Saturday, January 07, 2006

Burning crosses vs. stolen rings

One of the best things about living in British Columbia is having a front-row seat to some of the wackiest and wildest politics in the country.

Even federal politics is exciting out here. I can say that with authority, having just spent two hours at one of the most lively and crowded all-candidates debates I have ever been to. And I've been to a few.

There were at least 1,000 people crammed into a room designed for half that number. Hundreds more stood in the hallway outside the auditorium. It was bigger than a rock concert.

The draw? Watching Liberal veteran Hedy Fry and NDP media star Svend Robinson duke it out for the hotly contested riding of Vancouver Centre.

Candidates from the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Marijuana Party and the Christian Heritage Party shared the stage too. But, let's be honest, the real reason we were there was to watch the battle of the divas.

Anyone who says voters are apathetic or uninterested in this election should spend some time in Vancouver Centre. We arrived at the debate more than a half-hour before it started and the place was already full. Well, full of senior citizens, mostly.

"We're the youngest people here," said my friend Lorena, surveying the crowd.

I hate to use a cliché but the room was crackling with electricity. It really was. Svend Robinson has such a polarizing effect on people. You either love him or you hate him. And both camps were out in full force at the debate.

Forty-five minutes into the debate, the question we all knew was coming landed with a thud at Svend Robinson's feet.

"Where did you find the guts to run for office after stealing a ring," yelled a woman in the crowd. She was booed but Svend took her question seriously.

He spoke quietly about the "shame and pain" he still felt about stealing the expensive ring. He explained it was completely out of character and doesn’t reflect who he is. He seemed sincere and contrite. And after he finished explaining what happened, he was greeted with thunderous applause that went on for more than a minute.

It seems the ring theft is a non-issue. Or at least it's a non-issue for people who vote NDP. There were a few Svend-haters in the room who tried to use the theft against him. Like when Hedy Fry went way over her allotted time after answering a question, Svend joked, "I hope that didn't go into my time."

A guy in the crowd yelled out, "You didn’t serve any!" Then people started heckling the heckler. Like I said, it was lively.

Hedy Fry, on the other hand, was never asked about her infamous (and idiotic) comment that there were crosses burning on the lawns of Prince George.

However, she was the target of heated questions about the sponsorship scandal and government waste. This put Hedy on the defensive for most of the two-hour debate. Her tone was terse and bordered on belligerent.

She seemed annoyed to have to keep repeating the line that the Liberal government has paid down the deficit and balanced the budget.

At one point, she said, "We have managed the people's money very well indeed." She seemed flustered when this was greeted with laughter.

The best verbal slip-up of the afternoon came from Joe Pal of the Christian Heritage Party. He was talking about how he would protect the family, restore morality to Canada and keep marriage between a man and a woman. He then explained that his platform "will transform Canada into a vile nation."

The room exploded with whoops and cheers and loud applause. I kind of felt sorry for the guy. What the hell is this dude doing running in a riding that is home to B.C.'s biggest gay community? It's suicide.

Anyway, I was impressed by how intelligent and well informed some of my fellow constituents were. They asked questions about arts funding, the Kyoto Protocol, Canada's presence in Afghanistan, missile defense and the problem of voter apathy.

Well, not all of the questions were good (specifically the one about sexual liberation and the male foreskin). The best response to the foreskin question came from the Green candidate, who said he'd have to study it further.

"Well I can't know every policy! There's policies on everything!" he cried. Policies on foreskins? Really?

So who's going to win in Vancouver Centre? It's a tough call. The federal NDP has never won this riding. And some people are annoyed that Svend was parachuted into it. He doesn't automatically get the gay vote either. Hedy has been a prominent gay rights supporter. Plus, she's held the riding for 13 years. People seem to like her.

Personally, I admire Svend Robinson. I respect him for being the first openly gay member in the House of Commons. And for his petition to remove the word "God" from the preamble of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Also, he was one of the few MPs who took me seriously when I was a 21-year-old student reporter covering Parliament Hill for three months. I've never forgotten his kindness and encouragement. Actually, Monte Solberg was pretty nice to me too. But whatever.

I can't wait to see what happens on Jan. 23.

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