YOU WOULD be forgiven for thinking a sold out Mareel on a Monday night meant a touring band or a top stand-up comedian was in Lerwick.
It was, in fact, just nine people sitting on stage talking about fishing, ferries, Brexit and wind farms.
It was a sign of the interest in the Shetland by-election that hundreds of free tickets were snapped up for the BBC Radio Shetland hustings as voters got a chance to witness in real life the candidates they’ve been seeing posted through their letterboxes every other day.
There were a few empty seats on the night, but maybe that was because there was a double of episode of Coronation Street on telly at the same time – who knows.
Self-proclaimed “warm-up act” Davie Gardner quipped there was “more runners tonight then there is in the Grand National” before introducing host John Johnston.
Ten become eight, however, with UKIP’s mainland-based Stuart Martin not in attendance, while the Tory MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston was taken off the subs bench to stand in for the party’s candidate Brydon Goodlad due to health reasons.
The hustings opened with each candidate having a minute to tell the audience what they were all about, with Scottish Labour’s Johan Adamson detailing her life at home with her family and animals before saying her party “cares about people”.
Scottish Greens’ Debra Nicolson said she was “very passionate about the environment and all things that affect Shetland”.
Independent candidate Ian Scott, meanwhile, railed against “Tory/Lib Dem cuts” rather than talking about how many pets he has under his wing.
The councillor lamented the “whole attack on our welfare system and our NHS and everything else that I feel important in our existence”.
Fellow independent Michael Stout pointed to his experience as a councillor and also his involvement in the Our Islands Our Future campaign.
“I don’t believe the party system works particularly well,” he added.
Another independent, Peter Tait, said he was standing on a single issue – the monarchy returning to Scotland.
As a Christian, he said, “God wants the monarchy back to Scotland”.
The final independent candidate Ryan Thomson said he would be a “voice for Shetland”, adding that he is “politically homeless at the moment”.
He said he would work with government, yet also be free to vote however he liked. “An MSP should be accountable to the public,” the councillor added.
SNP man Tom Wills said “Shetland is ready for a change” after decades of Liberal Democrat representation.
He claimed it was “realistic to get things done in 18 months” on making transport more affordable, although he “won’t just toe the party line”.
Scottish Liberal Democrats’ Beatrice Wishart, sitting next to election rival Wills, said she would “speak up for Shetland”.
She said nursery provision, mental health and transport were among her key issues, while she referred to her experience as a councillor and as her work with former MSP Tavish Scott and Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael.
Halcro Johnston, meanwhile, said that Goodlad was “passionate about our islands” and respects the results of the Scottish independence and EU referendum votes.
To the questions, and the unenviable task of managing a debate with nine speakers in limited time. It might have flowed more naturally with half the number of candidates, but an election with a healthy number of ten candidates is certainly not to be sniffed at.
It was largely the jabbing of Wills, who took advantage of open goals to take shots at the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, and the outspoken bluster of Scott that gave the hustings much-needed spark and bite.
The first question, from Ruth Henderson, called out the “shabby treatment” of the seafood industry by the Scottish Government when it came to ferry provision and asked what the candidates would do to counter this.
Scott admitted that the SNP was “hidebound” by the Scottish Government’s “smaller pot” of funding from Westminster – but he said the party just “moans and greets” about it rather than fights it.
Wills retorted by saying that the “SNP has spent 10 years fighting austerity”.
But he admitted Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland has “not covered themselves in glory” when it comes to ferries, adding that more sailings could be the best option.
Wishart, meanwhile, refuted claims from Wills that the Lib Dems did not participate in the Scottish Government’s budget setting process.
She also described the Scottish Government chartering an extra freight vessel during peak times, like the Arrow last year, as a “political football”.
Halcro Johnston said at every election promises are made on transport by the SNP, but they are not delivered.
Thomson, meanwhile, said: “I think we have established where the problem lies – mainland party politics, and Shetland is the pawn”.
Adamson called for more investment in the boats and wider transport infrastructure, while Nicolson drew applause for saying the Northern Isles ferry contract should not be in the hands of a company like Serco.
Stout said Shetland had given “everything that’s been asked” to highlight ferry capacity needs, while Tait suggested new harbour facilities in Aberdeen could lead to bigger boats.
Concerns were also raised from the floor about the accessibility of transport in Shetland for disabled users, on services like buses and inter-island flights, while councillor George Smith questioned where the money would come from if Tom Wills’ pledge for free foot travel on council ferries came to fruition.
He said the council took in around £360,000 in foot passenger revenue last year, so in the absence of full fair funding for internal ferries, “which services would the council cut to pay for this?”
Wills said the free foot fares could kick in “when and if we secure additional funding from the Scottish Government”.
He claimed the idea could get government backing because it would “help the poorest in society” whilst also being environmentally friendly.
Wishart and Thomson both criticised the SNP government for failing to provide Shetland Islands Council with its full £7.9 million ask for internal ferry funding, with the latter claiming the £2.7 million shortfall is a drop in the ocean for the government.
