Friday’s lunchtime brown bag All Candidates Forum for the upcoming Kelowna West by-election was a rather quiet and straightforward affair. With what appeared to be a crowd made up of mostly media, those related to the candidates, some switched on seniors, and a handful of others, it was in all a pretty embarrassingly low turnout, even by by-election standards.
The style was Q and A, with the questions given to the candidates in advance (except one pop question), and the audience was asked to refrain from any booing or cheering. Also the candidates could not speak beyond their allotted time (one minute per answer). What resulted was basically a live version of each candidate’s platform talking points. Instructive enough, but hardly an indicator of anyone’s passion, or what type of a negotiator they would be for us in Victoria.
The five candiates were asked six questions (it grew to eight), so let’s get to it. I’ve summarized and synthesized their responses below.
Shelley Cook, BC NDP: She’s a third generation Kelowna resident who has been working on concrete solutions here in town (on homelessness, shelter and addiction). She also points out that with the NDP in power, she’s the only candidate uniquely situated to give Kelowna a voice in the government.
Kyle Geronazzo, BC Libertarian: He’s a long time resident, regular “9-5 kinda guy” who is tired of the same parties being in charge. He’s also tired of the “corporate monopolies maintained by the government”, and believes in the individual over collective, civic or corporate rights.
Ben Stewart, BC Liberals: He says he’s pleased to be in the Innovation Centre that he envisioned as an MLA. Talks of his Okanagan farming past. Brings up MLA experience with no mention of Christy Clarke.
Robert Stupka BC Greens: As an active participant in Accelerate Okanagan programs including the upcoming Start Up Weekend, he fancies himself and the Greens “disprupters of the political realm” emphasizing “entry for innovation rather than protecting the status quo”.
Mark Thompson, BC Conservatives: Previously a Saskatoon city council member, and public and private sector business consultant who lived in Richmond for a long time before coming here where he worked on local planning. He has a “passion for public policy that treats all people fair”.
1) Sky-rocketing housing prices and rental affordability issues in BC and Kelowna are a problem that will get worse with 30-50 thousand people moving to the region in the next 10-20 years, how would you advocate for more affordable housing options in Kelowna now, and in the next ten years?
While all parties agree that the almost 20% rise in housing prices over a single year demands consideration, if not immediate action, they vary on how to do so, and whether this really represents a housing crisis. Stewart is the only one to outright say that it is not a crisis (rather, it’s the result of a successful economy with 9,000 new jobs popping up in the Central Okanagan), and Thompson suggests that housing is always a problem – mostly due to the unfair taxes that developers need to pay. Both say build more! Thompson does join Cook and Stupka in the identification that Kelowna’s urban sprawl does not make for desirable and livable communities and see densification as a solution. Stupka and Cook both call it an absolute housing crisis and believe speculation, flipping, foreign ownership(Stupka), and landlord loopholes (Cook) in major centres have sent the spillover to the Okanagan resulting in a demand crunch that must be addressed. Geronazzo also acknowledges the crisis and his take is to completely halt construction.
2) The reasons for ICBC’s financial problem are a current and hotly debated topic, with a lot of finger-pointing going on, regardless of fault, what are the options you and your party would consider to make sure British Columbians are equitably insured and claims fairly paid out?
Ok, it feels like we’re not going to get away from partisan blame-gaming on this one. The issue is the 1.3 billion that the Liberals “lost” during their tenure. Stewart says they commissioned an Ernst & Young report that concluded that the 1.3 billion loss was due to the rise in crashes and claims and that the loss was just a “red herring” used for partisan purposes by their opponents. Stupka chimed in that the E&Y report was totally scrubbed by the Liberals, bringing agreement from all other candidates that raiding ICBC’s coffers to balance the budget was a massive misuse of our taxpayer dollars. Thompson slammed the Liberals attempt to pin it on the current government as plain wrong. With her party the main scapegoat for the Liberals, Cook brought up how the Liberals themselves voted to allow them to take money from the crown corporation’s coffers. As far as how to make ICBC profitable, both Geronazzo and Thompson would like to see it privatized (“mutalized into a co-op”), Stupka is open to all ideas on which business model is best: private, no-fault, crown models, and Cook brings up its profitability in the past (RIP NDP Premier Dave Barrett, the creator of ICBC).
What follows is the pop question. It comes from a young entrepreneur at iGen, a Dragon’s Den type competition, the winner of which gets to pitch Metabridge (a VC incubator program). Fittingly the topic is jobs, education (for-all) and prosperity for youth in the future.
