Candidates discuss manufacturing, national debt and VIA Rail

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Stratford & District Chamber of Commerce hosts PRC debate Oct. 14
By Dan Rankin
Wednesday night at the Pyramid Centre in St. Marys, while a sizeable crowd was gathered in the lobby to watch the Toronto Blue Jays’ historic Game 5 win in the ALDS, a slightly larger crowd was gathered in the community centre to watch six Perth-Wellington federal candidates discuss local issues in a debate hosted by the Stratford & District Chamber of Commerce. Longtime CJCS radio DJ Eddie Matthews moderated the campaign’s final debate, which saw the candidates discuss issues ranging from the future of local manufacturing to VIA Rail.
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Stratford & District Chamber of Commerce hosts PRC debate Oct. 14
It was the 11th debate local candidates had taken part in, dating back to Sept. 16 at the Queen’s Inn in Stratford. There were five debates held in Stratford, hosted by organizations including the Social Justice Group, the Stratford and Area Builders Association, the University Women’s Club and Stratford Central Secondary School. Listowel hosted two, while others took place in Kenilworth, Minto and Alma.
Seated from left to right on the podium were Christian Heritage Party candidate Irma De Vries, Independent candidate Roger Fuhr, Liberal Party candidate Stephen McCotter, Conservative Party candidate John Nater, New Democratic Party candidate Ethan Rabidoux and Green Party candidate Nicole Ramsdale.
One of the first topics raised was how each candidate would work to preserve and create manufacturing jobs in the riding. De Vries said her party would return to borrowing from the Bank of Canada as opposed to the country’s chartered banks, and offer loans to manufacturers and cities to rebuild infrastructure. “By not paying interest, our economy would grow, and by removing the money from circulation when it’s paid back, the program would be non-inflationary,” she said.
Nater said the Conservatives would continue with the advanced manufacturing fund and investing in innovation that creates new technologies, promising to “create an advanced manufacturing hub located here in southern Ontario,” that would conduct research and ensure that research reached the market in a timely fashion.
“We need to keep payroll taxes low, keep the cost of doing business low, so that manufacturing and all businesses can afford to survive in the Ontario economy,” Nater said.
McCotter and Rabidoux both highlighted manufacturing jobs that have been lost, in the riding and around the country. “You need look no farther than across the street to the Dana plant,” McCotter said. “I think 700 full-time good-paying jobs were here under Stephen Harper’s watch and now they’re gone. The KSR plant in Stratford had over 500. They’re gone.”
Rabidoux said the country needs a balanced economic strategy. “Under Stephen Harper we have lost 400,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs, and the big reason why is because the Conservative economic strategy put all of the eggs into one basket – oil and gas,” the NDP candidate said. “When the prices cratered, we went belly up.”
Both were also critical of the trade deals the Conservative government has signed, and what they’ve meant for the economy.
“I’m sure you’ll hear from Mr. Nater tonight about how Mr. Harper has signed 44 trade deals, but he won’t tell you is they’ve ran 55 consecutive months of trade deficits,” McCotter said. “That means we’re buying product, and not selling it. We’ve got to sign better trade deals.”
The Liberal Party would “kickstart the economy” by investing in infrastructure, creating jobs and lowering taxes on the middle class to “put more money in people’s pockets,” which would benefit the domestic sales of Canadian manufacturers, he said.
“The NDP calls for national industrial strategies in the aerospace and automotive sectors,” Rabidoux said. “We’re the only industrialized country that doesn’t have these strategies. We need to fix that.”
The NDP would also create an innovation tax credit for businesses that invest in machinery, equipment and property used in research and development, and are “committed to meeting with the provinces to break down interprovincial trade barriers, Rabidoux said. “This is something the premiers have been asking for repeatedly and Stephen Harper has not delivered on this,” he said. “He really hasn’t met with the premiers at all in the last nine years.”
On the TPP, Rabidoux said he and his party “don’t feel we have to honour that agreement.”
“It was negotiated in secret and it’s going to have devastating effects on the auto sector,” he said. “We need to know what’s in this agreement. I’m sure there are a bunch of Kinder Surprises that are not going to be pleasant once we really dig into it.”
Fuhr came to the defence of Harper on the issue of manufacturing, saying he thought it was “a little unfair” to blame the Prime Minister for the state of industry.
“We live in a global economy now,” he said. “It seems logical that we’re going to take a little bit of a hit on this one.”
