By Dan Rankin
The main focus of Tuesday’s debate in Listowel, co-hosted by the Listowel Agricultural Society and Perth County Federation of Agriculture was, of course, to hear Perth-Wellington’s federal candidates sound off on farming. However, questions and candidate answers covered a wide range of issues from employment, security and the Middle East refugee crisis.
Taking part in the debate were Conservative Party candidate John Nater, Independent candidate Roger Fuhr Green Party candidate Nicole Ramsdale, Christian Heritage Party candidate Irma DeVries, and Liberal Party candidate Stephen McCotter. The assembled crowd of at least 130 learned before the debate that NDP candidate Ethan Rabidoux “sent his regrets,” but was too ill to attend.
Following brief statements and introductions by the candidates, co-hosts Listowel Agricultural Society and Perth County Federation of Agriculture got things started with some questions that had been written and submitted.
The most captivating part of the evening was seeing McCotter and Nater fight it out over issues of both local and national significance. Both candidates had pockets of support in the crowd who would break into applause following their statements. Promoting the Liberal Party’s plan to improve the economy, St. Marys native McCotter said they would tie the child benefit to income, so millionaires wouldn’t get cheques from the government. “We’re also going to raise taxes; if you make over $200,000, your taxes are going up, and we’re going to cut taxes to the middle class by 7 percent,” he said. “This will put more money in the pockets of people going to the movies, buying furniture and rebuilding their homes. That’s how you kick-start an economy. You don’t give boutique tax credits to this person or that person.”
Nater took exception to that comment, jumping up to say, “Tax credits for families are important!”
“They’re not boutique tax credits,” he said. “Raising a family is one of the most important things that anyone will ever do and I resent the fact that the Liberal Party is constantly talking about boutique tax credits for homeowners, for families. That’s wrong. We believe in supporting all people in society, including families.”
Later, addressing a question about the Prime Minister’s legacy of omnibus bills, C-51 and cutting the long-form census, McCotter criticized the Conservative leader for what he described as a “dark age for democracy,” in Canada.
“On a personal level, it troubles me to no end,” he said, vowing to ban omnibus bills. “We will bring back the long-form census immediately. We will make independent a number of officers and commissioners, including a chief science officer that is independently funded that can ensure science is funded and reported and is acted on.”
Nater defended his party’s leader on every point, saying the provisions in Bill C-51, such as the ability to disrupt terrorist action before they occur, are already law in many European countries. He said that “omnibus bills are something that have been part of parliamentary democracy for generations,” and “statistics are quite easily gathered from any number of different things.”
“We don’t believe people who don’t want to fill out a long-form census should be charged criminally for failing to do so,” he said. “The short-form census is still there, and it has the key fundamental information.”
A comprehensive Sept. 18 report by MacLean’s titled “Vanishing Canada: Why we’re all losers in Ottawa’s war on data” argues otherwise.
While each candidate agreed action had to be taken to bring Syrian refugees to Canada, and that some manner of screening would need to take place before they could enter the country, Nater alone said his party was “committed to combating the cause of the refugee crisis,” ISIS.
“Let’s be very clear,” he said. “ISIS is a brutal, totalitarian, barbaric group who are absolutely massacring innocent people in that region. Our party is the only party that is committed to taking on that very real threat. The other parties will not.”
Independent candidate Fuhr disagreed with that course of action. “Contrary to Mr. Nater’s input there, I really think we should fall back and do our traditional peacekeeping policies overseas,” he said. “I think this is hurting Canada’s reputation on the worldwide stage. I think we’re gaining enemies by fighting ISIS hand-to-hand, whether it’s a bombing mission or whatever. We never do hear about the number of civilian casualties we’ve caused over there, which is a very concerning thing.”
Nater got a chance to fire back at McCotter when the Liberal candidate describedhis party’s plan to spend $60 billion over the next 10 years, running “three modest deficits,” to spur on infrastructure improvements.
“The municipalities will be empowered to spend the money as they like,” McCotter said. “This will be real money that will flow next year so the municipalities don’t have to raise your property taxes. They’re getting steady, reliable federal funding to help invest in the future of the country because that’s what smart countries do.”
Nater said the Conservatives believe a balanced budget is a prerequisite for investing in Canadians’ priorities, saying the province’s cuts to municipal funding came because “they couldn’t get their act together and balance the budget.”
“A balanced budget is absolutely essential in order to have a strong economy, and putting us $30 billion in deficit is absolutely the wrong course to be taking in a fragile economy,” he said. “We’ve committed to a $53 million New Building Canada Fund. This is the largest and longest commitment to federal infrastructure funding in Canadian history.”
But McCotter questioned the government’s track record with the economy, and their willingness to invest in Perth-Wellington. “Stephen Harper has run eight consecutive deficits, adding $158 billion to our national debt,” said the Grit candidate. “He’s committed to a balanced budget at all costs, but that means he’ll balance the budget first, and if there’s any money left there will be some infrastructure spending. This spring, when he ran around the country doling out cheques, I don’t know how much money Listowel got, but St. Marys got zero.”
Ramsdale said the Green Party would increase the gas tax transfer to municipalities to 5 cents per litre, which they would used to fund “sustainable transportation initiatives such as public transport, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, and rural roads.”
“We need high speed internet access as well in rural areas,” she said. “It’s key.”
Finally, the candidates were asked their thoughts on the possibility of forming a coalition government. Fuhr and DeVries both expressed a willingness to cooperate with other party’s members. “A government that is made up of many parties is a very effective government because policies won’t be rammed through as they have been in the past number of years,” DeVries said. “Yes, government will move a little slower, but maybe that’s a little better, so we don’t get such wild swings. I personally support proportional representation, and single transferable ballots. True democracy means that our system needs to be reformed.”
The Conservative Party has been clear on where it stands on coalitions, Nater said. “We believe the party with the most seats should have the first opportunity to govern,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. It’s a tradition we have with the Canadian Westminster system, and it’s served us well.”
Perth-Wellington voters will have to wait until Oct. 19 to see which party will be “first past the post” this time.