Federal candidates in Wellington-Halton Hills faced tough questions at the Puslinch Community Centre here on Sept. 23.
It was certainly not a capacity crowd, with roughly one quarter of the seating left vacant, but those in attendance made their interests and opinions known throughout the meeting.
All questions came directly from the floor at the event, which was sponsored by the Optimist Club of Puslinch.
On stage were NDP candidate Anne Gajerski-Cauley, Liberal candidate Don Trant, the Green Party’s Brent Bouteiller and Conservative Michael Chong (Harvey Anstey of the Canadian Action Party was absent).
The first person to ask a question was Puslinch councillor Susan Fielding, who stated every country with socialized medicine has a national pharmacare program, except for Canada. She asked what each party’s stance was on establishing such a national program.
Gajerski-Cauley said having grown up in Manitoba where a pharmacare program existed, she was shocked to discover one did not exist in Ontario. She said socialized medicare has been advocated by the NDP.
“With an aging population who use a lot of drugs … we need this … and we need this now,” said Gajerski-Cauley.
Trant said pharmacare would be great, but there are drug benefits in Ontario for seniors. “But unless you have private coverage, you may have to pay out of your own pocket.”
As a physician, he suggested that perhaps one-in-five (or more) don’t fill their prescriptions because they can’t afford it – or they decide to take one pill per day instead of three pills per day so the pills will last longer.
He believed there should be discussions with the provinces to establish a better system.
“The Liberals absolutely do support providing drugs for all its citizens,” said Trant, adding he believes this could be achieved with no increases in taxes.
Bouteiller said his party does plan on developing and implementing a pharmacare system. He noted pharmacare costs in other countries are much lower because comparatively the cost for generic Canadian drugs is much higher. Even so, the cost to implement the program is included within the Green Party’s proposed balanced budget.
Chong said he is open to the idea of such a program, noting the other option would be for the provincial ministers of health to work on systems unique to each province – but nationwide in scope.
He said the single best way to ensure health care is to ensure stable federal transfers to the provinces and he believed the government has a good track record in that regard.
A Rockwood resident suggested 50% of voters have no faith in the government and the Senate is now akin to a lavish retirement home for political insiders. He asked candidates what they would do to issue layoff notices to the Senate because of government cutbacks.
Chong agreed reform is needed to hold senators accountable. At the same time he said “abolition is a political impossibility” and would require unanimity of all the provincial legislatures and the government of Canada.
Reforms Chong endorsed include recalling senators to hold them accountable for their actions, and introducing limited terms to ensure a turnover of members. But to Chong, more important than Senate reform is reform within the House of Commons.
Bouteiller said one of the first things that could be done without opening the constitution is to reform expense rules.
“This should have been done right away as the (Mike Duffy) scandal first unfolded,” he said.
Bouteiller said the Green Party is ready to open the constitution with the provinces and noted the Greens also believe the Senate should be an elected body via proportional representation in order to actually provide sober second thought. Bouteiller also advocated proportional representation for the general election as well.
Trant said “the one thing everyone can agree upon tonight is that the status quo for the Senate and its behaviour is not acceptable.”
He did not support abolition of the Senate, noting that opening the constitution to accomplish that is too cumbersome. “We have more important issues to deal with as a country right now,” he said.
Trant explained the Liberals have a plan that would make appointments to the Senate non-partisan and merit-based. He suggested an all-party system that would select an individual from a group of qualified candidates.
Gajerski-Cauley recalled that in the 1990s Stephen Harper, at the time a member of the Reform Party, promised Canadians he would either abolish the Senate or reform it – but that never happened.
She explained the NDP proposes a plan to abolish the Senate, which she said “replicates the House of Lords – a medieval institution with no accountability,” because it is “inherently undemocratic.”
Gajerski-Cauley contended that is not impossible, but it would take cooperation.
Candidates were asked about their positions on climate change.
Chong said he has worked hard in the past four years in Ottawa, pushing for all parties to move forward on the issue of climate change. He and Green Party leader Elizabeth May started the Climate Change caucus, which he considered to be a big force on Parliament Hill. Chong said the government has taken action to reduce emissions in some sectors of the economy, but, “Where they have lagged is in the oil and gas sector and other carbon emitters – particularly in Ontario.”
While admitting the government is not on track to meet the 2020 17% reduction, Chong said greenhouse gas emissions have dropped “not enough – but greenhouse gasses have dropped between 2005 and today.”
Gajerski-Cauley contended Canada’s international reputation on the environment has fallen since the Conservatives took power.
“This is really disgraceful and part of the reason is that Stephen Harper absolutely loves the oil sector,” she said.
Gajerski-Cauley said more infrastructure investment is required, explaining her party would direct an additional one cent from every litre of gas tax to municipalities for transit.
