week deadline came and went.
“I am not going to move forward with an NDP suggestion,” Wilks said. “If that is what the NDP want to do, they should do that. That is their strategy,
Now, less than a week after the writ was dropped on August 2nd, Wilks’ team has released a statement underscoring his support for debates, but only if they meet a strict set of requirements.
“To facilitate understanding and comparison of the differences between parties, structure and orderly format for candidate dialogue is of paramount importance,” Wilks’ senior advisor Jim Abbott said in a press release.
Wilks has asked that debates be hosted and organized unilaterally by Kootenay-Columbia Chambers of Commerce. In addition, his requirements state debates should be 90 minutes in length and questions should be collected before the event, which will “create efficiency and reduce duplication.”
“This kind of dictatorial attitude about who can host and what the format will be shows that Mr. Wilks still doesn’t understand the importance of engaging with communities and with voters,” Stetski said in a press release.
Prior to Wilks’ statement, the debate committee had begun to plan debates around the riding, some of which will not be hosted by Chambers of Commerce.
“I’m happy to attend debates hosted by Chambers of Commerce, but I also believe that it is simply wrong to eliminate any other community group from hosting,” Stetski said.
Green echoed Stetski’s thoughts, adding that any group should be welcomed to propose a debate, as long as they are non-partisan.
“David suggested in his media release that only Chambers of Commerce are non-partisan and I do not think that is correct,” Green said. “There are lots of groups out there who are advocacy groups, including Chambers of Commerce, but they are also non-partisan, meaning they do not side with any particular party.”
In Nelson, Mir Centre for Peace and the Citizens Climate Lobby have joined forces to organize and host a debate.
According to the Liberal candidate, variation in organizers is positive because it broadens the scope of audiences at debates.
“We will be going to debates that are outside of the framework that Mr. Wilks put forward,” Johnston said. “We will live up to our commitments with those community organizations that we have already said yes to.”
Stetski also took issue with Wilks requesting only questions collected in advance be asked during debates.
“This kind of dictate shows that now that Mr. Wilks is being forced by public pressure to consider attending debates, he is attempting to use Harper-like tactics to control the public’s ability to ask him tough questions,” Stetski said. “Mr. Wilks shouldn’t be afraid to debate anyone, or to take any voter’s question. He is trying to hide behind arbitrary rules.”
According to Johnston, it is unfair for Wilks to expect debate organizers to be able to collect a wide range of questions prior to a debate.
“I think the notion that Chambers of Commerce, or any other group organizing a debate, are going to be able to reach out to as broad a group as will be in the room on the night of the event to collect questions seems to me very unlikely,” Johnston said.
In reaction to the debates over debates throughout the last month, Green said his opposing candidates have forgotten where they should be looking for leadership on the issue.
“One major thing the Wilks campaign and the Stetski campaign are missing is these are community-hosted events, based on the interest and enthusiasm of local community organizations, and we have to respect that,” Green said. “We have to work with dates, times formats that work for the communities.”
Green also took issue with the limit both Stetski and Wilks put on debates with their plans. Instead of eight or fewer debates across the riding, Green said there should be 11 or 12, so that new parts of the riding, like Nelson, Kaslo and Salmo, can be included.
“People should not have to drive more than 30 minutes,” Green said, adding that he would also like to see a debate for First Nations communities.
Wilks has set a deadline of September 4th for Chambers of Commerce across the riding to get back to him if they are interested in hosting and organizing debates.
“It seems a little surprising and bordering on arrogant to, in the first place, refuse to take part in discussions with candidates about debates in the riding and then, at this late stage, come in and decide that you are going to be the one that sets all the rules and requirements,” Johnston said.