Candidates face off

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Crime, jets, oil and cash were hot topics Thursday at the St. Albert Inn as local federal candidates met for their last major debate before the election.

About 110 people came to quiz Edmonton–St. Albert candidates. Host John Farlinger ran through a long list of written questions from the audience, giving each candidate one minute to respond.

Green Party candidate Peter Johnston opened the night with a discussion of his party’s focus: sustainability. “We live in a finite world with finite resources,” he said, and governments need to encourage conservation to keep it running. “We can continue doing more or less what we’re doing now, but do it way more efficiently.”

Canadians now have a chance to change the face of government, said Liberal candidate Kevin Taron. “Canada does not need an agenda of fear … we need a vision for Canada that includes all of us.”

His party would invest in families, youth, education, health and green technology. “We can sink into obscurity with Stephen Harper’s jets, jails and corporate tax cuts … or we can continue to have a government that will rise the challenges of the future.”

NDP candidate Brian LaBelle stumbled through a parable from Tommy Douglas about cats and mice, drawing some laughs and cited the need for an Edmonton–St. Albert LRT link.

Conservative candidate Brent Rathgeber said he had brought millions in infrastructure dollars to this riding while in office, funding projects like the St. Albert curling rink renovations and helped pass bills that ended the faint hope clause for murderers and the two-for-one credit for time served. “We need to stay the course,” he said. “We need to keep our taxes low, [keep]our streets safe and continue to focus on the economic recovery.”

Money and oil

The audience started off by asking candidates how they would help middle-class families. The Conservatives have an unassailable record on tax cuts for families, Rathgeber said, having cut the GST and created income-splitting for seniors. “There is a million low-income Canadians who have [now]been removed off the tax roll altogether.”

The Greens would cut personal income taxes and set up technology centres in small communities to help people get jobs, Johnston said. “Too much money is being channelled into the hands of too few people.”

Education is the best way to help families, Taron said. “If people have [educational]opportunities, they have the opportunity to succeed.”

Many families now struggle to care for ailing relatives, LaBelle said. “If you have a senior relative…we’re going to provide you with a tax break.”

Another question dealt with the oilsands. LaBelle said he agreed the industry was necessary. “I just don’t believe the amount of money we’re putting in there is necessary.” The oilsands are finite, he said, and if Alberta didn’t invest in other energy sources soon, it could become the “Flint, Michigan” of Canada in a century.

Oilsands producers have greatly reduced their environmental footprint, Rathgeber said, and now create some 200,000 jobs in Alberta. “Be very wary of anyone who wants to implement cap and trade, a carbon tax or an oilsands moratorium.”

The Greens want to slow down tarsands development, Johnston said, not stop it. “The problem with the tarsands environmental situation is enormous,” he said, citing its tailings ponds as an example. “The image does not need to be fixed, the process needs to be fixed.”

Canada needs to invest in green technology to reduce pollution from the oilsands and restore its reputation, Taron said. “We need to ensure we’re making it sustainably.” Shifting subsidies from oil towards green tech would let us ship our oil around the world without complications.

Jets and crime

What about those F-35 fighter jets? With an investment this big, Taron said, the very least we should do is hold an open bid. There are many alternatives available to the F-35, and many of our allies are not buying it. “No one except Stephen Harper is saying it’s going to cost $70 million per jet. We need to have an open bid.”

It’s unrealistic to expect a supersonic jet to be of any use for search-and-rescue, LaBelle said. “I don’t think we need to buy the jet at the price they’re selling it to us.”

These jets will cost “a significant amount of tax dollars,” Rathgeber said, but are needed to replace our aging CF-18s. Many of our NATO allies are also buying these planes. “Once you make a decision on what plane you’re going to buy, you cannot then have a competition.”

U.S. experts have called the F-35 as “a clunker” with poor mileage and manoeuvrability, Johnston said. “The real problem is that a stealth fighter-bomber is only good for one thing and that’s sneak attacks on other countries.”

When it comes to crime prevention, LaBelle said the NDP would invest in poverty, homelessness and addictions. “There’s no research that backs up tough-on-crime,” he said, and plenty that backs up these alternatives.

Many criminals are mentally ill and lack high-school diplomas, said Taron, who argued better support for education would reduce crime.

Study after study has shown that tough-on-crime agendas do not work, Johnston said. “We have to look to the community to solve these problems rather than punishing people afterwards.”

Canada needs stronger laws to deter criminals, Rathgeber said. “Crime is out of control,” he said, citing Edmonton’s 19 murders to date this year. Reported crime is down, but that’s because people have given up on reporting property crime. “Crime is stable. We need to deal with it.”

Co-operation

All four candidates noted a difference between them on one subject: co-operation. Tonight’s debate shows how the parties passionately disagree about issues and have little room for compromise, Rathgeber said. “There’s no room for compromise here,” he said, especially when it comes to issues like mandatory minimum sentences. “It’s black or white.”

Voters have to choose between a Conservative majority and an Ignatieff-led coalition, he said. “We will never change the House of Commons into a municipal council chamber or a school board meeting where people can park their partisan interests at the door and work together.”

Taron disagreed. “Even in a minority government, people can work together,” he said, citing Lester Pearson’s minority government as an example. Voters expect Parliamentarians to collaborate and to do what’s best for Canada. “Let’s stop, as Harper says, the bickering in our system. Let’s negotiate.”

The NDP have offered to work with both the Conservatives and the Liberals in coalitions, LaBelle said, which proves their ability to work with others. “The NDP is willing to work with other parties who are willing to work with us.”

What we have here is a situation where the Conservatives were “spreading fear amongst people” while the other parties were working together, Johnston said, closing the night. “Please do not elect a majority Conservative government,” he said. “We can work with the other parties. We cannot work with the Conservatives because they will not work with us.”

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.