The Federal Election Forum on Urban Issues panel.
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Event Recap: Federal Election Forum on Urban Issues

October 06, 2015

Dialogue with a Ghost

On Thursday, October 1st, SFU Public Square held a special edition of its City Conversations program, entitled: Federal Election Forum on Urban Issues. Moderated by Shauna Sylvester, director of the SFU Centre for Dialogue, the event brought together Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson—representing the Big City Mayors Caucus—and three federal candidates from different Metro Vancouver ridings. Hedy Fry, Liberal Party candidate (and current MP) for Vancouver Center, joined Kennedy Stewart, New Democratic Party candidate and MP for Burnaby South, and Wes Regan, Green Party candidate for Vancouver East.

An empty Conservative chair. Photograph by @sunciviclee on Twitter.

Unfortunately, despite several invitations, the Conservative Party of Canada was unrepresented. It was unfortunate because I believe, had they been able to anticipate the respectful interchange that took place amongst the candidates, the Conservatives may have agreed to participate. Unfortunate, because these are often the only times people make to learn about the different issues and where the parties stand on them. And unfortunate, because as moderator Shauna Sylvester noted, it’s hard to have a dialogue when people are missing.

The dialogue began with Mayor Gregor Robertson giving some context on the critical issues facing not only Vancouver, but many of the major cities across Canada. Among them: population growth, climate change, economic opportunity and the need for greater social inclusion in our communities. The mayor’s question to the candidates: Where do the parties stand on “big city needs”? And of all the money being promised, what are the details of how it will flow? Will it be flexible (i.e. will the local governments have equal say in where it should be spent)? Will it be sustainable? And how long will it take for funding to arrive?

From L to R: Gregor Robertson, Kennedy Stewart, Wes Regan, Hedy Fry

With all the enthusiasm we would expect out of candidates not three weeks from election day, Hedy Fry, Kennedy Stewart and Wes Regan set out to answer the mayor’s question.

In short, there was a considerable level of allignment between the parties present.  They all promised varying billion dollar amounts over different timeframes. Some of the more notable points included Hedy Fry’s comment that cities currently deliver 70% of services, but receive only $0.08 cents on the dollar collected federally from taxpayers. She made several references to the now expired Vancouver Agreement as a model that treats cities as equal players in decision making along side provincial and federal governments.

Stewart illustrated the NDP’s support for cities through their plan to appoint a new Minister of Urban Affairs, a special fund for 10,000 units of rental housing, along with the party’s plan for $15/day childcare spaces for those in need. Regan described an Australian “Council of Governments” model that the Green Party would follow for ensuring effective intergovernmental communication and decision making.

A question from the audience.

Questions from the public ranged from concerns over urban aboriginal housing to how the Canadian constitution is out of date and needs reform. The Mayor’s response to this was that Canadian cities have been left so far behind in the federal agenda that the focus must be on some basic, urgent funding needs. Constitutional change is important, but not likely any time soon.

The special 90-minute edition of City Conversations concluded with Mayor Robertson encouraging voters to raise their voices in making cities a central issue for this election. Shauna thanked the candidates for making her job as a moderator relatively easy, and invited them to speak briefly and openly about their election platforms. Both Stewart and Fry’s speeches elicited chuckles from an audience that had, at this point in the dialogue, grown unaccustomed to the usual clichéd political pitches. The mood by the end of the event was jovial, even optimistic.

With the Conservatives pulling ahead in recent polls, though, voters might do well to brace themselves for the fact that the ubiquitously empty seat in the room may have the final say. 

The panel and the audience.

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Mark Beaty is the Research and Evaluation Coordinator at SFU Public Sqaure.