The election campaign in South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale has been billed as a battle of conservatives.
And while there are some notable exceptions – NDP candidate Susan Keeping for one, and others who may debate the level of their past and present conservatism – the fact remains that the largely suburban/rural riding has long been a stronghold for representatives of Canada’s conservative parties (including former Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance members).
In the current race, rumblings of discontent with the representation of Conservative incumbent Russ Hiebert are evident in the arrival of new candidates of former Conservative affiliation, as well as other independents and party candidates.
Hiebert has faced criticism, since being first elected in 2004, for being “parachuted” into the riding, has weathered storms of criticism over personal spending and has been characterized as an MP too willing to toe the party line and not be proactive enough in representing constituents concerns.
The big question is whether any of the opponents can challenge the hold Hiebert has on the riding (he received 31,216 votes in 2008; the Liberal runner-up received 11,515), or whether they will split any anti-Hiebert vote, effectively ensuring the return of the staunch Harper supporter to Ottawa.
Typically, Hiebert refuses to be drawn by the baiting of other candidates who insist his performance is an election issue. He said constituents have voiced two top issues: “the economy” and “crime.”
“This election they have a choice between the Conservative lower taxes, job and growth creating, anti-crime program or the Liberal-NDP-Bloc Quebecois job destroying, high tax, soft-on-crime agenda,” he said.
Hiebert said he has been hearing from constituents who like the “management” Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been offering and “recognize the strong position in which Canada has emerged out of the economic downturn,” citing 500,000 recently created jobs.
“They’re concerned about the instability and higher taxes that the NDP-Liberal-Bloc Quebecois coalition will bring,” he said, noting constituents he has talked to cross all demographic lines, ranging from seniors to young families – who have responded well to the Conservatives’ income-splitting proposal for taxes, which he said he has long championed.
Crime is a concern for all, he said.
“They want to know their community is safe. They watch the evening news and they see criminals getting let go, and they’re asking ‘how is it possible these guys are getting released?’ They want to know the government in office is there to protect them.”
He noted Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has said he is going to revisit some of the Conservatives’ anti-crime legislation, but hasn’t specified which laws.
“People are often unaware of the legislation we’ve put in place to crack down on guns and drugs and related offences; but when they realize what we’ve done they’re often happier.”
Among those facing Hiebert at the polls is well-known senior athlete and community volunteer Aart Looye.
Looye underlines that, while he’s listed on the ballot as an Independent, he considers himself an independent conservative – and notes, with a laugh, the number of other candidates who can be described as conservative in stripe.
“Why are these people running against him? Why is there this anger against Mr. Hiebert?” he said.
For Looye, the top issues for the people of the constituency are “integrity and proper representation.”
“The current MP, by his spending patterns and his political lifestyle, does not exhibit the kind of integrity you’d want from a Conservative MP,” Looye said.
“Mr. Hiebert is not a Conservative – he’s actually a fraud. He doesn’t represent conservative values – it all seems to be about what kind of entitlement he expects, and he takes everything he can.”
Looye said proper representation for the people of South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale should not be “a barking seal” that repeats a party line or the views of the party leader, but someone who is willing to intercede for and put forward the views of all constituents, “whether they’re NDP or Green, or whatever.
“Even with the party system, there has to be room for some freedom of thought,” he said.
Also fiercely critical of Hiebert is former White Rock mayor Hardy Staub, a former Progressive Conservative Party member whose decision to run as a Liberal in the current election followed pre-election criticisms of the MP’s performance and the policies of the current Conservative electoral district association board, which he noted will not permit other nominations for the Conservative candidacy.
For the retired airline pilot, the issue of representation is the most important in the campaign.
“The person on the ballot is elected by the people of the riding,” he said. “They want a representative of the community in Ottawa – not the other way around.”
Referring to Hiebert’s newsletters as “useless, self-serving literature,” Staub said voters need someone who is willing to fight to get their ideas across – which he believes makes him a good fit for the job.
“My history is that I’m like a dog with a bone – I don’t let go,” he said.
The second most important priority he sees is providing help for families – including better funding for health care, subsidies for working families, single parents and those providing care for elderly relatives, plus incentives for children to stay in high school – rather than billions of dollars in tax relief to large companies and banks.
Also important to Staub is the issue of the compensation given to returning veterans injured in the line of duty, which he believes should be capped at a much higher level.
Progressive Canadian candidate Brian Marlatt – manager of a family-owned business – has run previously for the party provincially and federally, since the Progressive Conservative Party was removed from the Canadian ballot in 2003.
