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Liberals dodge local debates: NDP

If the BC Liberals are slammed at an election debate and no party candidate is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

The New Democrats certainly hope so. The party is keeping a running tally of Liberal no-shows at all-candidates meetings and as of yesterday that list included 30 debates.

But the decision will ultimately be made by the constituents who want to hear from the candidates vying for their ballot.

“Well we don’t have to vote for them anyways,” shouted an audience member at an all-candidates meeting last night after being told there would be no Liberal representation, a comment which was met with laughter from the crowd.

Liberal candidates Sherry Wiebe and Haida Lane had told organizers they had previous commitments and were unavailable to attend the joint debate for the ridings of Vancouver-Hastings and Vancouver-Mount Pleasant.

It was disappointing news for constituents, said Cynthia Low, executive director of the Britannia Community Services Centre Society and an organizer of last night’s debate.

“It’s really difficult when the governing party candidates are not able to provide their perspective on issues that are important to communities,” Low said.

“I think it’s a shame because even in the last election the Liberal candidates were not amenable to attending public forums," she said.

The NDP is tracking Liberal candidates who miss or decline to participate in campaign forums, including all-candidates meetings from around the province as well as issue-focused debates where a representative from each party is invited.

Yesterday, a planned all-candidates arts forum organized by the Alliance for Arts and Culture was changed into a live Internet blog with only representatives from the Green Party and the NDP after the Liberals declined to send a candidate.

And a forum for seniors in downtown Vancouver was expected to go ahead today without Liberal representation.

While busy schedules are often cited as excuses for not attending, others candidates have said they will not attend because of the partisan nature of a forum, which they see as biased against them.

Debates in Kamloops-North Thompson have been without Liberal representation because of this explanation, said the riding’s NDP candidate Doug Brown.

“We’ve had two all-candidates forums where the Liberals have shown up and left or not shown up at all,” he said.

One of those included a forum on education, and Brown's opponent Liberal Terry Lake confirmed he did not attend because of who was organizing the event.

“This clearly wasn’t a non-partisan forum,” Lake said. “The event billed as a forum on education was planned by four unions and three of those unions have also actively campaigned against the BC Liberals,” he said.

Lake estimated he will attend six all-candidates debates over the course of the election and chooses which events he will take part in based on his schedule and the nature of the event.

“For me, it’s attending those that are organized by non-partisan groups that have a fair system of conducting the forum and that reach the most people as possible," Lake said.

But Brown said he thinks candidates should attend all meetings, regardless of who is organizing the debate.

“I will go to any forum and answer any questions,” he said.

Brown accused Lake of storming out of a debate organized by the Council of Canadians, after showing up to the event and leaving after about 15 minutes when asked a question about the sale of BC Rail.

“Terry refused to answer the question and then he got up and left,” Brown said.

But Lake countered that he did in fact answer the question, which he said was largely about public-private partnerships, and that he had always intended to stay for only a short while because he had another event to attend.

“They’re trying to spin it like I stormed out of the meeting,” Lake said.

“I made a point about the lack of fairness (of the question selection) but I certainly did answer the question.”

Unlike the NDP, the Liberals are not keeping track of debate attendance records, said BC Liberal spokesperson Shane Mills.

“We just worry about what we’re doing and how we’re connecting,” he said, adding the party has no policy on which debates candidates should attend.

“The candidates make all the decisions locally,” said Mills. “They try to get to as many as they can.”

Liberal participation in debates was also raised as an issue during the 2005 election. The Tyee reported that mid-way through that election, Liberal party candidates had skipped debates in about half of the province’s ridings.

Garrett Zehr reports for The Tyee.

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