3) What will you and your party do to ensure the current and future prosperity of youth in the region? How do you plan to provide adequate and sustainable funding in order to improve public education for all students, and additionally how will you take action to support youth regarding the jobs of tomorrow in the Kelowna West district?
Both Cook and Stupka emphasized the need to invest in tech education and to grow “really good people” (Cook) and not the “unicorns” (Stupka) of LNG and large scale projects like the previous government did. Stupka brings up the statistic that the emerging tech sector has provided more more growth than resource, forestry, oil and gas combined, and points to the ongoing NDP/Green Emerging Economy Task Force for training and future growth. Stewart and Thompson are both married to the idea of resource-based development models that favour LNG, pipelines and dams, with Stewart seemingly embracing tech in so far as it enhances natural resource development. Geronazzo sees today’s education funding model as problematic and “instead of giving money straight to our administrators and teachers, [it should be] put in the hands of the parents to choose the best [option]”.
4) Transportation is a key issue in Kelowna West. Critics say it is due to a non-unified land use policy at both provincial and civic levels. What can be done to ease congestion for commuting to and from West Kelowna and in Kelowna in general, and what are your respective positions on the second crossing and traffic flow improvement proposals for the provincially administered Highway 97 corridor?
Everyone generally agreed on plans to make the existing roads more efficient here, especially the 97. However they differed on the role of transportation in the big picture. Here’s the gist:
Stupka: No more new roads. Disrupt with new modes of transportation
Stewart: Carbon tax is better than tolls
Geronazzo: Speed bumps and red light cameras are bad
Thompson: Keep the traffic flowing
Cook: Move bodies not cars
5) We are witnessing disruptive changes in many industries: ride-sharing by Uber and Lyft, hotels and travel and retail are all changing due to new business practices driven by the likes of Airbnb, Expedia and Amazon. How do you see these changes affecting the region in the future and what level of government regulation should be applied to these emerging ways of doing business?
Stupka joins the regulation-averse Thompson and Geronazzo here in their excitement for the unrestrained activities of Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and the like, citing the NDP’s desire to study and regulate how these affect jobs, insurance, safety and housing as “meddling in the market”.
6) Kelowna and West Kelowna each have a growing homelessness problem, and perceptions related to community safety are a growing concern for current and prospective residents in the Kelowna West riding. Recent estimates place the number of homeless in downtown Kelowna at approximately 1,900. What can be done to deal with this issue and what can be done to improve safety in our community?
All but Geronazzo believe that the government can do more to provide housing, from below-market (subsidized) to market housing, although their commitment seems to vary noticeably. Stewart began with examples his government was involved in (Cardington Apartments, among a few others he had trouble remembering), soon to be called out by Cook who stated that she, herself ran those projects (in the non-profit sector) on the ground, and to call them recent solutions was highly problematic, being that they are from 10 years ago. She states the need to streamline services, explore how technology can help (she references a geo live technology project she’s working on) and accurate data. Both Cook and Stupka see an immediate need to address the rapid rise in housing prices and almost non-existent vacancy rate. Thompson is sympathetic to mental illness stating that it’s not just the 1,900 homeless statistic who are affected, but the many more you don’t see – the 1 in 5 who are affected by mental illness. He challenges the other candidates to donate their campaign financing budget to fighting this. While seemingly genuine, I don’t think this sneaky implication – that he is choosing not to take campaign financing, and were his party to qualify (they don’t, based on the past low election results), he’d donate it – was lost on anybody (ditto for using this as ammo against the corporate donations ban).
7) What is your jobs plan for the region in regards to attracting more start-ups, small, medium and large companies to locate here in the technology, resource, building, tourism and agricultural industries?
For a while now, the Okanagan has been seen as a promising new “Silicon Valley of the North”, and we are seeing some great strides, however, it’s no secret that Kelowna’s young professional class is in its infancy. So how can we build it? Stewart praises his government’s commitment to the growth of Okanagan College from 6,000 to over 16,000 since it’s expansion, as well as private-public partnerships in projects like the Innovation Centre.
