Candidates put their cases to Althing audience
It was not the bruising battle many in the audience no doubt had hoped for, but the Althing hustings last night did have its moments.
Around 80 people attended the Tingwall hall to hear the views of the Scottish election candidates on a variety of issues.
Thankfully it was not a repeat of last year’s UK election event, when Tory candidate Donald Cameron failed to attend and LibDem Alistair Carmichael was unfortunately taken ill, leaving just Danus Skene for the SNP and Labour candidate Gerry McGarvey to speak.
This time all four hopefuls were on stage, Mr Skene making his second bid for office along with Robina Barton for Labour, Cameron Smith for the Conservatives and Tavish Scott for the Liberal Democrats.
They were each invited by chairman Andrew Halcrow to address the audience for a few minutes and all were fairly convincing in their own way.
Ms Barton, who was rather peeved at having drawn the short straw (alphabetical order) and been asked to speak first, was pretty down to earth. She preferred to emphathise what was good about her own party rather than attacking her opponents.
“The most important point to say about Labour at the moment is that they want change,” she said, adding that people would be prepared to pay a little bit more tax if it gave them the services required.
She wanted to “close the attainment gap in schools” and “move away from the centralism we have seen under the present government”.
Mr Scott, not surprisingly, proceeded to lay into the SNP administration basically from the outset.
He mentioned the “draconian” rules imposed on the fishing industry, which were not helped by the Scottish government, the “shambles” of the overdue Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments and police centralisation.
“I believe that I can provide the energy and experience that Shetland needs,” Mr Scott said.
Mr Skene said his mission was to “get away from the no, no, no that you have just heard and persuade you with a bit of yes”.
He wanted the audience to endorse another term for the government. “What you have been dealing with are not SNP cuts [but] cuts imposed by economic policies at UK level,” he stressed.
Mr Skene defended his party’s record on education and health, the fact that Modern Apprenticeships had been now taken on by 129 young Shetlanders, and the freezing of council tax.
He promised 100 per cent broadband to all areas by the end of the next parliament, and pledged to push the UK government to deliver on the matter of interconnectors.
Mr Smith spoke of his seven years working in Brussels where he had been involved in policies “from firearms to forklifts” and “from ski-lifts to safety harnesses”.
The SNP was now in many ways “the new Scottish establishment”, he said. Their budget had increased and “in spite of what Danus says the gap between richest and poorest under the SNP on educational attainment has widened”.
Mr Smith would like Shetland to once more back a Tory candidate, in the way the isles did before the 1950s, and elect a “young representative who brought the benefit of influence”.
He added: “The SNP is a closed shop. You either toe the line or you are not involved.
“[Jeremy] Corbyn and [Kezia] Dugdale are leaders who, try as they might, just can’t engage with the general public.
“You can be the hardest working MSP but without the leverage of a party behind you, you can’t achieve anything.”
The meeting was then thrown open to contributions from the floor, with some in the audience wishing to make a statement rather than ask a direct question.
One example was Jeemie Smith from Sandwick, an Althing regular. He made the point that Mr Skene seemed at times to distance himself from SNP policies and “must be the only one in there who does”.
Retired postman Bill Adams addressed Mr Scott directly on his record of attendance in the Scottish Parliament over the last five years. He wanted to know why he was absent on 19th February 2014 when the Children and Young Persons Bill was being debated.
On the issue of the controversial “named persons” legislation he demanded to know how Mr Scott would have voted.
Mr Scott could not remember for certain where he was on that date – he may have been in Shetland for a “vitally important” meeting of the NFU.
He intimated that he would have voted for the Bill as it was a matter of great concern to make sure health visitors were in place in certain circumstances. “If we save just one of these children it will be worth passing the legislation, he added.
George Gagic wanted to know how the candidates would be voting in the forthcoming European referendum and likely would have been happy to hear that all four wanted to stay in the EU.
They also all gave a thumbs up to Brae teacher Irvine Tait’s question on whether they would like more subjects to be available to pupils in S4, although Mr Scott added that it was a matter for individual education authorities.
Other comments included subjects such as fishing, agriculture, broadband, energy and even the perceived financial incompetency of the SIC. But strangely no-one really touched on transport, which is such a burning issue for many in the isles.
• For more see The Shetland Times on Friday.