Thursday, September 29, 2011

Taking Attendance

An interesting pattern began emerging during the Federal Election this past spring. At forums, debates, and all-candidates meetings across the country, Conservative Party candidates were simply not showing up.

There was always some excuse, of course - although the over-use of the "prior commitment" was making some wonder if there was perhaps a new species of virus called "Prior Commitment" that had everyone sick in bed. And to be sure, some candidates may well have had a legitimate reason for not being able to attend.

It was the high percentage of Conservative candidates who were finding somewhere they would rather be that began to raise eyebrows, to the point where campaign spokesman Ryan Sparrow had to step in and quash rumours that Head Office was ordering them not to attend. He even issued a statement:

We provide support for candidates to participate in candidates debates, but we don't instruct them not to attend debates. Most candidates would prefer to meet with voters one on one though instead of debating their opponents in crowds of committed supporters of the different parties.

Fast forward five months, and the same pattern is beginning to emerge among Ontario Progressive Conservative candidates.

The trend became particularly apparent last week when ridings across the province marked Education Day by conducting education-themed debates. Word got out that the PCs were going to give the whole thing a pass, but nobody quite believed it until reports started coming in of empty chairs behind PC placecards.

There was even an eerily familiar statement from a party spokesperson:

Alan Sakach, director of communications for the Ontario PC party, said “Our candidates make their own decisions on debate attendance based on time availability and other commitments. Candidates get a tremendous number of invitations for debates, meetings and town halls, and balance those requests with the need to door knock and canvass in their riding. Obviously they can’t make it to every event — there’s just not enough time.”

In the end it was confirmed: of the 20 education debates held in Toronto, not a single Progressive Conservative candidate turned up. Outside of Toronto, attendance was also abysmal. After a half hour search I could only find one - in Whitby-Oshawa - where the PC candidate took part.

Halton was no exception. As documented by reporter Stuart Service, PC incumbent Ted Chudleigh was absent from the education debate on the 22nd. He also failed to show at the four-riding debate sponsored by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association on the 27th. So did the PC candidates from Oakville and Burlington (nobody from Wellington-Halton Hills turned up). Apparently they all had a "prior commitment".

Chudleigh hasn't only been avoiding education-themed debates. He also took a pass on the Halton/Oakville 'Policy Not Polls' debate, along with his Oakville counterpart, claiming that he did not attend "because it was taking place outside of Halton riding. I had a number of other things on my schedule that evening and I believe my attendance at those events was more important than this particular event, which was located in a different riding."

Admittedly, yes - the venue was about two blocks into Oakville territory. It's not like they have moat, though, and it is a pretty handy spot for a shared Oakville and Halton event. Besides which, he didn't seem to have any trouble making it to the Oakville Chamber of Commerce debate which took place much further south of the Oakville/Halton boundary.

(Liberal candidate Indira Naidoo-Harris also did not attend the 'Policy Not Polls' event. As far as I am aware, it's the only debate she has skipped.)

Tonight, the Canadian Federation of University Women is hosting a debate at Milton District High School. Mr. Chudleigh initially said that he would be unable to attend due to (you guessed it) a "prior commitment". However, the day before the event his campaign office let it be known that he would be able to attend after all - but only after 8:30, when the debate will be half over.*

A lot of people volunteer a lot of hours organizing these events, and even though they are sometimes sparsely attended, they do get widely reported in the local media and many voters use those reports to help them make their decision. So if the Ontario Progressive Conservatives have decided as a party strategy that debates and candidates meetings are not worth their time, then they should say so publicly and save everyone the time and trouble.

But this nonsense of every single PC candidate having a "prior commitment" on Education Day, or claiming that it's too far to travel two blocks south of the riding boundary for a debate? Sorry, but I'm calling bullshit.

Show a little respect.

*UPDATE: A few hours before the CFUW debate, Mr. Chudleigh's office sent out a memo stating that he would arrive at 8:00 and not 8:30. In the end, he split the difference and walked in the door at 8:13 during the midway break.


The Wall of Shame
(feel free to send me corrections or additions)

Ottawa Centre: PC candidate did not attend Education debate
Brampton-Springdale: PC candidate did not attend Education debate
Brampton-Gore-Malton: PC and Liberal candidates did not attend Education debate
Elgin-Middlesex-London: PC candidate did not attend Student Issues debate or Health Care debate
Toronto Centre: PC candidate has stated they will only attend one debate
Parkdale-High Park: PC candidate did not attend Sept. 13 debate
London West: PC candidate did not attend Health Care debate or Engineering debate
London West: NDP candidate did not attend Sept. 24th debate
London-Fanshawe: PC candidate did not attend Health Care debate or Engineering debate
York-South Weston: PC candidate did not attend Sept. 14th debate
Nickel Belt: PC candidate did not attend Social Planning Council debate
London-North Centre: NDP candidate did not attend debate at the University of Western Ontario (did not want to cross picket line)
London-North Centre: PC candidate did not attend Health Care debate or Engineering debate
Perth-Wellington: Liberal candidate did not attend Wind Concerns Ontario sponsored debate
Lambton-Kent-Middlesex: PC candidate did not attend Education or Agriculture debates
Peterborough: PC candidate did not attend three debates
Pickering-Scarborough East: PC candidate did not attend Education debate
Flamborough: PC candidate did not attend 'Free Flamborough' debate
Cambridge: PC candidate did not attend Cambridge Federation of University Women’s debate
Etobicoke: PC candidate did not attend Education debate
Scarborough-Rouge River: PC candidate did not attend Sept. 22nd debate
Scarborough-Agincourt: PC candidate did not attend Sept. 19th debate
Willowdale: PC candidate will not be attending any debates

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