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Protesters shouted, heckled at local election debate

by David Meyer

ALMA - It took all the skills of long-time moderator Jim deBock, a former school teacher, to keep order at an all candidates meeting here on Sept. 20.

Over two dozen anti-wind turbine protesters held a peaceful demonstration at the entrance to the Optimist hall in Alma and they left their signs outdoors.

DeBock introduced the candidates and explained they would each have two minute opening speeches, would then take turns answering written questions submitted from the floor, and there would be two minute closing speeches.

The interruptions began when Liberal MPP and incumbent John Wilkinson answered a question about sales of hydro to the U.S. Protesters shouted such things as “liar” and “disgrace” and “shame.”

DeBock told the protesters they would be asked to leave if they continued to disrupt the meeting. Later, when Wilkinson was answering a question, the shouts were so loud he was drowned out.

DeBock then threatened to end the meeting entirely. “This is going to be orderly - or it’s not going to be,” he said.

He explained the meeting was being held so candidates could present information on their platforms and parties and as such, people should be respectful.

Sporadic interruptions continued throughout the night.

Wilkinson, for his part, kept his cool. He said Canada is a democracy, and he recognizes that some do not like the policies he advocates. He said people will make their decision on election day, and he will be happy to live with the results of that vote.

If deBock had any other difficulties during the night, it was from the types of questions he received. At one point, he said he had 14 questions, and all of them dealt with wind turbines.

Other queries were presented and candidates did answer questions on a variety of different issues.

One dealt with health care and how to attract doctors to rural areas and overcome practitioner shortages and contain costs.

Robert Smink, of the Freedom Party, said it should be easier for foreign doctors and nurses to practice instead of driving taxis. He said that would bring competition for others, and also there should be more home care.

Progressive Conservative Randy Pettapiece said his party has promised to increase health spending by $6.1 billion, plus increase more spaces for nurses. It will also make chief executive officers accountable for the money they are given, and get rid of Local Health Integration Networks, another level of bureaucracy.

Wilkinson said before the LHINs, 28 hospitals were closed, and now the province is building 18 more, “and we’ve got more coming.” He said Ontario has licenced more foreign doctors over the last four years than the number graduating medical school.

Family Coalition Party Candidate Irma DeVries said the province should take the schools it is closing and turn them into medical centres. She supports family health teams and fast tracking doctors for licences.

The NDP’s Ellen Papenburg said her party would get rid of the LHINs, which are “unaccountable, unelected and a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.” She said one in five people do not have a family doctor and she would encourage new doctors to come to rural areas by cancelling their student debts.

Someone wanted to know what support the candidates could offer for families and children in poverty.

Pettapiece said, “First, get people back to work.” He advocated cutting red tape, and offering improved energy and business costs. He added his party would allow welfare recipients to keep more of their pay cheques to “get people excited about working again.”

Wilkinson said his government is the first in history to do a study for that and it was told to “focus on kids,” so it introduced the Ontario child benefit and the number of poor children decreased. He added the government’s policy of full day kindergarten is also helping to “break the cycle” so people can get out and work.

DeVries said child poverty is “a misnomer. Kids are in families. Strengthen families.” She said her party advocates income splitting up to $60,000 to give parents a break if one stays at home. She said right now people work for “$10 an hour at McDonald’s and the government pays” for child care. “Something’s wrong. All day kindergarten is ripping families apart.”

Papenburg said the NDP would take the HST off essentials such as home heating costs. She added the province needs more jobs, and her party would have incentives for small businesses.

Smink said child poverty is “a red herring.” He said paying less taxes would create more jobs. As for junior kindergarten, he said the province is using teachers paid $40,000 to $60,000 as baby sitters. He would also get rid of minimum wages.

“Kids can’t get a job, so they can’t get experience,” Smink said.

One resident at the meeting said voters in the riding are still upset about the school bus changes that forced numerous family-run companies out of business. The questioner called the process that replaced the former bidding process “a candy scramble in Ontario” and asked what each party or candidate would do to re-evaluate the current policy.

DeVries said, “Our party believes in free enterprise.” She said all contracts should be tendered and “local should have first dibs.”

Papenburg agreed local providers should continue the service.

Smink said, “All problems are government-created problems.” As for the school bus difficulties, he said that is “fixing what isn’t broken,” and the result is “devastating” to the drivers and the owners.

“This is just another example of the government sticking its nose into something,” he said.

Pettapiece said the government never should have become involved and his party would review the issue and “bring fairness back.”

Wilkinson said the province has no contract with school bus operators. It simply sends $900 million to school boards, which then do their own hiring. He said the sector needed a competitive process but in talking to a trustee, he learned it was neither local nor transparent, so his government initiated a task force review that will be done by December. It will recommend changes if they are needed.

On the wind turbine issue, someone asked if municipal governments should be handed back the right to decide on wind turbines - a right the province removed with its Green Energy Act (GEA).

Smink said, “Absolutely. Yes.” He added property rights should be enshrined in the constitution. “We can look after ourselves.”

Pettapiece said he was a councillor for two terms, but he had never seen anything like the GEA. “That [municipal authority] will be reinstated if elected,” he said.

Wilkinson said he has been asked by thousands of people about the mega quarry in Melancthon Township, and his government decided it was not right a small municipality should be forced to fight a huge American hedge fund company.

He said with wind turbines, there were over 900 approved by townships and counties before the province took over.  He said the province can set stronger rules, and it’s “far better the province has the say.”

DeVries said the Green Energy Act “bulldozed over municipalities.” She said, “Private property rights are being taken over by our government.”

Papenburg noted with the mega quarry, a Liberal cabinet minister told the municipality it might get a good golf course when everything is finished.

She added the NDP would prefer wind turbines be operated by local groups and not huge companies.

Another question dealt with property values, and who should be responsible if a property’s value drops or it cannot sold.

The questioner wanted to know if the responsible party is the property owner with the turbine, the wind turbine company or the provincial government that approved it.

Wilkinson said in 2005 there were 53 days when people could not safely go outside due to smog. He said the government knew it had to make changes and recognized it is “not an easy task.”

He said there are 150,000 wind turbines around the world, and, “It seems to be an issue here.” He concluded “There is no evidence people had property devalued.”

DeVries said the government should pay. “They caused the problem. Wind turbines are being torn down in Europe,” and she added Ontario could harness water power, since it has over 200 sites capable of that, something Quebec and Manitoba do.

Papenburg said a combination of groups should pay, including the person who has the turbine on his land. She added the government should also be forced to help, and suggested a class action lawsuit  might be needed, but, “I believe government has responsibility.”

Smink pointed out that if the government pays, that means the taxpayers are paying. He said Ontario is responsible for only 1.5 per cent of the world’s pollution, and scrubbers have reduced the emissions from coal fired generators.

Pettapiece said his party’s position is there should be a moratorium on turbines until a real health study is completed.

“Literature review is not good enough,” he said, adding municipalities should be responsible for approving wind turbines.

There are six candidates in the current election. Green Party candidate Chris Desjardins was unable to attend. After the meeting, candidates remained in the hall for some time talking to constituents and answering their questions.


September 30, 2011


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