Provincial candidates square off at debate

M’CHIGEENG—Candidates from the three main parties vying for the legislative seat from the provincial riding of Algoma-Manitoulin gathered at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) on Wednesday, May 21 for what is likely to prove to be the only all candidates’ debate anywhere in the riding during June 12, 2014 election.

The Manitoulin Expositor continued its long-standing tradition of hosting the all candidates’ debate on Manitoulin Island, complete with coffee and doughnut refreshments.

Publisher and owner of The Expositor, Rick McCutcheon, introduced the moderator, former MSS principal Carolyn Lane-Rock and took note of the end of another long tradition at the Island debate. “For the first time in 30 years we do not have Captain Douglas Campbell,” he said. “In his own way he believed very much in the democratic process. He posed very vexing questions to all of the candidates.”

Mr. McCutcheon also made note of the fact that the MSS student elections were also underway at the same time and that was a very good sign of a healthy future for our political system.

“This is a political event and a social event as well,” noted Mr. McCutcheon of the all candidates’ debates, as he looked around the room that had a few moments before been buzzing with animated conversation, warm greetings and light-hearted jabs between political partisans, many of whom count themselves as close friends in other circumstances.

Mr. McCutcheon also made note of a 90-second multimedia anti-fracking information display set up outside of the meeting hall by local water protection activist Mike Wilton of Dominion Bay.

Ms. Lane-Rock noted that she was “a little rusty at this kind of thing, I am not getting any younger” before immediately dispelling any such notion with a no-nonsense outline of the rules and her expectations of a civil exchange between all parties and the audience.

[pullquote]Ms. Lane-Rock noted that she was “a little rusty at this kind of thing, I am not getting any younger” before immediately dispelling any such notion with a no-nonsense outline of the rules and her expectations of a civil exchange between all parties and the audience.[/pullquote]

Candidates for the Ontario Libertarian Party and the Ontario Green Party were unable to attend. All candidates were invited.

Ms. Lane-Rock then introduced each of the candidates, providing a short biography of each contender, beginning with Mr. Turner, born and raised in the North and a fifth generation merchant whose family has been serving the Manitoulin community for 135 years. She noted that he has held a number of positions in the community, including with the Little Current Business Improvement Association and the North Channel Marine Tourism Association. She noted that he has one grown daughter and another still at home.

“Hope is on the way with the million dollar jobs plan,” announced Mr. Turner. “Too many people are waking up worrying about their jobs.” He went on to assert that the PC platform is all about “kick starting” the economy.

Low taxes, less debt, ensuring affordable energy, training more skilled workers and “increasing trade with our neighbours” and reducing bureaucratic bottlenecks were the centerpieces of the platform that he outlined.

Mr. Turner said that his party would return local control of wind and solar energy projects and control the costs of energy contracts and expand the provincial economy.

“Premier Wynne had a chance, she said she would be different,” he said, while the NDP were “unrealistic, unattainable and unprepared.”

He insisted that his party would reduce corporate taxes by 30 percent to the lowest in North America and that by purchasing energy from lower cost jurisdictions like Quebec, his party could restore Ontario’s competitive manufacturing and industrial edge.

Mr. Hughson was born and raised on Manitoulin, is a father and small businessman with seven years of experience in former Liberal MPP Mike Brown’s office, has served as chief of staff for the Minister of Natural Resources and Aboriginal Affairs and is a dedicated minor hockey coach and official.

Mr. Hughson noted that the last time he stood on the stage at MSS he was a student, where he served as president of the student’s council and recalled fondly his political chats with former principals Roy Eaton and Norm Morrell. He said he was proud to have his father, a retired Hydro One worker and his mother, a former nurse at the Manitoulin Health Centre in the audience.

Mr. Hughson said that he can deliver results for Algoma-Manitoulin. “I can deliver, I can deliver results that will benefit all of us in Algoma-Manitoulin—and I already have.”

He noted that his experience at Queen’s Park makes him as familiar with the political landscape of Queen’s Park as the landscape and beauty of the Algoma-Manitoulin he loves.

“As Algoma-Manitoulin’s MPP, my focus will be on creating jobs and growing the Northern Ontario economy,” he said. “I want to fight for the budget—the budget Mike Mantha and Andrea Horwath refused to support. I believe in investing in healthcare, education, infrastructure and jobs. I’ll be fighting for our future.”