Thompson’s ideas for future growth are resource-based massive LNG and projects like Site C. Stupka decried an overemphasis on these old-school models as not terribly visionary and that “Site C will kill 10x more jobs than it creates…. and has killed wind farm development here in the Okanagan which would have brought hundreds of millions of dollars…” Both he and Cook see improving liveability as a means of attracting the “creative class” (Cook) into a “supportive environment” (Stupka again referencing the NDP/Green Emerging Economy Task Force). Cook went micro, praising the BC NDP’s recent broadband initiative allowing remote communities in the riding to develop in the household/remote economy, while Thompson went (way) macro: stating that big LNG projects put more money in the province overall, so we should support them.
8) Electoral reform is a polarizing topic at both the provincial and federal levels. In the age of internet access into almost every home, smartphones, seniors on iPads, and the like, why are we still using antiquated voting systems and not leveraging technology like online voting secured by blockchain, to improve the voting experience and overall participation. What are your thoughts on improving participation in the democratic decision-making processes in BC?
This came down to two things: how do we increase voter turnout, and is proportional representation preferable to the present first-past-the-post sytem. Regarding the latter it’s no surprise that the establishment party (Liberals) is not in favour of PR as it favours a larger range of parties being represented in Victoria, and the other parties mostly do, enjoying the boost it might give them. As well they speak of its democratic benefits: greater representation and more diverse voices in government (Stupka). The topic did provide for the one piece of humour during the event when the Libertarian Geronazzo mentioned that while many Libertarians are for PR, he is not because he is wary of the opportunity it may give to extreme parties (unlike his own?) to have a voice in the legislature.
Turnout-wise, the solutions ran between how to give a sense of efficacy to voters (Green and NDP) by working towards a system where citizens feel their participation matters, to the slightly cynical notion of paying people to vote (Conservative).
At the end of the hour, they finished with their closing comments. I’ll nutshell these and then add my two cents on their overall message conveyed here today.
Thompson: Less taxes – lotsa experience. I’m into jobs, but mostly pipeline and LNG ones .
Two cents from the peanut gallery: A well-spoken conservative (in Canada that just means neo-conservative or neo-liberal right? – none of the culture wars crap south of the border is implied by this term here, just super pro-market forces and not a lot of government spending) voice if not a bit too cynical: bribing folks to vote, offering a first free year of tuition, and making the parties who qualify for campaign financing (not his) feel guilty for not using it instead to fund homelessness feel like insincere ploys to me.
Stupka: Real world experience – above big-party politics. I’m open to forward-thinking innovation.
Two cents from the peanut gallery: Likes to say “disrupt” a lot. The tolerance mileage for overused jargon like this may vary, but they are the clear third party now, and if he gets in, Kelowna will have a say in the “green caucus” of the province. It was a shame he read off his phone the whole time though.
Stewart: I can further my past experience contributions here. NDP spends too much on daycare and housing relief, and the Liberals won’t waste your money.
Two cents from the peanut gallery: While he has the bona fides of being an MLA during a time of growth for BC, especially in the resource sector, his overtures to the emerging tech economy, as well as remedying the social ills Kelowna is facing in addiction and homelessness, felt a little phoned in. Also it appeared he was caught up in double-speak when he criticized the NDP/Green government of lifting bridge tolls when, as Stupko later pointed out, his party was the only one campaigning on lifting them. Also, for someone with local MLA experience, he sure talked about Vancouver issues a lot.
Geronazzo: The same old parties are the worst – I’m the alternative.
Two cents from the peanut gallery: Oh he’s an alternative alright, if you want to live in Paul Ryan’s America. His demeanor came off as rather inexperienced – engaging in rhetorical reductions (constantly referring to ICBC as a “dumpster fire”, saying that our present educational funding system puts the money “straight into teachers hands”, that BC stands for the “Burn Cash” province) not unlike those you’d find from a Twitter troll. But hey, it takes all types to make the world go round.
Cook: Technology is fast and we don’t want to be left behind. New training and advanced education – a diversified economy are key to a healthy Kelowna. Keep in mind that at the caucus table, I’ll be able to bring your voice to Victoria.
Two cents from the peanut gallery: While pragmatic in parts – especially housing and homelessness – and consistent, her argument felt at times repetitive and vague (terms like “transforming the way we vote” or mentioning “landlord loopholes” left me wanting concrete examples).
Okay Kelowna West, that sums up what we heard from the candidates on Friday. If you want to dig a little deeper into the candidates’ respective platforms, please check out their websites (they are listed in the link below) and vote, vote, vote!
This article is the second of our Meet the Candidates series. The first was a brief background on the candidates, Kelowna West By-election Part 1: Meet the Candidates.