“We need to end the gridlock in places like the GTA – we need to get people out of their cars and into public transit,” she said.
Trant said when it comes to climate change, Canada is “an embarrassment to the world – there is no doubt.” He said “We are the third worst emitter of greenhouse gases per capita in the entire world.”
And while he agreed with Chong that from 1993 to 1997 greenhouse gases started to drop off, Trant said that drop was not due to Conservative policies – but an economic recession. Now the volume of those gases is increasing and the largest contributor is oil and gas industry, he said.
He added the Liberals are ready to take a stand on climate change by putting a price on carbon emissions, ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and investing in clean technologies and alternative forms of energy.
Bouteiller said he has converted his own home to make use of geothermal energy, thereby reducing energy consumption by about 50%. He added he is working on steps to take his home off the electrical grid completely.
Working in engineering, he deals with climate change every day in his efforts to help municipalities reduce the amount of water reaching sewage treatment systems.
“The Green Party is in favour of a carbon fee dividend system, which would act as an incentive to reduce fuel use,” said Bouteiller.
Trant said the Liberals plan to build the middle class through tax reform.
“We know that the middle class needs more money and that they have suffered over the past number of years. The gap between the lowest income and highest income has increased,” said Trant. He explained his party’s plan to increase taxable income (from 29 to 33%) would be for those earning $200,000 or more.
Bouteiller spoke of corporate income tax, which in 1969 represented 45% at the federal level alone. Since that time, those taxes have been reduced to 15%. The Green proposal is to increase that to 19%, though Bouteiller said he feels that amount should be higher yet.
This additional revenue would provide funds for other initiatives such as a guaranteed livable income. He did not believe the party is considering changes to personal income taxes at this point.
Chong said there is only one clear differentiation between the candidates on this issue: “Liberals and New Democrats are going to raise your taxes – corporate taxes.”
He said the Conservatives intend to keep taxes low and once the federal surplus is larger, reduce taxes further.
“The best way to create jobs is through economic growth,” Chong said. He noted Canada is one of the best places for companies to invest and the government came in with a balanced budget one year ahead of schedule. He also noted the local unemployment rate for Wellington-Halton Hills is 4.4%.
Gajerski-Cauley disputed claims made by Chong, stressing the NDP is not raising personal income taxes.
“That is not what I said,” interjected Chong.
“We are raising corporate taxes to 17% which is in line with other G7 nations because corporations need to start paying their fair share,” Gajerski-Cauley said. “They should not be getting billions in tax cuts or financial loopholes … while the rest of us have to pay.”
She contended the deficit was created because the government refused to tax the corporate sector fairly.
“The widening gap between the wealthy and the poor has to stop,” Gajerski-Cauley said.
As her voice rose, she added, “There are 850,000 every month in this country using food banks for heaven’s sake. Where are your economic measures helping them? This is disgraceful in a country as wealthy as ours is.”
She stated the Conservatives had the lowest job creation record since the Second World War, “So please don’t tell us you government is the great economic manager.” She also stated, “We need to rebuild our manufacturing sector.”
Leaving their party?
Dan Zister, who ran locally for the Liberal Party in last year’s provincial election, said Chong had a bit of a reputation of being a maverick, including his resignation from caucus regarding the Quebec distinct society issue. However, Zister wondered, considering the actions of the current government, how much more it would take for Chong to consider stepping away from his party.
Chong replied independent members of parliament have fewer powers “and I always believed in working from within the system to accomplish real change.”
Chong said one of the reasons he is Conservative is because it is the party of minorities in Canada. He said it was John Diefenbacher’s government that gave aboriginal Canadians off-reservation rights to vote and a Conservative government that was the first in the British Commonwealth to have a female member of Cabinet.
Chong said it was the Conservatives that elected the first black member Lincoln Alexander, first Japanese Canadian, first Ukrainian Canadian, first Chinese Canadian.
Trant said he is proud of the Liberal Party and its values, stressing, “I don’t have any reason to leave my party.” He agreed the Conservative government has created jobs, but those numbers have not matched population growth over that period of time.
Gajerski-Cauley explained she has been a member of the NDP since she was in junior high school. She said she is proud to be part of a party on the forefront of social change for many decades.
“Everything Canadians enjoy comes out of the NDP,” she said, mentioning medicare, unemployment insurance, baby bonuses and pensions as cherished NDP ideas.
Bouteiller was the only candidate to directly respond to the question. He said his family members were big Liberal supporters, but in 1999 he received a call asking him to be a Green candidate.
“It was a big thing to step away from the Liberals,” he said. “It would take a lot to make me change from the Greens.” Bouteiller suggested possible causes would be if the party moved away from being a grassroots democracy or began “whipping” its members to toe the party line.
“If that happened, then it wouldn’t be the kind of party I would want to be involved with,” he said.