While Mr. Hughson made note of the seriousness of rising energy costs, he voiced strong support for the front line workers at Hydro One, “the lineman and foresters who go out and work in snow storms, ice storms and windy nights to make sure we have power.”

He turned tables on his opponents’ attacks on the energy front. “No party has clean hands on the electricity file,” he said. “The Harris Hudak plan for deregulation of hydro created more senior bureaucracy and administration, huge salaries and benefits and the Hudak plan for electricity will not reduce your bill at all.”

For the NDP he delivered another broadside. “We have also gotten rid of the debt retirement charge that was caused by the reckless NDP government. But I think we all agree that more needs to be done. I commit to you that I will lead the fight to ensure we have reasonable hydro rates.”

Mr. Hughson characterized the Progressive Conservative platform as a reckless declaration of war upon organized labour. “Their cuts will devastate Northern Ontario, devastate public services, like health and education,” he said. “Now is not the time for cutbacks in Northern Ontario.”

He characterized the NDP as having “no coherent plan. They make pie-in-the-sky promises, but won’t say how they’ll pay for them.”

The Liberal budget defeated by the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives laid out a clear plan for developing the province’s infrastructure to promote future growth, he said. A clear plan to build skills in the trades and provide assistance for people to save for their retirement. “I got into politics to help people’s lives,” he said.

Mr. Mantha lives in Elliot Lake with his wife and two children and worked in the labour movement before becoming a constituency worker for Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. He said that it was “great to be back on Manitoulin Island and seeing so many friendly faces.”

“Liberals have zero respect for Northern issues or Northerners,” said Mr. Mantha, leading off with a salvo at the Liberal government. “The Liberal government are not sound managers of the economy—they are a scandal-plagued government.”

Mr. Mantha characterized himself “a hardworking MPP who is willing to work with all parties to ensure positive results are achieved for Algoma-Manitoulin” before changing tack. “But this has a limit—I will not stand by silently as our families and Northern local economies are hurting.”

Mr. Mantha said that Northerners have long memories. “Despite what Liberals think, we Northerners don’t forget easily,” he said. “We don’t forget when they slashed the MNR budget, closed our provincial parks and moved our services south. We don’t forget when they cancelled the Bear Wise program resulting in more human-bear conflict. We don’t forget when they cancelled the Junior Ranger program, robbing our youth of these valuable learning experiences. We sure as heck don’t forget the liberals cancelling pretty much all transportation services north of the 401. We don’t forget them privatizing our winter road maintenance, forcing us to travel in unsafe conditions. We don’t forget the skyrocketing hydro bills sitting unpaid on our kitchen tables while energy CEO’s get unfair bonuses. We don’t forget the liberal “promises” of thousands of mining and refining jobs and we sure as heck don’t forget the scandals, eHealth, Ornge Air ambulance and gas plants scandals, just to name a few.”

Mr. Mantha went on to claim success on a number of fronts during his tenure as MPP for Algoma-Manitoulin. “We have worked with industry to re-open two vacant mills creating much needed full-time jobs. We fought to secure funding for the Chi-Cheemaun so the ferry could continue to support our local tourism economy. We worked to bring forward a cycling strategy to attract cycling tourism here on the Island,” he said. “I am particularly proud of the work we did for the Mindemoya hospital and the aboriginal health access centre (AHAC) in Aundeck Omni Kaning.”

Mr. Mantha said that New Democrats have a plan that actually “respects the north and will make a real difference for our families. We will get the Ring of Fire and other mining projects moving forward in order to create much-needed jobs. We will cut the waste in Hydro, cap CEO salaries and slash the $1 billion dollar subsidy to export electricity and put the savings back in your pocket. We will give drivers a break on their auto insurance. We will put 200 more salt trucks and snow plows on our Northern roads. We will increase minimum wage but also give small businesses a break with a Job Creator Tax Credit and lower the small business tax rates. We will hire 250 new nurse-practitioners, open 50 new 24-hour family health clinics, create 1,400 more long-term care beds, and implement a five-day home care guarantee. We will include our communities and First Nations in real decision-making that directly impacts our future. We will create good opportunities so our children don’t have to leave the north to find jobs and build their future somewhere else.” Continuing with an admonition that “we have accomplished many things together, but there is much more work to be done.”

