The first day of election-month got heated at an open forum of the four major University-Rosedale candidates. The event was organized as part of Democracy Week, a UTSU initiative to get students more engaged in civic life.


Although not a formal debate, the conversation was moderated by Robert Austin, an associate professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs. The debaters included Jennifer Hollett (NDP), Chrystia Freeland (Liberal), Karim Jivraj (Conservative), and Nick Wright (Green).


We will — for simplicity’s sake — ignore Wright for much of this summary.


Surrounded by students at University College, one could ask: why does a Conservative candidate bother? The question would be an honest one. For many students, a Conservative vote is off the table. This debate is really to decide — or at least meaningfully distinguish — between the two left-leaning “anything but Harper” parties.


In their opening remarks, each candidate gave summary of their background to boost their credibility. I’ll spare you their abridged autobiographies. Suffice it to say, none of them are personally monsters.



ON SYRIAN REFUGEES


As each candidate made their comments on a student-submitted question, the first big issue was (predictably) Canada’s response to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis. Freeland was the first on the mic, bearing a message of “strength-through-diversity”. She then offered an anecdote of being at a “Refugees Welcome” demonstration alongside blue haired women, older ladies, and people who were immigrants themselves — her words. Her position was that in order to welcome more refugees, we needed to make changes to expand immigration personnel to match the influx.


Hollett came next; I had to look up to notice the speaker had changed. Not unlike Freeland, Hollett highlighted that refugees have the potential to contribute to the economy. Hollett specifically pointed to the intake of Hungarian refugees in the late 50s, likely a subtle shot at Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, criticized for enforcing strict borders.


Concluding her statements, Hollett added “Let’s remember many of them are fleeing from Assad, so that's something we should take a closer look at!”. This seems as if it was intended to charge Harper with not being critical enough of the Assad regime, but this sentiment is not echoed anywhere in the NDP’s public platform.


Jivraj started on the rhetorical attack. He asked the other candidates why, if they believed refugees benefited the country, they would ever restrict entry at all, “Why not three times that number!?”. Jivraj continued aggressively, “To have a soft heart you need to have a hard head!”, but didn’t defend any explicit alternative stance on refugees.


Shifting from aggressive talk, to talk of aggression, Jivraj appealed to the supposed softer side of student. He offered a story of prices set on child sex slaves in the Islamic State, arguing that the real compassionate position would be to intervene to stabilize conflict abroad - not simply accept the few escapees as refugees.


While Jivraj’s message may have resonated with a different — likely more hawkish — crowd, it was ill-suited to the student environment.



ON ALBERTAN OIL


The next big issue was the oil sands, a topic that inevitably straddles both economic and environmental policy.


Freeland took the first post, arguing the Liberal plan to strengthen the middle class will ultimately stabilize the economy. While perhaps seeming like a non-sequitur to most of her audience, talk of insulating the middle class from economic volatility is a response to the recent drop in oil prices. In the recessionary climate, overt support for the oilsands is a less attractive talking point. But from the risers, her talk of the middle class sounded like vague populism.


Picking up on the topic of oil, Hollett was more specific. After reiterating the same platitudes as Freeland, the candidate made sure to distinguish herself from the Liberal candidate, pointing to her party’s support for the Energy East — a pipeline that will transport extracted bitumen from Alberta to the eastern provinces.


Jivraj ended the topic without offering much in the way of specifics. He did say that his party supports Keystone — an abstract figure of speech at this point —  and is the obvious choice for fiscal conservatives.


But Jivraj did take one hard (somewhat cheap) shot at the royalty review initiative by the Alberta NDP — a policy that arguably exacerbates the oil recession. While this is unrelated to Mulcair, Jivraj counted on students conflating the two. After Hollett had come out on top with specific policy, Jivraj reinjected some uncertainty in the choice between the two left-leaning parties.



ON MARIJUANA


The moderator, Robert Austin, wanting to deliver a crowd-pleasing closing topic, turned the conversation to the legal status of marijuana. The room did not react with the enthusiasm he anticipated, nor did the Liberal candidate, who spoke first.


Freeland chose to take a personal angle on the once sensational liberal policy to legalize marijuana. Speaking as a mother, the candidate explained that she doesn’t allow her dependant children to drink, get piercings, take drugs, or use marijuana. This personal angle allowed her to highlight that her party takes a libertarian position on marijuana, while not implicitly endorsing its use. On a seemingly far left position, this was another appeal to the center.


Hollett took the same approach, appearing moderate, but downplaying that her party only advocates for decriminalization — not legalization. The candidate revealed that she doesn’t smoke or drink and is rather “straight laced”, again highlighting a moderate position that appealed to university liberalism, rather than its libertinism.


“You all know my party’s stance on the issue”, Jivraj began, sensing that he was speaking to an unfavorable audience, someone in the risers audibly booed. The candidate changed gears to take a more divisive approach, highlighting issues with the other two candidates.


First, Jivraj took a swing at Holland, asking why — if she believes that freedom is important — she doesn’t take the Liberal position and advocate for legalization. Jivraj left a space for Hollett to answer, but quickly cut her off — a move that compromised any favor he had with the audience.


Second, Jivraj took a more aggressive stance with Freeland, avoiding any open questions, in favor of accusations. Jivraj charged Freeland with being reckless in saying marijuana was okay for Canadians, but not okay for her own kids. The point, while emphatically delivered, fell flat with the audience.



THE ELECTION


Ultimately the UTSU Democracy Week debate perfectly captured the dynamics of the upcoming election. While both the NDP and Liberal candidate battled for the moderate vote, the conservative candidate took a backseat to foment tension between its left-leaning counterparts.


In short, because of the potential for a leftward vote-split, losing the debate offers no assurance that Jivraj — or any conservative candidate — will lose on election day.

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