Marlatt said he is committed to it as an alternative conservative choice for voters which follows “progressive conservative” ideal that inspired the fathers of confederation.
“Everyone should be concerned about hyper-partisanship,” he said, noting he has been an advocate of Senate reform as a policy advisor to the party.
“The responsibility of the Senate of Canada is for Canada as a whole, (with a) duty of sober second thought.”
He said he feels the current Conservatives are committed to a hidden agenda of corporate libertarianism that includes the deregulation of financial institutions; one of the factors, he believes, that led to the recession in the U.S. and worldwide.
“Mr. Harper’s government is not a Conservative government but a neo-conservative one,” he said.
The veterans-compensation issue is also important to him as is help for autistic children and families, he said – both issues for which Hiebert has faced criticism from constituents for not taking a more proactive stance.
Christian Heritage Party candidate Mike Schouten, a greenhouse manager, said the party provides “principled leadership” that small ‘c’ conservatives are looking for, regardless of their religious views.
Schouten said he has received some backlash, but also a great deal of grass-roots support, for his suggestion that limits be placed on immigration.
“People are saying, ‘At last someone is telling it like it is, instead of lecturing us with empty rhetoric.’ It’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about because the big parties are trying to court the immigrant vote.”
Schouten said the economy and an aging population demographic are the issues of greatest concern in the current campaign.
“They’re both very closely linked,” he said, adding that strengthening the institution of the family in Canada will provide inward growth that can help parents afford to stay home with their children and meet the costs of an aging population.
“The way we can address the current economic problems is with inward growth, instead of trying to grow the country by bringing in many thousands of immigrants a year. It’s a myth that this boosts the economy – the Fraser Institute has done studies that after 10 years, on average, immigrants continue to be a drain on the economy.”
Green Party candidate Larry Colero has also identified himself in the campaign as a former Conservative, but has since said he was a member primarily to support David Orchard’s fight against the merger of the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance.
Colero said local voters should be concerned about “the amazing number of oil tankers that are transporting crude oil from Burrard Inlet past White Rock and Crescent Beach” and pointed to Transport Canada assessments of the high likelihood of a “moderate” oil spill taking place in the area within “the next six or seven years.”
He said that what constitutes a major or moderate spill is a semantic argument that will be immaterial when one occurs – and that the corporate world cannot be relied on for cleanup.
“They’re still cleaning up from the Exxon Valdez,” he said. “We are risking the local economy, our quality of life and local fisheries,” he said.
Colero also said voters should be concerned about the “apparent threat to democracy” posed by the Harper government being found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release information on costs of crime legislation and the purchase of stealth fighter aircraft.
NDP candidate Susan Keeping has worked for 20 years with social agencies developing community and fighting homelessness and poverty.
She said the major issues that have emerged through her door-knocking campaign are concerns over health care and support for seniors.
She said families are struggling to provide children secondary and post-secondary education and helping elderly parents.
“The CPP is just not good enough. People are struggling to afford basic necessities.”
In health care, Keeping noted the NDP platform proposes increasing the number of doctors and nurses in Canada, opening up closed wings of hospitals and making sure there are no empty beds going unused.
Keeping also said that as MP she would be concerned with making sure federal transfer payments to provincial coffers are used “appropriately.”
Independent candidate Kevin Donohoe, who retired as a builder, returned to the workforce as a “certified aging in place specialist” who uses his expertise to allow seniors to stay in their homes, rather than placing strains on an already overtaxed care system.
Donohoe, who supports a national prescription drug policy, says this kind of foresight is crucial in an area like South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale, where the aging of the “boomer” population is about to place increased demands on the system.
“It’s the difference between spending $20,000 to upgrade somebody’s home or spending $3,000-$4,000 per month in extended care,” he said.
Independent David Hawkins, who describes himself as “a forensic economist” with a background in developing software management systems for the oil industry, said he has two main issues: small businesses and health care.
Hawkins, who said he has been doing most of his campaigning at small-business premises, said he is concerned that almost all of them are empty.
“They’ve got a real crisis in cash flow,” he said, adding that his wife has “cancer issues” which have made him take a close look at health care.
“The government is taking money out of the community and running it back through bureaucracy,” he said.
Hawkins advocates a flat tax of some 15 per cent for incomes over $30,000 a year.
“It means the rich don’t hide their money, and make a greater contribution to revenues,” he said.
– Alex Browne, Black Press