The first question of the night came from Chris Rosser, who wanted to know what each candidate’s position on fracking was.

“There might be a place for it,” said Mr. Hughson, “but it sure as hell isn’t here on Manitoulin Island.”

[pullquote]

The first question of the night came from Chris Rosser, who wanted to know what each candidate’s position on fracking was.

“There might be a place for it,” said Mr. Hughson, “but it sure as hell isn’t here on Manitoulin Island.”

[/pullquote]

Mr. Turner recalled his family’s history defending the waters and Islands of the North Channel, finishing with the clear statement that he is against fracking and that he would “be damned” if he would sit back and allow it to happen on Manitoulin Island.

Mr. Mantha said that he was also “very much opposed to fracking,” but that he was very concerned that there is no clear policy against it in the province of Ontario. “I would be happy to work to develop that policy.”

Ingrid Belenson asked the candidates if they had a position on the rights of consumers to non-genetically modified foods—adding in an addendum in regards to being able to access raw milk.

Mr. Mantha said the issue of GMOs had come up and that there is not enough scientific evidence available on the subject, but that individuals should have a choice. He noted that if farmers supplied raw milk to individuals without pasteurizing it, the farmer would be opening himself up to legal liabilities.

Mr. Hughson said that if people wished to consume raw milk, they should be allowed to do so, but that the point of pasteurization is to keep people safe. He said that there should be better labeling to allow people to know what they are consuming when it comes to GMOs.

Mr. Turner said that he was interested in the science and that there should be proper tests in place, and those tests would be possible with a strong economy and less government debt. A strong economy was also his answer to the question of GMO labeling.

A question from retired teacher Barry Epstein about Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s plan for massive cuts to the public service and why he would possibly think that cutting education jobs was a good idea drew a strong response from Mr. Turner.

He called media reports of the planned cuts were wildly misinterpreted and the by the opposition parties, who are claiming that tens of thousands of jobs would be eliminated. He asserted that the job reductions would be accomplished through attrition, with five percent a year, and the cuts would be implemented within two years and that the majority of those job cuts would take place in the middle management categories. He added that class size reductions were “not pretty” and that by putting two more students in each class the government would free up education dollars.

Mr. Hughson said that cutting 100,000 jobs from the provincial public service was not going to “improve services or graduation rates.”

Mr. Mantha replied that the plan was an “attack on teachers. You all remember Bill 115,” he continued. “That was an attack by the Conservatives and the Liberals.”

Greg Young questioned the loss of a $4 an hour increase to personal support worker salaries proposed by the Liberal budget and asked what its fate would be under the candidates’ prospective parties in government.

Mr. Hughson pointed out that the $4 increase was contained in the Liberal budget defeated by the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives. He stated that Premier Kathleen Wynne had pledged to reintroduce that budget.

Mr. Turner reiterated the job creation claims contained within Mr. Hudak’s proposed cuts to the public service. “Seventy-seven percent of Ontario Power Generation employees are on the sunshine list (making over $100,000),” he said. “That is definitely not going to get the economy back on its feet.”

“The NDP absolutely support PSWs,” said Mr. Mantha. “People deserve the pay they are entitled to and the recognition of the work that they do.”

“You had a choice sir,” interjected Mr. Hughson. “You could have passed the budget and supported PSWs.”

Mike Wilton of Dominion Bay began a series of assertions on the impact of fracking and a lack of clarity in provincial regulations before Ms. Lane-Rock asked him to move to his question. Mr. Wilton said that he wanted to know who has the power to issue licences, but that he really did not have a question as such.

Mr. Mantha said he would do his best to answer the question, pointing out that the regulation of resource extraction falls within the powers of the province, but that such decisions should be made only following full and complete consultation with the First Nations.

Mr. Hughson said that the proximity to the Great Lakes is of critical concern and that “we need to clarify how they will be impacted.”

Mr. Turner said that he believed the federal government was finally waking up to the issues surrounding Great Lakes water issues and that provincially “there is a lot more that needs to be done.”

Mr. Mantha noted that he has met with many stakeholders on the question of water levels and that he disagreed with the International Joint Commission taking a monitoring position. “That is not acceptable.”

