Election 2015: Conservative candidates skipping UVic debate

Political science professor says debate decision could be part of Conservative strategy

Organizers of the University of Victoria Student Society’s upcoming all-candidates debate are disappointed by the lack of interest from local Conservative candidates.

All 12 of the Green, Liberal and NDP candidates from the South Island ridings of Esquimalt Saanich Sooke, Cowichan Malahat Langford, Saanich Gulf Islands and Victoria have confirmed they will attend the Oct. 7 all-candidates debate in UVic’s Student Union Building.

However, the UVSS had only heard back from one Conservative, Victoria candidate John Rizzuti, who declined. A spokesperson for Robert Boyd told the Saanich News he will not attend the UVic debate as the campus is no longer in the boundaries of Saanich Gulf Islands. Instead, Boyd’s representative invited students to attend another debate within the boundaries of Saanich Gulf Islands.

As of Wednesday, the UVSS hadn’t heard back from Esquimalt Saanich Sooke Conservative candidate Shari Lukens or newly nominated Conservative candidate Martin Barker in the Cowichan Malahat Langford riding.

UVSS director of external relations Kenya Rogers said they’ve gone out of their way to reach the local Conservatives.

The Conservatives were also the only candidates who did not respond to a questionnaire developed by a UVSS committee for students ahead of the Oct. 7 debate, Rogers said.

The UVSS has a long history of running municipal, provincial and federal election debates at UVic, and are encouraging all students to vote in the 2015 election.

“We’re frustrated,” she said. “Unfortunately, when Conservatives choose to not participate in events it looks like, to them, we don’t matter. As a student society we represent a diversity of backgrounds on campus and want to have all voices there.”

The consensus on campus is that high tuition and student debt is a federal issue that students have a right to talk about with candidates, Rogers added.

“We have [about] 5,000 students on campus [able to vote] for the first time. If we have parties alienating those voters in their first opportunity to be part of the democratic process it’s detrimental. We have a party that says [students] don’t matter.”

UVic associate professor of political science Jamie Lawson said it sounds like part of the growing trend pioneered by the Conservatives to keep a lower profile in certain areas.

“If they are not attending, and were not just late in responding, then it might be part of the strategy of centralized messaging that the Conservatives use,” Lawson said.

“If I’m right, the Conservatives may be making an assessment they’re not competitive here.”

Already in the last week two Conservative candidates from Toronto-area ridings made national news that embarrassed the party.

“The worry is a candidate in a place not competitive could say something that’s not in line with their message and inadvertently, it turns into a national story to their detriment,” Lawson said.

There could be other benefits by abstaining from debates.

For one, without the leading party represented in the debate the opposition parties could end up picking fights among themselves. It also allows the Conservatives a chance to discredit the debate, suggesting the real debate is somewhere else, Lawson added.

The UVSS all-candidates debate begins at 11:30 a.m. in SUB’s Vertigo Room on Oct. 7.