At first blush, the television reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press captured the public mood in his column Saturday when he dissed televised mayoral "debates".
"These days -- days which include, of course, the current civic-election campaign in Winnipeg -- debates and forums are pretty much a mockery, exercises in rote repetition of over-rehearsed talking points that reveal nothing about the candidates except their shared ability to say as little as possible for as long as possible in order to avoid being caught in a "gotcha!" moment." wrote TV scribe Brad Oswald.
"In short, watching televised political debates is a complete waste of time."
After spending the weekend reviewing the mayoral forums on Shaw TV and CBC TV, we have to demur.
While he was spot-on when describing the folly of the format, the true blame for failing the public lies not with the politicians but with the so-called professional reporters.
They're the ones moderating the debates, they're the ones asking the questions, and they're the ones who are missing the big stories. Yes, we said big stories.
Here's some of the elections news that was NEVER reported or grossly underreported by the professional journalists covering the mayoral campaign.
* Nobody's talking about the Vision Thing anymore
For the past four years pundits have criticized Sam Katz for not having a vision for Winnipeg, unlike their patron saint, former mayor Glen (Me Me Me) Murray.
Well, Katz spelled it out in the Shaw forum in words small enough for even professional journalists to understand, and...nothing.
"You have to look at light rail transit. That's what vision is all about," said Katz. "That's what Stephen Juba had many years ago when he talked about monorail."
"We're not planning for today; we're planning for 20 years from now."
And Judy Waylycia-Leis's vision? She doesn't have 'a' vision, she has plans.
"I've got a plan on the table," she says repeatedly. In fact, she said on the CBC forum, "I've got dozens of plans that have all been costed out."
So far, not one reporter has asked to see those "dozens of plans, all costed out."
But there was one big and related story at the Shaw debate that soared right over the heads of the snoozing election reporters.
Sam Katz declared that his critics have got it wrong about BRT.
* Stage One of BRT is Stage One-and-Only and always was, he said.
"People are confused because I don't think everybody's been told what's going on," said Katz.
"Bus Rapid Transit, basically, (runs) from downtown to Jubilee. When it gets to Jubilee, it crosses over to Pembina Highway and continues down the diamond lanes all the way south on Pembina Highway. So it's continuous." he said.
That was always the deal with former Premier Gary Doer, said the incumbent mayor. "We had a thorough understanding." There was never going to be a Stage Two of BRT, leaving the field open for his pet project, an LRT line to act as a prod for residential and economic development along its route.
A perennial question for mayoral candidates is what they would do to promote economic growth in the city. FP reporter Barley Kives asked a fractured variant of that question at the CBC forum:
"What would you do to bring more businesses here, more head offices here, more exciting businesses, to keep people here, to attract people here and to diversify the economy?"
He got two widely different answers from two divergent perspectives.
Judy Wasylycia-Leis answered first with a shockingly frank observation.
"You know what I've heard from business over and over again throughout this campaign? We've got a pretty steady economy. It's a pretty good business climate. But what's wrong is that they're (sic) not a well built, beautiful city."
"We've got crime and violence in our street that is deterring people from coming here. They say if you do that first, fix those problems first, we'll be able to create the conditions for bringing more business here and playing on and building on our innovation which combines with our cultural excitement and combines with our--that strong sense that business bring to this community." (Yes, we know, the second half makes no sense, but its what she said.)
Then, after trashing Winnipeg as a hellhole of crime and crumbling streets, in the very next breath she said "we should be out there bragging about Winnipeg, being a champion for the greatness of this city" starting with Centralia 2010 in St. Boniface this week.
Centrallia is described as a business-to-business forum where representatives from small businesses, chambers of commerce, economic development agencies and government trade representatives from around the world come to connect and share opportunities for developing new business relationships.
Wasylycia-Leis, who has never had a real job in her life unconnected with the NDP, and who has never started or run a business, sees economic development as a PR challenge.
Sam Katz was more prosaic but spoke from the perspective of someone who has operated businesses most of his life.
"It's all about taxes. That's what they look at---taxes and utilities, that's what any business person first looks at."
The two main candidates for mayor are poles apart on the issue of taxes.
Judy Wasylycia-Leis is flatout for a hike in property taxes--two percent a year for four years, raising about $32 million. This will be spent on infrastructure.
