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West End candidates square off over rental act, hospital

NDP and Green Party campaign signs dominated the entranceway to the Vancouver-West End all-candidates debate at the Coast Plaza Hotel yesterday afternoon, reflecting strong audience support for incumbent NDP MLA Spencer Herbert and returning Green Party candidate Drina Read, who both ran in the fall 2008 by-election in the former Vancouver-Burrard riding.

Herbert agreed with Read on a number of debate questions pertaining to the preservation of St. Paul's Hospital and changes to the Residential Tenancy Act, while BC Liberal candidate Laura McDiarmid, up against a tough crowd, worked hard to prove herself by emphasizing her longtime ties to the community.

McDiarmid, a former NPA park board chair and former vice-president of the Vancouver Pride Society, emphasized the BC Liberals' "fair and balanced" approach to residential tenancy legislation and pointed frequently to the shortcomings of what she called the NDP's "reign of terror" in the 1990s.

"The NDP has made reckless promises it can't keep," McDiarmid said, calling for balanced approach to what she described as a "neutral" Residential Tenancy Act, a statement rebuffed loudly by the crowd.

When debate moderator Steve Burgess asked candidates about the exorbitant rent increases served to tenants at the Seafield apartments, McDiarmid said she has met with the tenants and applauded them for appealing the increases.

"This is something that's not standard across the board," she said of the Seafield case. "I would work with you if the [Residential Tenancy] Act doesn't work... I would protect your rights."

Meanwhile, Herbert and Read hammered at loopholes in the Residential Tenancy Act that allow landlords to evict tenants for renovations and jack up rental rates to keep up with other buildings in the area, which they said unfairly tips the balance of power to landlords, not tenants.

"As for the assertion that [the Seafield] is a unique situation, I've talked to people across the West End, and it's happening all over the place," said Herbert. "Other provinces don't allow this kind of thing to happen."

"The reason we have a Tenant Rights Action Coalition is because there are flaws with the Act," added Read. "We need our government to help us."

On the topic of the possibly relocating St. Paul's Hospital to the False Creek flats, McDiarmid denied allegations that the BC Liberal government said it would tear down the downtown hospital. "I think the hysteria is a bit irresponsible," she said.

Herbert disagreed. "The NDP platform is the only party that has St. Paul's in its platform as a commitment," he said. "[Health Minister] George Abbott said we are taking key aspects out of St.Paul's... and we're the densest downtown aside from New York."

Read also came out in support of keeping the hospital where it is, adding that Seattle's Capitol Hill has five hospitals and less density than Vancouver's West End.

Read was the only candidate who announced her full support of BC-STV (in line with her party's platform), while Herbert and McDiarmid both responded by turning the question back to the audience. "I'm undecided," Herbert told the crowd. "Really, this is about your vote, not me telling you how to vote."

In addition to being the lone BC-STV supporter in the debate, Read was also the only candidate in the debate to mention B.C.'s child poverty rate--the highest in Canada.

Yesterday's debate, organized by the West End Residents Association, was one of two all-candidates debates in the riding, the second of which is being organized by Xtra West and will take place Wednesday, May 6, from 6-9 p.m. at St. Paul's Anglican Church (1130 Jervis St).

Jackie Wong reports for the WestEnder.

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