NDP leadership candidates spar at debate

Matt Gardner
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Prince Albert took centre stage in the provincial NDP leadership race on Thursday evening as all four candidates debated the issues in the St. Mary High School auditorium.

The candidates -- Regina MLA Trent Wotherspoon, Saskatoon MLA Cam Broten, Saskatoon doctor Ryan Meili and Regina economist Erin Weir -- are doing 14 debates around the province in advance of the NDP convention set to take place March 9 in Saskatoon.

While all four candidates at the Prince Albert debate strove to highlight policy differences, they also acknowledged they are united in their broad vision for the province.

“All of us on this stage want to build a healthier, more equitable and greener Saskatchewan,” Weir said in his closing remarks.

“The question is how to get there.”

The leadership race was sparked after a devastating provincial election in 2011 for the NDP that saw both leader Dwain Lingenfelter and deputy leader Deb Higgins lose their seats as the Saskatchewan Party captured 49 of 58 seats. Lingenfelter resigned immediately and was replaced a few days later by longtime MLA John Nilson.

The shadow of the Sask Party landslide still looms over the NDP leadership contest, and one of the core themes on Thursday night was how to re-build the party.

Prior to the debate, each candidate was asked what qualities differentiated them from the others and why voters should choose them.

Weir believed that his background as an economist would help the NDP re-gain lost credibility.

“I’ve put forward an alternative policy vision. In particular, I’ve put forward a plan to pay for our social and environmental goals,” he said.

“That’s very important for the NDP’s credibility, and it also helps to ensure that a future New Democratic government will follow through on its good intentions. The last time the NDP was in government, we did have good social and environmental intentions, but we cut income taxes and resource royalties, depriving ourselves of the revenue to make good on our proposals.”

Weir identified closing loopholes in the province’s current royalty structure as a way to raise revenue for improved public services and infrastructure.

Broten and Wotherspoon, meanwhile, emphasized their experience in government, but each had a different focus for how they would act as leader.

“I think having proven experience in the legislature is important to know what it’s like to be in the legislature and go toe-to-toe with the Sask Party,” Broten said.

“That’s important. I’m also very principled as a social democrat, believe in the values of our party that we need to reduce inequality, we need to work together, and I also have a really strong view that we need to be unified and strong, and it’s through that that we’ll be able to re-build.”

Underscoring the virtues of unity, Broten said that if elected party leader, he would work with the other candidates and their teams as much as possible to earn back the trust of Saskatchewan residents.

Wotherspoon noted his credentials in government as well as outside of it, and argued that his wide-ranging experience made him uniquely qualified to hit the ground running in re-building the party across rural and urban Saskatchewan.

“I … have experience that I draw upon from working in the community as an educator with the most vulnerable before being in politics, and I draw motivation from that,” he said.

“I have experience as an MLA, finance critic, education critic, chair of public accounts and experience in building up my own constituency organization and certainly winning elections.”

Practicing physician Meili, for his part, spoke of his vision of a “healthy society” as a new and different way of making political decisions.

All of us on this stage want to build a healthier, more equitable and greener Saskatchewan. The question is how to get there. Erin Weir

“We’ve talked before about a healthy society, about that idea of using human health as the goal of our political decision-making and using the understanding of the determinants of health to direct how we achieve that goal,” Meili said.

“I really feel that puts forward a vision and an approach that is one, very different than anything we’ve seen, and two, has the potential of really appealing not just within the NDP, but across party lines.”

Over the course of Thursday’s debate, moderator Keri Okanik asked the candidates questions written down earlier by audience members. The candidates were also given opportunities to pose questions to each other.

Idle No More was the subject of the very first question. All four candidates offered their support for the movement. But they also discussed the need to harness that energy in the electoral arena.

“Idle No More is not partisan, and I don’t believe it should be,” Broten said. “But we can’t ignore the fact that there is a huge overlap in many of the values that people involved in Idle No More have along with the values of the New Democratic Party -- the ideas that justice matters, the idea that we need to reduce inequality, the idea that we need to extend opportunity to more and more people.

“So I think it is a responsibility for us as a party to welcome people in, but more importantly, I think it’s our responsibility to go out to people.”

Each candidate affirmed their support for the party’s pro-choice position when the subject of women’s reproductive rights was raised.

One audience member’s question asked what candidates would do to help re-establish the forestry industry in Prince Albert. Weir said federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair made a valid point about Canada suffering from “Dutch disease,” in which the exploitation of natural resources drives up exchange rates and leads to a decline in manufacturing.

Wotherspoon said the government needed to take a more prominent role in working with the forestry sector. He endorsed the development of alternative fuels such as biomass as a means of producing more sustainable energy -- a position Meili also supported.

“We hear a great deal about our booming economy, and often, when I hear that language, I think ‘Is that really what we want?’” Meili said.

“A boom is loud and explosive and brief, and I would really like to see a shift to a different kind of economy -- one that blooms, one that’s actually sustainable over the long term, both from an economic point of view as well as environmental point of view, and I think sustainable forestry, a renewable resource, has to be at the heart of that.”

During a section on early childhood investment, the candidates offered varying proposals for expanded access to childcare.

When asked how a future NDP government would increase employment opportunities, Broten spoke about increasing funding for education, while Meili and Wotherspoon pointed to the need to improve the quality of available jobs.

Weir expressed his support for direct public investment as a means of job creation, and used a local example to illustrate his point.

“Something like building a second bridge across the North Saskatchewan River would generate an awful lot of jobs,” he said.

“It’s not just providing needed infrastructure. It’s also providing needed employment opportunities.”

Organizations: New Democratic Party, Prince Albert, Sask Party Saskatchewan Party

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada North Saskatchewan River

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