But to address this, Fuhr proposed cutting government red tape preventing businesses and individuals from accessing government programs. “I will advocate relentlessly for program dollars to get where they need to go, rather than being caught up in a bureaucracy,” he said. “We have plenty of good government programs in this country, but the mess of red tape that we have to go through in order to access these programs is one of the greatest hindrances to, not only the automotive sector, but to Canadians in general who are trying to apply for and actually receive the benefits of the programs they need.”
Nater told the audience that because of the size of the markets involved, Canada “can’t afford not to be part of the TPP.”
“We need locations to sell our goods and locations to sell our products,” Nater said. “The NDP have been very clear that they’re not in favour of most any trade deals. The Liberals are playing this both sides of the field. It’s disappointing that they’re not going to stand up and support this strong agricultural industry we have here.”
As for the Green Party, Ramsdale said they would like to break down barriers preventing workers from moving to other provinces for employment, and “phase in high-speed rail where feasible to get goods where they need to go across Canada.”
The Green Party wants to invest $600 million in rail through 2016-2017, and increase that to $764 million by 2020, she said. “We think it’s absolutely crucial to make transportation across Canada and VIA viable.”
Questioned about an August comment McCotter made stating that he felt the future of rail transportation in St. Marys was in question, the Liberal candidate said he felt it was “quite obvious” they cut the train that left St. Marys at 5:30 am to arrive in Toronto before the business day began and “left the other one that doesn’t get used.”
“Stephen Harper doesn’t like crown corporations,” McCotter said. “He doesn’t like Canada Post. He doesn’t like the CBC. He doesn’t like VIA. He’s going about it the same way he did the other ones; he under-funds it, the service gets cut, people stop using it, and then he says ‘you don’t need it’.”
The Liberal Party has promised a $20 billion public transit spend over the next 10 years, said McCotter, who was also critical of retired MP Gary Schellenberger for not strongly opposing local cuts to VIA service.
Nater said he supports a “strong suite of rural transportation options in Ontario,” including VIA as well as feeder bus services and more to province broad transportation options. While local service has been reduced, Nater said he’s glad “that we have increased funding for VIA Rail from $169 million in 2006 to $307 million in the most recent fiscal year.”
Rabidoux criticized a remark by Nater, when the Conservative candidate said that, if the thousands who signed the Save Via petitions would “ride the train more often, that would be absolutely essential to show the demand for these services.”
“If you make trains unaffordable, uncomfortable, inaccessible, people aren’t going to use them,” Rabidoux said, describing how increased funding to Amtrak south of the border led to increased ridership. “It’s not just a matter of telling the public, go use the trains and then we’ll fund them,” he said. “The federal government has to take leadership on this. In Ontario alone, we spend about $600 million a year on roads and about $15 million maintaining the railways. That is why people are using the roads and not the railways. We have to create alternative forms of transportation and the people will use them.”
Another contentious issue was that of the national debt and deficit spending. De Vries described the debt as “immoral and unethical.”
“Government spending has mortgaged our future and we would mortgage the debt,” she said. “The national debt should be paid like a mortgage, and we would make $4 billion payments every month to pay off that debt over about 20 – 25 years.”
Nater was also in favour of balanced budgets and speedy debt repayment. “We cannot burden tomorrow’s generation with our debt,” he said, in his opening statement. “Simply put, we cannot invest in the priorities of Canadians without a strong economy or a balanced budget.”
Nater stated that, during the government’s first three years in office prior to the “economic downturn,” they paid down $38 billion in debt. “Today, because of the wise fiscal management of our late finance minister the Honourable Jim Flaherty, we have the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the G7,” Nater said. “Now that we’ve got ourselves back into a balanced budget, a year early, I might add, we need to pay down the debt and focus on that.”
Rebutting Nater, McCotter pointed out that Canada is also the only nation in the G7 currently in recession. “In the second quarter of this year, our economy shrank by one percent,” McCotter said. “The U.S. economy grew by nearly five percent. Mr. Harper’s economic plan has been wasteful. He’s spent nearly $750 million on partisan advertising that could have been spent investing in communities like St. Marys.”
On the topic of Conservative spending, Rabidoux added that, under the government’s plan for the TPP, they would “spend $4.5 billion to subsidize a group of farmers who currently don’t need it if we just left them alone,” as well as $1 billion for the auto sector.
“Do we want to fund childcare or, according to the IMF, give $34 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies?” Rabidoux asked. “Is that the best use of $34 billion? We have to decide what we want to do.”
But Wednesday night wasn’t all about differences and division. Midway through the debate, Matthews chimed in to let the crowd know the Blue Jays had beat Texas. The audience erupted in cheers and applause, and Rabidoux was even seen to have embraced Nater, briefly.