Another question on party positions on minimum standards of care in nursing homes led to Mr. Mantha reiterating his party’s platform of increasing long term care beds by 1,400 and investing $70 million dollars into the sector.

Mr. Turner said that “unlike these two gentlemen, we have a plan.” He went on to outline the need for creating a strong economy in order to pay for better services. “There is too much in inflated salaries and not enough in front line workers.”

Mr. Hughson interjected to Mr. Turner that “your cuts will hurt the people who don’t deserve to have to sit in their excrement for any length of time.”

Mr. Turner retorted that the Liberal government has had the opportunity to deal with the issue for 10 years.

Dave Wilson asked what the parties would do for the homelessness issues in the North.

Mr. Mantha linked homelessness to affordability issues, adding that under the previous governments opportunity and affordability had been taken away.

Mr. Turner said that homelessness was a question of affordability and that he had seen the issue in his business. “You can’t afford a home if you can’t get a job,” he said. ‘We need to focus on jobs and getting the economy moving.”

“Homelessness is something we don’t see in the North,” said Mr. Hughson. “It is an invisible problem. The Liberal budget had a number of provisions to address those issues.”

Sharon Montgomery questioned the treatment of injured workers and asked what the parties would do to overturn the Workmans Safety and Insurance Board changes that would hit workers injured on the job hard.

Mr. Mantha said that those changes would make it harder for injured workers to provide for their families. “This is a huge fight,” he said. “I am happy to stand with the Manitoulin Island Injured Workers Group.”

“A lot of bluster and thunder from the NDP,” scoffed Mr. Hughes, noting that he had met with members of the group that recently protested at the Little Current Swing Bridge. “I wish they had come to me with this before.” He asked that the group supply him with information on the issue.

Mr. Turner said that he too had the opportunity to meet with the protestors at the bridge. “We are looking at completely revamping the system,” he said.

Guy Newlands asked the candidates their position on cycling and the Complete Streets legislation put forward by the Liberal government.

“I am a strong supporter of that,” said Mr. Mantha. “If it is a good idea, it is a good idea. If it makes sense it makes sense.”

“Thank you for that ringing endorsement of the Liberal plan,” quipped Mr. Hughson.

Mr. Turner continued to link the answer to his party’s focus on creating a stronger economy and less debt. “To make these leaps and bounds we need a strong economy and we need less debt.”

Colin Pick asked if the candidates would commit to getting the premier to overturn the changes to the WSIB adjudication process.

Mr. Mantha said he would do everything in his power.

Mr. Turner said that, if elected, his party has a plan to change the WSIB.

Mr. Hughson noted that he had asked for correspondence and that if he was provided with that he would commit to start working on the issue that very night.

Heather Jeffkins expressed concerns about the collective bargaining rights of workers and whether the Progressive Conservative plan would mean one million minimum wage jobs.

Mr. Turner said that his party was focussed on the reinvigoration of the manufacturing sector. “We can’t rebuild the economy with public service jobs. I am sorry.”

Mr. Hughson pointed out that the defeated Liberal budget contained a $2.5 billion job plan. “Government needs to partner with the private sector,” he said. He noted the impact and success of the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation. “Mr. Mantha’s party wants to annihilate the NOHFC completely.”

Mr. Mantha cited his deep labour roots. “I came off of the shop floor,” he said. “I was a steward.” He again invoked the memory of Bill 115 and said that the North needs to retain more value added jobs.

Mr. Turner said that there wasn’t a collective bargaining contract worth its ink if high energy bills drive investment and manufacturing out of the province.

Mr. Turner was challenged for answering the question a second time and admonished to stick to one reply.

Questions from the audience went on to deal with cuts to health care budgets, concerns about mental health and teen suicide rates, and further questions on energy costs and fracking. The answers given by the candidates largely followed the gist of those answers supplied to similar questions asked previously.

In answer to a question about the candidate’s views on mental health issues and teen suicides from Dr. Maureen Reade, Mr. Turner invoked his experience as a provincial government appointment to the Local Integrated Health Network. Mr. Hughson said that he would like to sit down to discuss the issues with her and Mr. Mantha said that he had seen too many suicides in First Nations communities and that more needs to be done to address the issue.