In a United Church in a suburban subdivision halfway between Hamilton and Toronto, the reverend appeals for a little restraint. The man from the Oakville Chamber of Commerce agrees. “These events can sometimes become emotional,” he says of this debate he’s moderating. “I’d like to remind everyone that you’re in the sanctuary of a church. Out of respect for the church, for the chamber, our community and the candidates, please remember to act in an appropriate and acceptable manner.”
The peace lasts approximately three minutes.
“In my closing statement tonight, I’ll give you a few reasons why people might want to vote for me,” Garth Turner, the Liberal candidate, says in his opener. “Right now, I’d like to give you a few reasons not to vote for the Conservative candidate.” He proceeds with a review of various alleged failings on the part of his Conservative rival and a series of rhetorical queries. “Question: do you want an MP with a track record of being reckless with your money? Question: do you want an MP that divides people and shuns democracy? Question: do you want an MP that thinks we won’t notice?”
The Conservative candidate, Lisa Raitt, sitting directly to his right, takes the opportunity to put herself above such stuff. “Wow,” she says. “I want to thank Mr. Turner for that trip down memory lane. Of course, with a slanted attack involved in it. But you know what I’m going to do tonight, guys? I’m going to talk about what I think is important and that’s the issues here in Halton.”
The next hour is a periodically entertaining slap fight. A periodically entertaining slap fight that could more or less determine who the prime minister is on Oct. 14.
In electoral parlance, Halton is a swing riding, one of maybe two dozen in Ontario where a winner isn’t obvious and the difference between, say, a Conservative majority and a Liberal minority may well be decided. The two ruling parties have traded Halton for more than a century. Including parts of Burlington, Milton and Oakville, this is a booming stretch of suburbia familiar with both affluence and job losses (Ford’s Oakville plant is nearby). In 2006, it went Conservative, by 1,900 votes. Then Halton’s MP, the aforementioned Mr. Turner, went Liberal, due to irreconcilable differences with Harper’s caucus. Harper then appointed Raitt, CEO of the Toronto Port Authority, a coal miner’s daughter with three degrees and two kids, to run against him.
Beneath a large wooden cross, the congregation—maybe a hundred people seated in the pews—seems evenly split. The Tory is bright, well-spoken and passive-aggressive—all nods and shrugs and patronizing smiles. The Liberal, in black beard and dark suit, is blustery and dramatic, an evangelist of sorts. (Green and NDP nominees are present too, but might as well have emailed in their talking points given their electoral chances.)
“We need members of Parliament who have the courage and the backbone to stand up and say, ‘My constituents . . . deserve to have an independent voice,’” Turner pleads. “The last thing we need is another trained seal on that bench.”
“While I agree with Mr. Turner wholeheartedly that one has to have the courage and the backbone to stand up, one must also have the facts,” Raitt retorts, counting up all the new schools, police stations and hospital beds the area will need by 2031. “That is a laundry list that needs to be delivered on results. Not just courage, but a plan, action, a seat at the government.”
Debate moves from the economy to Afghanistan to health care, but much of the repartee is linked implicitly or explicitly to Turner’s melodramatic change of party. A natural self-promoter, Turner has blogged himself into a cause since then. And in Raitt, he seems to have found a stand-in for all he despises in Harper’s government. “We give people hope, we don’t just frighten them,” he declares at one point. “We don’t send out mailers,” he adds, holding aloft a pair of incendiary flyers distributed by the governing side.
Raitt grimaces and mouths “no props” to the moderator. “We would request that no props be used,” the moderator says.
“It’s good that some of us abide by the rules,” Raitt scolds.
“Do you want to take them back?” Turner asks.
“No actually, I think you could learn something from them, Mr. Turner,” Raitt snipes.
There’s a question about developing the Arctic. “With all due respect,” Raitt says, “I don’t think Mr. Turner knows what he’s talking about when he talks to Arctic sovereignty.” Furthermore, she suggests the Liberals are intent on “gutting” military spending.
Turner fumes. “As somebody who actually has a family member over there, who’s being shot at right now, I completely take offence at that,” he says, referring to a niece stationed in Afghanistan. “That is not what anybody, any party, in this country is proposing right now—we will support our troops. And in this election I really hope we can focus on truthful answers.”
Speaking of which, Raitt offers a clarification. “I do want to be able to address the issue of whether or not my nose should be growing as a result of statements that I’ve made on the child care tax credit. And I can assure you that it doesn’t grow.”
Turner, with a press release in hand, rebukes her. “The Conservative candidate here has said clearly that the child care benefit would be cancelled [by the Liberals] . . . It won’t be,” he says. “No political party is going to cancel that. Anyone who says that is playing the politics of fear and shame on them.”
This is the wider fight in sample size—all the awfulness and splendour (and props) of a national campaign squeezed into a modest church and moderated by a guy from the chamber of commerce.
“So we had a spirited discussion tonight,” Raitt says by way of conclusion. “What I can commit to you is this, that I will be your representative. I have passion, I have commitment, I have roots and I have a very great self-interest in Halton since my two children are growing up here . . . My name’s Lisa Raitt. And I’d like to give the hard-working families of Halton something they deserve, a Conservative member of Parliament they can be proud of.”
The former Conservative finishes with a crescendo. “In Halton the choice is clear, it’s simple,” Turner says. “Choose the Stephen Harper spokeswoman. Or choose a guy who put his voters first, who paid the price and promises one thing: more of the same.”
There is extended applause here, but it is hardly a decisive moment. The night is a draw, the split only better defined.