By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor
Earlier this month the Simon Fraser Student Society hosted a debate for three of the candidates running in the Burnaby North-Seymour riding. I think it’s fair to say that the event was far more entertaining for those who attended than anyone expected — especially for local politics.
New Democratic Party candidate and clear fan favourite Svend Robinson came to the debate with both charm and proverbial knives, while incumbent Terry Beech fought a losing battle to defend the honour of the Liberal Party. Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Amita Kuttner bonded with the audience over post-grad trauma. Recently disavowed Conservative candidate Heather Leung didn’t show up at all. What follows are some of my witty observations, interpreted from the mad scribbles in my notebook.
- Terry Beech starts strong by telling a room full of university students that they can’t have free tuition. This was perhaps the boldest gamble of the night and it did not play well. Credit given to the audience for not slinging any tomatoes; who can afford to waste good produce? But even if they had, Beech probably would have shielded himself with his economics degree. I understand that fiscal responsibility is something that politicians have to keep in mind when campaigning, but it probably wasn’t the best idea to tell a group of students who just lost a hard-fought battle against tuition increases that if everyone could attend university for free, their degrees would become worthless.
Honestly, the fact that many employers now demand a four-year degree at minimum speaks to the insane ways that society both privileges and maintains wealth at the very top. I’m sure if we somehow managed to help anyone who wanted a degree to get one we could also come up with a way to make sure everyone has a good job. We as a society forget sometimes that these economic barriers are human made, and can therefore be changed by human initiative.
- Svend Robinson shivs his opponents and the crowd goes wild. The fact that Robinson is a seasoned politician was starkly obvious next to Kuttner who, while having several attractive policies, lacked the experienced political rhetoric to really make them shine. However, Robinson reserved his most cutting verbal attacks for the embattled Liberal MP, calling out Beech and the ruling Liberal government as though the debate would be won by the candidate who landed the sickest burn. This sort of old school political bombardment had the potential to grow old quick with a crowd saturated by the vitriol leaking out of the political scene to the south; however Robinson saved himself by confidently laying out his policies in contrast to those of the Liberals — policies that were undeniably well-received by the audience.
- Beech casually name-drops Oxford and Harvard and suggests that an SFU degree can get you there too! After his comment implying that the value of university degrees should be preserved by enforcing financial barriers, this just smacked of such privileged elitism that even the audience didn’t know what to do — and so defaulted to polite applause. In the background, the sound of Robinson gleefully sharpening his knives could be heard.
- Amita Kuttner calls for the dramatic overthrow of capitalism and colonialism (sorry not sorry). Aside from the heartfelt stories they shared about their struggles throughout their post-secondary experience, by far Kuttner’s biggest and most successful talking points were about the necessity of rethinking our relationship to both our economic system and our settler-colonial history and society. Unsurprisingly, coming from the Green Party platform, Kuttner based these policies on the urgent need to address the climate crisis, with special emphasis on the historic role of Indigenous peoples as the stewards and protectors of the land. Personally, if Kuttner is leading the way for a complete overthrow of our political and economic order in order to buy us a few more years of breathable air and clean water, I’m here for it.
- Business, economics, and the natural sciences are the only majors worth talking about, apparently. All right, this critique might be a bit unfair given that the candidates (Beech and Kuttner specifically) were speaking out of their own educational experience, but as someone studying in the social sciences, it always rankles a little to feel as though my study field is undervalued. This is neither the time nor place to launch an impassioned defence for the arts, humanities, and social sciences, however it would have been nice to hear the candidates talk about the holistic value of the university, and not speak as though only a handful of majors actually even exist here.
- Heather Leung’s absence starts to feel like a strategic move for Conservatives. Setting aside the anti-LGBTQ2+ rhetoric that got Leung kicked out of the Conservative party (and which likely played a large part in her refusal to attend the debate) her absence definitely hurt the Liberals more than the Conservatives. Without a candidate sitting to the political right of Beech, the Liberal MP limped through the debates dragging the baggage of the entire Liberal Party behind him. Coupled with the debate taking place at a predominantly left-leaning university, Beech ended up looking like the furthest right candidate on stage by a large margin. Given that the Liberals are the biggest competition of the Conservative Party at the moment, Leung’s absence was definitely a net-win for the Conservatives.
- The pipeline was a big mistake, no contest. Both Robinson and Kuttner pounced on Beech over Justin Trudeau’s decision to purchase and subsequently approve the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion in almost the same breath as calling a national climate emergency. While the audience waited on baited breath for the ensuing bloodbath, Beech countered with his own record challenging the prime minister on the issue of the pipeline. For all the rest of his hiccups that evening, Beech still managed to successfully stand on his commitment to listen to and bring forward the concerns of his constituents. For that, neither the NDP nor the Green candidates were able to take him down.
Overall, the debates brought up several issues deeply important to many students studying at SFU. The audience was engaged, and the candidates thoughtfully and respectfully responded to the questions, and to each other. Political engagement is important for a healthy democracy. It was nice to see so many students had come to be a part of the event, and that the candidates took the time to listen to our concerns and considered them seriously.