A question also came in through video from Fair Isle’s Fiona Mitchell, asking how will each candidate would deliver funding for the proposed replacement Good Shepherd ferry which serves the island.
There was a desire across the board to see the improvements funded by the government, although Scott – not for the first time in his political life – suggested the council and Shetland Charitable Trust’s hundreds of millions in reserves could be dipped into more frequently.
The B word was raised in a question from Scottish Youth Parliament member Jonathan Dorrat on keeping EU programmes like the Erasmus exchange scheme going post-Brexit.
Halcro Johnston said he was the only one in support of Brexit despite voting to remain in 2016, as he felt the result of the referendum needed to be honoured. Scott said he wished to “abstain” from the show of hands.
Wishart attempted to strike a calmer tone on Brexit, saying her party is calling for a second vote on leaving the EU.
“It’s time for people to work together across the parties,” she said.
Another question came in from Shetland Fishermen’s Association’s Simon Collins asking what “tangible things” the candidates would do over the next 18 months to support the fishing industry.
Fishing is hugely important to Shetland’s economy and a vital political cog, but it was not exactly an exhilarating affair as the candidates agreed that more can be done to speak directly to the fishing industry to hear about their wants and needs.
There was, at least, a bit of fizz between Wills – who said it was the Tories who took the UK into the disliked EU Common Fisheries Policy – and Halcro Johnston, who said the SNP wants to keep the country in the CFP.
“We want to reform it,” Wills sniped back.
Scottish independence reared its head in a question from local farming union chief Cecil Eunson.
Scott said it is a “fundamental right for any country to have its own government”, but he stressed caution at conflating nationalism with independence.
But “if nothing else, it will get rid of those damn Tories” – drawing applause from the audience.
Wishart, whose campaign materials have regularly voiced fear at the prospect of an independence-supporting SNP representing Shetland, said: “Breaking up is hard to do – that’s been demonstrated in the last three years”.
The Lib Dem, along with Adamson and Tait, said she was against Scottish independence, with the 2014 vote needing to be respected.
“We were told the only way to stay in the EU was to say No to independence,” Wills bit back.
Nicolson showed support for independence, while Thomson and Stout said their main interest was in how it could affect Shetland.
Halcro Johnston, who is against Scotland going it alone, said it is easier for the SNP to keep talking about independence as it would mask their failings elsewhere.
The night’s final question focused on what each candidate would do to help the environment, with Thomson referring to his campaign to stop single-use plastics in Shetland as well as his role on the council’s environment and transport committee, which oversaw the introduction of home recycling last year.
Scott said the “bigger picture” is more important, while Nicolson pointed to her party’s Green New Deal which will be announced on Thursday.
Adamson went from Shetland debating zero-to-60 in a matter of seconds by talking about reusable bottles and metal straws before dropping in that she was against the proposed Viking Energy wind farm.
“Viking has to be cancelled because we can’t dig up all that peat,” she said.
Adamson described it as a “money making project” which will export energy out of Shetland, with the Labour candidate calling for the isles go to it alone when it comes to renewables to serve Shetland’s own needs.
Stout, meanwhile, said he felt the wind farm’s “green credentials don’t stack up”.
Wills, who works in the wave and tidal energy industry, admitted Viking was a “complex one for me”.
He said renewable energy projects are “part of the solution”, but he said he was “disappointed to see the community stake diluted” as SSE took over the development from the charitable trust earlier this year.
Wills called for better community engagement and strict monitoring of the development should the wind farm go ahead.
Amid concerns over the impact on peatland, he said that renewable energy projects have a carbon payback time, unlike fossil fuel ones.
Wishart, meanwhile, conceded there was “nothing that any of us here can say” about the the Viking decision as the wind farm has already received consent from the government.
However, she said more could be done on future wind developments, such as in areas like the minimum distance a turbine is from a household.
Nicolson said she opposed the wind farm, while Thomson said he did not think communities have really been able to have their say on the development.
Scott said the council had made a “huge mistake” in backing the wind farm a number of years ago, calling the turbines “monstrous windmills”.
Stout, however, noted that the concept of island proofing introduced in recent law can be used retrospectively – so it could be a potential way of raising concerns.
Trust large wind farms to get one of the most interesting discussions of the night going, but unfortunately things had to end there.
There was little time for questions from the floor during the evening, which could make made things a little more interesting – but it could have gone on all night.
It was unclear if there was a ‘winner’ on the night, but one “floating voter” who had backed the Liberal Democrats for years said they had been encouraged to swap sides to the SNP after watching the hustings.
Either way, the results will be known in the early hours of Friday morning after Shetland goes to the polls.
The hustings will be broadcast on BBC Radio Shetland tonight (Tuesday) at 6pm.
Shetland News will report live from the election count in Lerwick on Thursday evening.
Read more about all ten candidates at our special Shetland by-election page at: https://www.shetnews.co.uk/category/features/election-2019/
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