Lisa Raitt held her first town hall meeting in Burlington on Saturday. Or was it her third? She claims to have held two previous meetings in December, but damned if I can find any announcement or reference to them in the archives of the Milton Champion or any of the other local papers. I never got any notification in the mail, and it's not like she had a web site to announce them on.
I'm guessing that's why attendance at the previous meetings was apparently less than they were hoping.
Saturday's meeting, on the other hand, was quite well attended - thanks to my promotion of it on this blog, no doubt. I counted about 50 people, which was on par with one of Garth Turner's town halls. We were asked to 'register', not just in a guest book but by filling out a full page form asking for name, address, email, and such things as 'what issues are most important to you?' and 'do you think the government is on the right track?' I filled the first part of mine out, leaving the rest for after the meeting, but I overheard a few people who didn't want to fill it out and apparently that was just fine.
I had no idea what to expect and was feeling a little conspicuous, what with my trademark button collection proudly displayed on my purse, but I figured nobody would be paying any particular attention to me as I quietly walked in and...
Crap. It's D'Arcy Keene. He's spotted me.
"Hi, D'Arcy, howzit goin?"
He still scares me a little. He's wearing a particularly menacing black turtleneck-and-blazer ensemble today, such as one would expect to see on the guy who turns out to be a vampire at the end of some '70s British horror movie.
Keep walking. Don't make eye contact.
I did see a couple of friendly, or at least familiar faces. Former Green Party candidate Amy Collard turned up and sat in the front row. Mike Cluett came in late and stood in the back. And then we got started.
Lisa started off by explaining that she was one of about half a dozen cabinet ministers who had been asked to conduct 'budget consultation meetings' in their ridings and that this was one. I don't remember seeing that in the announcement, but fair enough. She does say that we can talk about other things but that she's mostly looking for ideas and priorities, particularly regarding economic stimulus.
She also informs us that she will be calling on people row by row, front to back. This rather rigid format was in stark contrast to the more open discussions that went on at Garth's meetings, where one person would raise an issue and then whoever wanted to talk about that issue would put up their hand and talk about it. Once everyone had had their say, someone would bring up another issue.
At this meeting, someone would ask a question or make a comment, Lisa would respond, and then she'd move on to the next person in the row. Some limited discussion happened, but in general if someone else wanted to say something about that same issue, they had to wait until she got to their row. It was very civilized, but I personally felt that it was less productive than it could have been.
I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by the people in the crowd and the kinds of questions and concerns they raised. I'm not sure why I expected them to be any different or any more partisan than the people who attended previous meetings just because we have a Conservative MP now, but frankly I couldn't tell you who voted for what party judging by their questions. Spending as much time as I do immersed in the cutthroat world of political blogging, I tend to forget that average people don't give a rat's ass about party politics - they just want things to be better.
Some of the items discussed:
Raitt said that there were "a variety of opinions within our party" regarding the wisdom of posting even a temporary deficit, but I didn't hear anyone raise this as a concern. There seemed to be an understanding that there was simply no way of avoiding a deficit and stimulate the economy.
A lot of people talked about this, and suggested a wide variety of projects including social housing, wind and nuclear projects, small hydro, transit - even one fellow who suggested we redress the errors of the past by buying back the 407. Concerns were raised by a couple of people that going overboard with project spending could result in cost increases due to increased demand. Raitt said that MPs were being asked to provide John Baird with a list of shovel-ready projects in their ridings, and that she has been working closely with Gary Carr on this.
Environment and sustainability.
I was impressed by how many people spoke intelligently and enthusiastically about green energy, local business, local food, etc. Despite efforts to paint these as 'left-wing' issues, it seems that everyone now understands that progress on these fronts is not only vital to our planet but will also ultimately help the economy. I got no sense from anyone that there was any choice to be made between the environment vs. the economy. Good to hear.
There were a number of seniors at the meeting, so there was a lot of talk about pension investments and suggestions for tweaking the tax laws to make it easier for them. Not really any demand for tax cuts per se - most just wanted to be able to withdraw from their pensions or sell their property without being penalized so heavily.
Aside from pension issues, there was some discussion of rebates for energy saving retrofits, which falls under Raitt's purview. The consensus was that the rebates were too small and the paperwork to onerous. Much laughter when someone noted that rebates were available on water-saving toilets, but only for one toilet per house. One complaint about the cancellation of the hybrid / fuel efficient car rebate.
At one point, Raitt commented that during previous economic hard times, governments have simply downloaded services and costs but that they weren't going to do that. I'm sure she was talking about Martin, but of course Ontario's King of Downloads was the very same guy who's in charge of the federal purse right now. Points for irony.
Politics and electoral reform.
The only time the crowd broke into spontaneous applause was when one woman spoke of how disgusted she was by the behaviour of our elected representatives over the past year. She complained that there didn't seem to be a lot of empathy from the government for the plight o average Canadians, and that everyone from every party - including the Bloc - needs to work together on this through an "honourable process". Raitt promised to do better.
There was also an interesting exchange on electoral reform, specifically PR, where someone referred to our having "a two-party system in a five-party country" (brilliant line). Raitt said that she was surprised by how many people in Halton are aware and informed about this issue - much more so than in other ridings.
And my favourite line of the day was from the woman who stood up and said, "I am a life-long Conservative, and I believe that Stephen Harper owes the Canadian people an apology".
I asked two questions: why is Jim Flaherty consulting with business groups and corporate leaders and bankers but not labour groups? (Raitt said she was pretty sure he would be at some point, and that she was meeting with labour leaders out west sometime soon), and what was up with the AECL strategic review? (The review is apparently done, but a lot depends on the results of the Ontario bid). That led to a few questions and comments about AECL and the nuclear industry in general, and Raitt said she thought it was very important to keep nuclear jobs in Ontario. Which didn't exactly address the whole public/private issue, but whatever.
After the meeting, I went over and said hi to Mike Cluett (stop twitching, Esther), and ran into D'Arcy Keene again over by the Tim's.
"I really wasn't trying to be rude when you came into the office that day - I was just... surprised."
"No worries", I said. "Just the usual paranoia." Ha ha. Don't make eye contact.
He chuckled. "I'm really not that scary, you know. I'm just tall."
Well, he' not that tall. I'm pretty sure my husband's taller.
But seriously, I'm just teasing him. I'm sure he's a very nice person and not scary at all. And really, he's a very natty dresser for someone who can't see his own reflection in a mirror.
(crossposted from HaltonWatch)