If the near-capacity crowd at the Beth Torah Congregation was expecting fireworks at an Eglinton-Lawrence candidates debate Sept. 21, they may have left the sanctuary a little disappointed.
There was nary a Donald Trump among the hopefuls vying to represent the riding in the Oct. 19 federal election. Instead, spectators were treated to a polite debate, respectful collegiality and a recitation of each party’s talking points on a variety of issues. The partisan crowd did its part, providing strong ovations in support of their candidate’s positions at various points in the proceedings.
There were no knock-out punches delivered, though Liberal candidate Marco Mendicino and New Democrat Andrew Thomson criticized Conservative MP and Finance Minister Joe Oliver for Canada’s economic performance.
Oliver dished it out as good as he got, correcting Mendicino on three factual errors – on the Liberal party’s position on the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran, the price of oil and Conservative transfers to Toronto for infrastructure.
Rabbi Yossi Sapirman moderated the event, punctuating the proceedings with humour. His questions touched on a variety of topics, including relations with Israel, the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, anti-Semitism, the danger posed by Iran, the economy, affordable housing, refugees and First Nations issues.
The event was sponsored by B’nai Brith Canada as part of its IMPACT 2015: National Debate Series, which features debates in ridings with large Jewish populations in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. The next debates were scheduled for Sept. 30 in Thornhill and Winnipeg South Centre and Oct. 1 in York Centre.
On the question of Israel, each of the Eglinton-Lawrence candidates emphasized their personal and their party’s strong support.
Mendicino kicked off the Israel love fest, professing his party’s and party leader Justin Trudeau’s “unequivocal support of Israel.”
He called the Jewish state “a friend [and] ally” that shares Canadian values and is the only democracy in a volatile part of the world.
He credited Prime Minister Stephen Harper for standing with Israel and said “it will be no different under Justin Trudeau.”
Oliver said the Tories’ strong support of Israel would continue through “fire and water,” and he referred to Canada’s voting record at the United Nations, saying it was more supportive of Israel than when the Liberals were in government.
How can the Liberals be trusted on this if they gain power, he asked, “particularly when the Liberal leader says one thing to the Jewish community and another to the Iranian community?”
Mendicino interjected, saying the comment was “beneath the dignity of your office,” and that Israel should not be made “a wedge issue.”
Referring to the BDS movement, Oliver said “we will oppose any attempt to undermine [Israel’s] economic viability and the ability to defend itself.”
Mendicino said Trudeau had helped defeat a BDS proposal at McGill University, his alma mater. He said that as a prosecutor in the 2010 Toronto 18 case, in which a number of young men were charged with plotting terrorist crimes, he understands the dangers to security felt by members of the Jewish community.
The accused were driven by a toxic hatred for the community and the Canadian way of life, including fundamental freedoms. “What the case taught me is that you cannot enjoy those liberties unless you are secure,” he said.
Thomson, who held several senior portfolios in the New Democratic government of Lorne Calvert in Saskatchewan, including finance minister, said NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair told him “there is absolutely no doubt that Israel has the right to exist and be recognized,” Thomson said.
Turning to the BDS movement, Thomson said “we are of course opposed to that.”
He said the New Democrats would like to see the re-introduction of a law to address Internet hate, likely referring to the cancellation of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
On the Iran deal, negotiated by P5 + 1 powers and which is designed to delay that country’s nuclear program by 10 years, Thomson said the key to the agreement is “verification every step of the way… I am skeptical of the deal with Iran.”
As to the suggestion that Canada resume normal relations with Iran, he said “we believe at this point the best we should seek with the Iranians is to provide consular services within the country.”
“Iran is an existential threat to Israel,” Mendicino stated. “It is within its constitution, and this is deeply problematic.”
He pointed to Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, two terrorist organizations, and said Iran cannot be trusted. But the P5+1 deal is not based on trust, he said. “It is based on verification.”
The Liberal party would not lift sanctions unless there is verification of the deal, he added.
Oliver noted that the Conservative government suspended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012 and has designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization.
Trudeau, he said, wants to re-establish full diplomatic relations “before Iran does anything to redress its appalling record on human rights,” he said.
He said a Tory government would retain sanctions connected to Iran’s human rights record.
Oliver and Mendicino clashed, though mildly, when Mendicino claimed Trudeau had said a Liberal government would consider reopening Canada’s embassy in Iran if Iran complies with conditions attached to the P5+1 deal. Oliver said Trudeau had not mentioned making reopening the embassy conditional on anything.
“Trudeau has talked about establishing full diplomatic relations with Iran. There is no question of that,” he said.
Much of the debate was devoted to economic policy. Oliver said the Conservatives were best positioned to steer the economy through turbulent times, while Mendicino said the Liberals would invest heavily in infrastructure and cut taxes to the middle class, and Thomson repeated the NDP position that it would balance the budget and cut taxes to small business.
During the exchange on the economy, Oliver corrected Mendicino’s statement that oil was priced around $30 a barrel (it is around $47, he noted) and later he pointed out, to counter Mendicino’s claim that he wasn’t a strong enough advocate for his own community, that the Tories had pledged $2.6 billion to Toronto for the SmartTrack transit program. He also said his last budget allocated $42 million to Baycrest Centre (to create the Canadian Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation).
Both opposition parties slammed the Tories’ economic policies. They suggested Oliver’s statistics didn’t square with how Canadians are feeling. Thomson said more than 10,000 manufacturing companies have gone out of business since 2000. Mendicino said the Tories presided over the worst jobs and growth record in 80 years. The Liberals would invest in infrastructure by borrowing at a time when interest rates were historically low, he said.