Saskatchewan New Democratic Party leadership candidate Erin Weir had a chance to revisit some of his roots in Prince Albert as part of a brief stop on his campaign trail on Monday.
© Herald photo by Alex Di Pietro
Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidate Erin Weir made a stop in Prince Albert on Monday.
Weir, an economist with the United Steelworkers, ran as the NDP candidate in the Wascana riding for the 2004 federal election.
His great grandfather, Bob Gooding, was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) candidate against John Diefenbaker in 1957, while his grandfather, Mike Kalmakoff, was the founding president of the Prince Albert Community Clinic.
“A big part of my family is here in Prince Albert,” he said. “My mother grew up here and I spent a certain amount of time here growing up.”
On the board for some time now in Prince Albert has been the issue of building a second bridge, an initiative that Weir is fully supportive of.
“It’s certainly something I’ve been committed to building and I’ve put forth a revenue plan to pay for it,” he said.
Weir has talked about closing loopholes in the corporate tax structure, potash production tax, and oil and uranium warranties.
“Without even changing existing royalty and tax rates, we could collect about a billion dollars in additional revenue each year, just by closing loopholes,” he said. “And that would certainly provide the Government of Saskatchewan with enough funding to build the new bridge that’s needed in Prince Albert.”
The idea of building a new hospital in Prince Albert has also been entertained, a decision Weir said he would have to base on the availability of funds and the expertise of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health in assessing, on a province-wide basis, where new hospitals need to be built.
“Certainly, health care is a provincial responsibility, and New Democrats created the public medicare system, and we’re very committed to improving it,” he said. “Again, one of the key questions is having the money to pay for those improvements.
“And that’s why I focused my first few policy announcements on collecting more revenue by closing these loopholes in Saskatchewan’s tax and royalties structures,” Weir continued. “I think in terms of a hospital, there’s also a need to plan on a province-wide basis.”
There are three other candidates for leadership of the provincial NDP. Physician Dr. Ryan Meili, Saskatoon Massey Place MLA Cam Broten and Regina Rosemont MLA Trent Wotherspoon round out the young group of candidates.
While Weir maintained that the race has been friendly, he said it is important to have a real debate about ideas and that the candidates make it clear to party members where they stand on the issues.
“One issue where there’s been some disagreement has been my proposal to close loopholes in the corporate tax structure,” Weir said.
Weir has proposed that the small business deduction should be focused on genuinely small businesses with up to $100,000 of profit. The current small business deduction provides a corporate tax rate of two per cent on the first $500,000 of profits.
“It is very costly to provincial taxpayers,” Weir said. “It greatly reduces Government of Saskatchewan revenues. So, my plan to close loopholes would recoup money for the province, which then could be reinvested in tax credits that are directly linked to investment and hiring in Saskatchewan.”
Weir said that both Broten and Meili have objected to his proposal.
“I welcome the debate between my more targeted approach to economic development and their support for the status quo, which is an across-the-board corporate tax break,” Weir added.
Weir is currently the president of the Progressive Economics Forum, an organization of about 200 economists devoted to developing a more progressive approach to economics in Canada.
He said he believes it’s important for the NDP to have a candidate with a strong economics background.
“I think the Sask Party has taken the mantle of being the good fiscal and economic managers,” he said. “And for the NDP to restore our credibility on those issues, it’s very important to have a leader with a background in economics who is comfortable with economic issues.”
Right before the leadership campaign started, Weir wrote a joint Op-Ed with the president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour calling for a minimum wage of $11/h, indexed to inflation.
“I believe that would be an appropriate minimum wage. It would be the highest minimum wage in Canada and would help bring about a more equitable distribution of income here in Saskatchewan,” Weir said.
While Weir is an advocate for a more progressive tax structure, meaning the collection of more revenue from those who have the greatest ability to pay and provide a bit of a break to those who need it most, he doesn’t see it as a substitute for improving the minimum wage.
“Ultimately, people need to earn the money before taxes are even a consideration,” he said.
“I would also make the case that while individual businesses might have an incentive to try to save money by paying their workers less, overall, local businesses will be better off with a higher minimum wage because it means more money in people’s pockets and more consumer spending,” Weir added.
Weir said the provincial government should also play a role in creating more education and training programs that would help Aboriginal citizens take advantage of the opportunities that exist in Saskatchewan.
“There have been longstanding challenges in Saskatchewan with Aboriginal and Métis people being excluded from the provincial economy (and) not fully participating in the province’s prosperity,” he said. “The provincial government should always be open to speaking with First Nations and certainly we have to keep the lines of communication open.”
One area of concern has been funding for education among First Nations people.
“Education is underfunded in First Nations communities, and I do see a role for the province in filling that gap,” he said. “I also see a role for the province in putting some pressure on the federal government to live up to its responsibilities to First Nations.
“We need a provincial government that will really stand up for Saskatchewan and drive a hard bargain with Ottawa,” he added.
Another area where Weir believes the province needs to stand up to Ottawa is on recent federal changes to sentencing rules that have “imposed a lot of costs on the provincial jail system.”
“The federal government has taken an approach to justice that will maximize the prison population and impose a lot of costs on provincial taxpayers,” he said. “Ultimately, the federal government has the jurisdiction to make those decisions. I just think there’s an obligation for Ottawa to cover those costs.”
In his approach to reducing crime, Weir said one of the most important ways would be by addressing the social conditions that often cause crime.
“If we have a better educated population and less unemployment, then I think we’ll naturally have less criminal activity in the province,” he said.
With respect to post-secondary education, Weir said that he would implement a tuition freeze.
Weir also said that it is important to identify the barriers that might exist for Canadian residents looking to relocate to Saskatchewan.
“I think it could be the rising cost of housing,” he said. “One of the things I’d like to do is implement rent control so that there are more affordable rental accommodations available, which I think could make a big difference both to Saskatchewan residents and to people trying to move here from other places.”
As for pensions, Weir said he would consider something of a pension benefit guarantee fund, an insurance pool that defined benefit pension plans pay into that can backstop the benefits if one of the pension plans should fail.
“I think that’s an idea worth looking at in Saskatchewan,” he said. “One major issue is that defined benefit of pension plans have sometimes gotten into financial difficulty.”
As well, Weir addressed the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board, which has been a major development in agriculture recently.
“Most farmers in Saskatchewan voted in favour of single-desk marketing,” he said. “But the federal conservatives with the provincial Saskatchewan Party went ahead and got rid of the wheat board.
“There will be a few growing seasons between now and the next election. I think it will be very interesting to see how things play out, and I think the NDP represents the view of the majority of farmers, which is that we should have the single-desk marketing system for grain.”