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Clark gets cheers and jeers at West Kelowna byelection forum

[Editor's note: A second all-candidates' event, held this morning, can be viewed here.]

KELOWNA -- It was a hot night in West Kelowna Thursday at the old community centre, and Premier Christy Clark shared the hot seat with seven other candidates vying for Westside-Kelowna votes in a July 10 provincial byelection.

Former MLA Ben Stewart, who stepped aside to give Liberal candidate Clark a chance to gain this seat, was in the crowd as her campaign chairman and supporter.

The packed hall rocked with jeers, cheers, catcalls and a few boos, with NDP and Liberal supporters competing to make the loudest noise.

NDP candidate Carole Gordon, a Kelowna school teacher, stuck to her theme that she's best qualified because she's lived in the Okanagan 40 years and knows local issues.

Gordon promised if elected to hold the Liberal government's "feet to the fire," and stabbed at Clark's record, saying, "Christy Clark and the Liberals were the only ones who thought that last budget was balanced."

Clark invoked the names of W.A.C. Bennett and Bill Bennett, former premiers from the Okanagan, calling it the heart of free enterprise and promising to continue their legacy.

"Adrian Dix and I stand for very different things. I believe in growing the economy, not the government. On May 14 British Columbians voted to grow our economy, for controlling spending and paying off debt. That's how we surprised B.C.," said Clark.

Sean Upshaw, BC Conservative candidate, tried to upstage Clark by claiming the W.A.C. Bennett legacy as his own.

"W.A.C. proved one man can make a difference. He's a Kelowna hero," said Upshaw, who wants to become the lone BC Conservative MLA. "In 12 years the BC Liberals have destroyed his legacy."

Controversial independent Dayleen Van Ryswyk accused Clark of not keeping promises. Van Ryswyk said, "I'm curious to see what else she's going to promise. Maybe somebody needs an ovary," a remark that provoked loud boos.

BC Vision Party candidate, Jag Bhandari from Surrey, had one theme: "I'll be your voice."

Moderated by Adrian Nieoczym of CBC Radio, the debate format gave each candidate two minutes to answer each prepared question. Because of the number of candidates, answers were fairly diluted. Questions ranged from transportation to health care, infrastructure, agriculture and the economy, all with a local twist.

All candidates wanted to fix the Highway 97 couplet in West Kelowna's downtown, make improvements to Westside Road (voted worst in the province), and begin plans for a second crossing of Okanagan Lake.

Clark stressed, "We all say the same thing, but how are we going to pay for it? I'll grow the economy -- that's how."

Independent John Marks, a chartered accountant, approached most questions from a cost/benefit perspective. He conceded the Liberals have "not done a bad job but just not done all we want them to do." He wants make it illegal for public servants to be paid more than private sector counterparts, and stressed potential from the northern B.C. pipeline, saying, "We'll get billions in taxes and it can be used for health care and education."

More booing erupted when Independent Korry Zepik said, "Vote progressively to ban Christy Clark from this legislature. The B.C. pipeline will doom our children to a living hell."

Zepik focused on green issues. He said to leave Westside Road alone except for safety corrections, and suggested a second crossing should be a light rapid transit bridge.

"Sustainables employ more people than gas and oil industries," Zepik said.

Silverado Socrates, independent, who operates a local trail riding business, said, "I'm very much in favour of green transportation, education, working-from-home subsidies, transit and carpooling."

On economic questions, Gordon noted, "I live here, shop here and buy local. Small business is the biggest employer." But Gordon added unemployment is up in the Okanagan, and B.C. has the second slowest economic growth of any province. "We need a strong MLA from this community who can hold their feet to the fire," she repeated.

Clark repeated promises to freeze carbon tax and income taxes for five years. Countering some sniping, she said, "In May, people voted for a strong economy and another thing they voted for was optimism, coming up with solutions and standing for your values."

Bhandari found a second mantra, repeating several times: "The government must stop wasting our hard-earned dollars."

To a question about whether the province would match federal infrastructure funding for municipalities, the short answer was yes from nearly all candidates, although several warned about growing debt.

"I'd rather see some taxes designated for infrastructure," said Marks.

Van Ryswyk said, "There's no money -- shock -- we need to do that, but there's no money."

Upshaw said, "It's beneficial when governments partner to bring infrastructure," but he warned about the 2008 downturn. "That could take place again if we continue to spend this way."

Liberals have had seven deficit budgets and five surpluses; the NDP record is nine deficits and only one surplus budget, Upshaw pointed out.

Candidates wrangled over how to promote agriculture. Upshaw said, "Shut the revolving door on the agricultural portfolio. We've had 12 agriculture ministers in the last 20 years."

Socrates called for scholarship programs for kids working on farms, Van Ryswyk wanted more diversified farming and organics, and Gordon called for more local food in hospitals and schools. Clark noted action on many agricultural ideas has already begun, such as school programs, tax relief for greenhouse growers and marketing campaigns.

"We need more customers in Asia for our agricultural products, and it's time we had free trade in Canada for our wines," said Clark, drawing cheers.

Gordon stressed voters should send someone to Victoria to hold this government to its promises.

Clark said, "In this byelection you'll be deciding: Do you want someone to go to Victoria and hold government to account, or do you want to send someone to get something done?"

The debate underscored that this is a three-way race between Liberal, NDP and Conservative candidates, with others left on the fringes.

Dorothy Brotherton is a journalist based in Kelowna.

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