By Trevor Busch
Taber-Warner voters were given the opportunity to probe the viewpoints and platforms of candidates during Taber’s All Candidates Forum hosted at the Heritage Inn on Monday evening.
In the 2019 provincial election on April 16, four candidates are vying for the votes of constituents: Jason Beekman for the Alberta Party, Grant Hunter for the United Conservative Party, Laura Ross-Giroux for the New Democratic Party, and Amy Yates for the Alberta Liberal Party.
To open the debate, candidates fielded questions from the floor on climate change and the carbon tax, as well as property taxes related to education.
Municipal District of Taber councillor Tamara Miyanaga asked what each party hopes to do to help rural Alberta recover and prosper.
“The Alberta Party is offering a free vote,” said Beekman. “My promise to everybody in this room, and everybody in the Taber-Warner riding, would be my representation of Taber-Warner solely. I wouldn’t be a representative of the party. So what that means is I would be fighting for you. Fighting for agriculture, fighting for rural Alberta. If anyone caught the leader’s debate, there was only one party leader that even mentioned rural Alberta, and his name was Stephen Mandel.”
Hunter promised that a UCP government would eliminate Bill 6 and replace it with options that work more effectively for small farmers.
“We will maintain MSI (Municipal Sustainability Initiative) funding, that’s in our platform. But the other thing we’re going to do to help rural Alberta is we’re actually going to kill Bill 6. When you actually go to, especially small farmers, and you say you’re going to have to have WCB and that’s it, a lot of the farm workers that I talked to said we actually prefer our private insurer better because we have insurance 24/7 versus WCB when you only have insurance while you’re at work.”
Former town councillor Ross-Giroux talked about the huge potential for agricultural innovation that exists right along the Highway 3 corridor.
“The NDP want families to stay in multi-generational communities. We do not want our youth to have to leave to make a living, We want them to stay and work, raise their families in the communities that they themselves were raised in. So we’re going to work on job creation, we’re going to work on diversification. As mentioned, we need to start diversifying agriculture. Let’s start doing some seed fracturing and other plant protein industries. Let’s grow more hemp, this incredible plant that we can do so much with.”
Liberal candidate Yates, who hails from Coaldale, staunchly defended legislation that protects farm workers.
“Unfortunately not everybody does take care of their workers, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that everybody is taken care of. Even in an office, if something happens, our employers have to have that WCB coverage. It should not change because a person’s a farmer, if anything we need to do more to help them out. With the Alberta Liberal platform, we’re not looking at punishing rural Albertans like ourselves.”
Pat Bremner, Taber’s local trustee with Holy Spirit Catholic School Division, questioned what each party’s viewpoint is on locally-elected school boards.
“Our party still believes in furthering education, and who knows best for the education system other than those that are local, those that have been in the system,” said the Alberta Party’s Beekman, who is also from Coaldale. “Those locally-elected school boards are comprised of former teachers, former administrators, and we believe it should stay that way.”
UCP candidate Hunter agreed with Beekman while attacking a heavy-handed bureaucratic system that segregates critical decisions in Edmonton.
“If you want to make a good decision, get closest to the problem. With the school boards, they are right there, closest to the problem, they would be able to make the decision best. And unfortunately what we’ve seen far too often is that decisions are being passed on up to Edmonton, and then it’s being dictated to each of the school boards across Alberta. It’s a top-down, heavy handed approach.”
Taking a more conciliatory view, the NDP’s Ross-Giroux wants a relationship with Edmonton on education decisions.
“Being on the front line, local school boards know what’s best for their schools, and I believe there needs to be a partnership with the government up in Edmonton to help ensure that the programs that are needed are created, and also that the funding is there. And that teachers are hired where they are needed, and we’ve got to really keep an eye on class sizes.”
Yates for the Liberals would like to see more municipal involvement in education decisions at the grassroots level.
“That doesn’t leave me much to agree with. I really do believe in our education system, and I do believe that we need to work together. Municipalities should play a larger role. With the Alberta Liberal Party, there is a platform where municipalities do have more autonomy, so we can give more to our schools.”
Barnwell Mayor Del Bodnarek sparred with the UCP’s Hunter over electricity de-regulation, with Hunter arguing that rising costs are a result of previous government choosing not to de-regulate transmission and distribution.
“The truth is you have three parts to your electricity bill — transmission, distribution and retail,” said Hunter.
“What happened is they actually de-regulated retail, and they actually kept regulated the distribution and transmission. So guess what happened? The problem is the retail part — the de-regulated part — actually went down to one of the lowest in North America, Texas was comparable. The ones that actually went up was the regulated parts. The de-regulated parts actually went down. It’s a myth that because you de-regulated your prices went up.”
Bodnarek squared off against Hunter as the Alberta Party candidate for Cardston-Taber-Warner in 2015, taking in 3.1 per cent of the vote in the riding during that election.
“Where we probably made the mistake is we didn’t de-regulate the rest,” said Hunter. “Then you would have allowed competition to come in, and you would have drove the price down. The argument that this is actually a problem with de-regulation, the numbers just don’t show it.”
Always a critical issue for many voters, prospects for a privatized health care system in Alberta were debated among candidates.
“The Alberta Party is not trying to make a privatized system for health care,” said Beekman for the Alberta Party. “We want to investigate and repair the inefficiencies, but we have no plans to make a privatized system where it’s not going to cost the small business owners like yourself, and myself, and arm and a leg for health insurance.”
The NDP’s Ross-Giroux was blunt in her assessment of the idea.
“Along with the Alberta Party, the NDP does not want privatization of health care in this province.”
Privatizations in the province have done nothing but add costs for citizens, argued the Liberal Yates.
“The Alberta Liberal Party is not going to privatize health care. We’ve seen privatization go way too far in Alberta, and we always end up paying the bill for that. The de-regulation of liquor sales, the de-regulation of energy. It’s all fine and dandy to say it’s going to help because there’ll be more small businesses around, but when we have to pay extra for it, I don’t think it is. With Alberta Health Services, what the Alberta Liberal Party would like to do is actually add dental care into it.”
Alone among candidates, the UCP’s Hunter signaled a need to look at other jurisdictions for better ideas about what works elsewhere.
“How many people here would like to have only a four month wait on a surgeon, for a surgical procedure? Four months at maximum. Right now, if you’re waiting for a hip replacement, sometimes 18 months to two years. We need to start asking ourselves, can we do better for those people that are suffering? I believe we can. In fact, what conservatives do is we take a look at all of the jurisdictions around, and we look for best practices. Low and behold, just to the east of us in Saskatchewan, they’ve actually created a fairly good system. They were able to decrease the time of surgical wait times to three months.”
Other topics covered by the candidates during question period included drug costs and programming, the recovery of the oil industry, the nature of GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) in schools, public/separate school systems or a one-size-fits-all model, MLA recall legislation, pipelines, minimum wage, and Alberta’s future role in Canada’s federal system.