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Bill Bennett's Last Stand?

As charges of dirty tricks and racism fly, East Kootenay is a wild one, and too close to call.

By Christopher Pollon 8 May 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Pollon is a Tyee contributing editor.

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NDP's Troy Sebastian; BC Liberal incumbent Bill Bennett.

Facing threats from the right and left, incumbent MLA Bill Bennett came out swinging in Cranbrook Wednesday night, in the last of three local public debates, highlighting a tight two-way race that many say is too close to call.

Bennett's first order of business was to accuse NDP candidate Troy Sebastian of hiring campaign operatives from Toronto.

"I'm going to give you folks an example of what's really out of touch," said Bennett pointing to Sebastian. "Hiring a campaign manager from Toronto and then secretly having hundreds of city of Toronto workers phoning into this riding [for radio shows] as if they were local community callers."

Despite the pre-emptive strike, the two-term East Kootenay incumbent was called upon often this night to defend his eight years in power, which have seen the closure of hospitals, schools, senior centres and forestry operations. The Fernie law court -- once dismissed by Bennett as a "drafty old building" -- was saved from the Liberal axe only after the municipality raised enough cash to buy it.

"On May 13, either Troy or myself will wake up in the morning and be MLA, everybody in this room knows this, with the exception of maybe [BC Conservative Party candidate] Wilf," a scowling Bennett deadpanned to raucous laughter.

But all jokes aside, it was clear that the former hunting guide turned Liberal cabinet minister was deadly serious -- perhaps fighting for his political life even.

Post-debate First Nations trouble

The day following the debate, Bennett was called upon to defend more than just his past record: an election ad in a free Kootenay paper this week made an apparent swipe at Sebastian's Ktunaxa First Nation heritage, reading "You want someone who pays taxes and is concerned about how the money is being spent," running with a Bennett family photo beneath a tagline that included the phrase, "He's one of us."

Bennett on Thursday denied the ad had any connection to Sebastian or First Nations in general, but this hasn't stopped the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs from demanding an immediate apology.

Lay of the land

The question of whether Bennett returns to Victoria after May 12th is much bigger than the riding of Kootenay East: it was no accident that Bennett was the only Liberal candidate Gordon Campbell mentioned by name during the Sunday leaders debate. For the Liberals, a loss here will mean losing a key foothold in this resource-rich Interior region, and the defeat of an ambitious cabinet minister rumoured to be seeking the Health portfolio should he pull off a win.

Bennett's East Kootenay riding includes the St. Mary's Band reservation -- home to NDP candidate Troy Sebastian -- south past Cranbrook to the U.S. border, east to the resource-rich Flathead and Elk River valleys, which include the communities of Fernie, Sparwood and Elkford.

Located in the mountain time zone, it is physically closer to Calgary than to Victoria; the oil and gas boom has seen much of the riding become Alberta cottage country, with big cash infusions -- both for good and ill.

Tembec, the dominant forest tenure holder in the area, has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, shuttering saw and pulp mills; the region's position as one of the world's highest quality sources of metallurgical coal has been affected by a world downturn. Coalbed methane development is economically promising but remains extremely controversial, in both the Elk and Flathead River drainages.

A 'down and dirty' campaign

The May 6 debate in Cranbrook, which attracted almost 200 people with just six days before the election, came at the tail-end of an extremely aggressive Bennett campaign and very eventful April.

"They play rough up there, and they want to get rid of me, and I'm not going easily," Bennett said of the community of Fernie in February. "Politics where I come from is, honestly, it's down and dirty."

A leaked e-mail from Bennett's campaign manager on April 30 encouraged Bennett supporters not only to show up for riding debates, but offered tips to maximize opponent disruptions. ("Bill wants you to know how much energy he gets from your well-timed interjections and enthusiasm," wrote his campaign manager to supporters.).

In late April, the Bennett campaign was in the news again, this time for hosting events where free beer was on offer at pub events featuring Bennett.

Not long after this, Bennett publically expressed concern that his constituents would split the vote by accidentally voting for Conservative Party Leader Hanni out of ignorance, confusing the provincial and federal parties.

Vote splitting on the right

At the Wednesday debate, Wilf Hanni attempted to address the issue of vote splitting early on, particularly Bennett's mantra that "a vote for Wilf is a vote for the NDP."

"You could only split the vote if you had two real conservative parties in B.C.," said Hanni. "The BC Liberals are not a conservative party...they are turning so far to the left it is hard to distinguish them from the NDP..."

A 61-year-old oil industry consultant, Hanni practices a unique brand of right-wing rural populism: he chides Bennett for not being a real conservative, then attacks "big business" for stealing our rivers; he demands the minimum wage be raised to $10 dollars, and in the next breath mocks the Liberals for "buying into the whole climate change theory." An outspoken critic of the Liberal Recognition and Reconciliation Act, Hanni is extremely popular here, and is expected to draw support away from Bennett.

Last-minute Green

If Bill Bennett is unhappy about Hanni sucking away right-wing votes, he must be overjoyed that the Green Party found a last minute candidate in Jen Tsuida, a bar manager based in Fernie. Tsuida is the product of the Green Party's accelerated recruitment and candidate vetting process, part of a last-minute race to field 85 candidates across the province.

Her debate performance was astounding: unable to answer a majority of the questions posed to her throughout the debate, Tsuida stared zombie-like into a laptop computer, apparently scrolling and reading answers off the screen and from green party pamphlets on the table.

Yet it was Tsuida who scored the biggest one liner of the night, which occurred when she was forced to explain why she did not know the Green Party's position on corporate bailouts: "I've only been in politics for a week and a half..."

The crowd clearly saw this as a good thing, although NDP candidate Sebastian -- whose party lost the last election when unknown Green candidate Luke Gurbin appeared out of nowhere to take almost 1400 votes -- was probably less amused.

A two-man race

The NDP's Troy Sebastian played a foil to Bennett's surly aggressiveness, presenting himself repeatedly as a MLA who will seek to unite, not divide, the riding.

A treaty negotiator and member of the Ktunaxa First Nation, Sebastian railed against cuts to seniors' facilities, healthcare and the "gas tax."

Sebastian and Bennett locked horns over child poverty in B.C.: Sebastian said that one in five children lived in poverty and that it was increasing; Bill maintained that child poverty had actually decreased between 2003 and 2006.

Throughout the evening, Bennett returned often to the need for strategic voting, reflecting his two biggest fears in this election: that voters will either "throw their vote away" on Hanni, or even worse, elect Sebastian as MLA.

"Kootenay East has always been a long way from Victora," concluded Bennett. "Your MLA must be in government. An opposition MLA cannot deliver, he can only criticize."

Related Tyee stories:

  • Hanni vows referendum on Aboriginal legislation
  • Six Seats the BC Liberals Will Fight Hard to Keep
    Boundary-Similkameen, Kootenay East, and ones in Surrey, Coquitlam and Vancouver.
  • Bennett Should Have Stayed
    E-mail flaming MP was a damn fool. So what. Tell us more.
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