"I think this is the fundamental question in the election," she said in the Shaw forum.
The amount to be raised is a drop in the ocean compared to the $3 billion to $4 billion infrastructure deficit. Her weak response (honest) is "something is better than nothing."
Her point is that Winnipeg needs to be seen doing everything it can to raise its own money before it asks for financial contributions from the province and federal government.
Sam Katz takes the exact opposite view. He says Winnipeg is already contributing vastly more than its share on infrastructure projects.
Out of every one dollar of taxes--after all transfers and grants---Winnipeg keeps only 7 cents, says Katz. The federal government winds up with 28 cents and the province rakes in 65 cents.
7-28-65. That's the formula that must be changed, he says, and...
* Sam Katz is prepared to go to war with the NDP government to get more money.
Katz wants the province to designate one percent of provincial sales tax to Winnipeg, which would amount to $130 million now and would grow with the economy. The NDP have shown no sign they're willing to pony up, so Katz has drawn a line in the sand.
"There's an election coming up (in 2011)," he warns. "Unlike any other city, Winnipeg comprises over two-thirds of the province."
In short, we've got the muscle to defeat the NDP unless they do the right thing.
Why does he believe he can succeed in getting a one percent cut of PST?
"Because I think the people finally are united to get this done, and do what's fair and right, and you can see when you're getting only seven cents of every tax dollar, no way can you match one-third, one-third, one-third funding."
"The people's voice will be heard."
Of course what Katz isn't saying is that the provincial government is giving Winnipeg $218.6 million this year through an assortment of grants and co-funding, including a share of provincial income tax and fuel tax revenue, funding for Winnipeg transit, a police helicopter and cadet program, bike paths, and various infrastructure projects.
Crime, as you can see from Judy Waylycia-Leis's survey of businessmen, remains the main issue of the election. Attacking the crime rate is a central plank of Katz's reelection campaign.
He was asked pointblank during the Shaw forum how many more police do we need?
And he answered.
* That's all. We need only 58 more police "to accomplish our goal", he said.
20 to walk beats. 20 to the gang unit to babysit the worst gang leaders. And 18 to ride in cruiser cars.
JustJudy, meanwhile, is sticking to her plan to fight crime without getting all legal. She wants to address "the roots of crime", which she described earlier in her campaign as " poverty, homelessness, alienation, despair and lack of access to jobs, education, and training."
Why should Winnipegers believe you and what would you do, she was asked.
"Because I have a plan," she replied.
She told the Shaw-TV audience she's proposing "a number of very serious programs" to tackle the root causes, a key one being the Reach program in Edmonton, which sets timetables for action.
So, we checked out the Reach program in Edmonton, and promptly keeled over in a diabetic coma from all the sugary social worker sweetness.
The program calls for every social work agency on the planet to cooperate with every other social work agency on the planet to coordinate everything they do to keep criminals out of the clutches of police while turning society on its head to let criminals and would-be criminals gently find their way. And they have a timetable, alright---10 years.
* Judy Wasylycia-Leis's anti-crime strategy is to change society 180 degrees over ten years.
It's funny that no reporter has pointed out that the provincial NDP has been doing everything that she wants to do for the last, uh, let's see....why, 10 years. How's that hopey-changey thing worked out?
Some election reporters have distinguished themselves by inserting their own bizarre agendas in the mayoral forums.
- Bartley Kives of the Free Press keeps raising a waterpark as an election issue at every opportunity when not demanding that Sam Katz come clean about having seen a summary of a draft of a leaked parking study before he got on an elevator somewhere.
- No reporter has asked serious questions about the rigged consultation process that preceeded the Disraeli Bridge project and the rash of bike paths. The lack of legitimate consultation with constituents has become an election issue in several wards (hello John Orlikow and Jenny Gerbasi).
- And the Asper family has become radioactive on the election trail. No mayoral candidate has pointed to all the tax and tourist money the city will be getting from the cursed Museum for Human Rights or David Asper's imagined high-end shopping centre, the Elms. Funny how nobody is claiming credit for the new stadium.The best question-and-answer exchange of all the mayoral forums didn't involve a reporter
Fringe candidate Rav Gill asked JustJudy at the Shaw forum for an example of some initiative she started and led during her years of public service that benefited her constituents.
She got a ban on the sale of flavoured cigarillos to young people.
You can't make this up.