There weren't many empty seats left in the John Elliott Theatre Wednesday night as a crowd of nearly 200 turned out to hear from their federal election candidates in a debate hosted by the University Women's Club. All Wellington-Halton Hills candidates, except for Carolann Krusky of the Christian Heritage Party who did not participate, had a chance to introduce themselves and their party platforms to voters before answering several audience questions on issues ranging from immigration to foreign aid. The candidates were asked if their parties would be willing to change the Young Offender's Act (now called the Youth Criminal Justice Act) so it is no longer a tool for people to hide behind. Conservative candidate Michael Chong said they had no specific plans for the Act, but "we're proposing to toughen up the criminal justice system." He said they plan to implement mandatory minimum jail terms for serious crimes involving guns, hire 2,500 additional police officers across the country, toughen up border security, and invest $50 million in youth at risk. "It's a difficult task to determine when people should be punished or when they should be guided into a more appropriate venue for their activities," said Liberal Rod Finnie. He said the Liberals' threepronged approach is to ban the use of handguns, put more RCMP officers at the border to stop the flow of handguns and impose mandatory sentencing for those caught with or committing crimes with guns. He said the Liberals aren't planning to do anything with the Act at this point, and the long-term solution, however is to deal with problems created in inner cities 10 years ago when school boards and social agencies "were starved" of funding. The candidates were also asked why the government maintains high rates of immigration without adequate border security and sufficient funds to integrate legitimate immigrants? "We believe we need immigration because Canada's birth rate is falling," said Finnie. He said immigrants are needed to help fill the work gaps. He said he didn't agree with the statement there are gaps in border security. Noel Duignan, NDP candidate, disagreed, and said that border posts in some areas of Quebec, New Brunswick, the Prairies and British Columbia "are anything but secure." "That's where we need to have armed customs officers and increase the presence of the RCMP," said Duignan. Brent Bouteiller of the Green Party said when immigrants come to Canada they "find a system so convoluted and that takes so long to occur that often they give up or run out of money."
"I believe we need to revamp the immigration system altogether," said Bouteiller. "We need to keep the doors open to fill the skilled trade shortage and replace our soon to be retired baby boomers," said independent candidate Mike Wisniewski. Wisniewski said the Conservatives' plan to arm border officers is one option he would like to take to his constituents for their opinion. Chong was asked if he supported Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's proposal to include land rights in the Constitution, which the questioner said would affect other levels of government from protecting the environment and give corporations and individuals the right to quarry or dump on their own lands. "I don't accept the premise of the question entirely," said Chong. He said land rights in the Charter won't give landowners the right to dump toxic chemicals or do whatever they want to on their property. "It means that events like the implementation of the greenbelt would not be done the way it was done recently," said Chong. He said if property rights were enshrined in the Constitution the government would have to pay compensation before implementing such a policy. Finnie disagreed with Chong's view. "The land and the water are the property of all of us. We are, some of us, more secure tenants, but we are only tenants," he said to a hearty round of applause. The candidates were also asked how they would meet and by what deadline, the .7 per cent of Gross Domestic Product UN suggestion on foreign aid, and what form would it take. "We as a party are committed to the longterm goal of .7 per cent of GDP for foreign aid, however, we don't have a timeframe in which to commit to hitting that target," said Chong, who pointed to the foreign aid rate under Mulroney's Conservative government which was roughly .5 per cent. He criticized the Liberals for contributing much less than that. "I think the fiscal record does speak for itself," said Finnie. "When the Conservatives left power in 1993 the deficit was approximately $40 billion." He said now that the Liberals have turned that around, they can attend to other priorities, and have committed to doubling aid from .28 per cent to .56 per cent in the short term. Duignan said the NDP would raise the foreign aid contribution to .7 per cent by 2015, and introduce a debt cancellation strategy. Bouteiller said the Green Party would meet the foreign aid target of .5 per cent by 2010, and .7 per cent by 2015. Wisniewski said he had a different strategy for foreign aid. "I believe that individual contributions should outweigh foreign aid," said Wisniewski, who would like to increase the percentage people can get back on their income taxes. The candidates were also asked about their views on genetically modified food, human rights in China, an elected senate, and spacebased weapons.