Candidates debate hot-button issues

19 SEPTEMBER 2014

Sackville Tribune Post
Katie Tower
Published on September 17, 2014

SACKVILLE, N.B. – Education, the economy and the environment were the key issues on the table Sunday night as the four candidates vying for the MLA seat in the Memramcook-Tantramar riding went head to head during a debate at Brunton Auditorium in Sackville.

The all-candidates debate, hosted by the Mount Allison Students Union, drew in a fairly modest crowd as the provincial election campaign enters its final week, with a mix of university students and community members coming out to listen to the discussion and ask some tough questions of the four aspiring candidates.


The newly-created Memramcook-Tantramar riding will see two incumbents facing off against two newcomers to the provincial political scene in the upcoming election. Progressive Conservative incumbent Mike Olscamp, MLA for the former Tantramar riding, is up against Liberal incumbent Bernard Leblanc, MLA for the former Dieppe-Memramcook-Lakeville riding, Green Party candidate Megan Mitton, and NDP candidate Helene Boudreau.

Olscamp said if re-elected for another term, his party is intent on "staying the course" to continue finding efficiencies within the budget while also moving ahead on natural resource development to generate more revenue for the province.

"New Brunswick is at a turning point in our economy," he said. "By reducing expenditures and developing our natural resources, we hope to address that."

LeBlanc, however, pointed out that the Conservatives haven't done a very good job of getting the economy back on track and the province has seen unprecedented job losses under their leadership.

"We would be focused on getting the economy going, putting job creation ahead of cuts," he said. "We cannot afford four more years of more cuts and job losses."

Mitton said the government needs to start putting a longer-term vision for the province ahead of short-term goals that aren't sustainable or beneficial for New Brunswick.

"People all around this riding are telling me they can't wait for change," said Mitton, noting that New Brunswickers should not have to choose between the environment or the economy; they should both be essential planks of any party's platform. "We just can't keep going on the path we're on. We need to find a new way forward."

Boudreau said the two traditional parties have put the province into a dire economic situation that will be a challenge to climb out of. But she has confidence the NDP can do just that with its common-sense approach and fairness to social policy issues.

"Under my leadership we can make things happen for New Brunswick," she said.

Education

The rising cost of post-secondary education was a concern brought up for discussion during the debate, including how each party would address high tuition costs and find ways to lower the burden of high debt levels for students after graduation.

Boudreau said the NDP has plans to introduce a Free in 8 program, which would see a student's debt eliminated after eight years in the workplace. This would be done through post-graduation bursaries and eliminating interest on student loans.

Boudreau said this would help New Brunswickers get away from their crippling debtload and give them an opportunity to start their careers and families.

"We want you to be part of our economy," said Boudreau.

She said the cost for this program is anticipated to cost about $1.8 million in the first year and $3.7 million by year four; but she points out the initiative is seen more as an investment rather than an expense.

The NDP would also remove the parental and spousal contribution from student loans; this would cost an additional $1.6 million per year.

Mitton said the Green Party would make all provincial student loans interest free, cap the student debt level at $20,000, and provide an extension to the grace period for student loan payments following graduation.

The expected cost of these initiatives would be approximately $20 million in the first year alone but Mitton notes that the Green Party has plans to generate funds to pay for them through various ways, including initiating a carbon tax as well as a new tax bracket on the wealthiest New Brunswickers. She also sees the expenditure as an investment into the future of the province.

"We need to, as a society, decide what's important to us and where we want to spend our money."

LeBlanc said the Liberals would also eliminate the parental and spousal contributions from student loans; and give students stability and predictability by requiring universities to set tuition fees for the length of a degree program.

"It definitely has to be more affordable for students . . . and we have to look at ways to give them a break," said LeBlanc.

Olscamp said the Conservatives have already been working with universities on setting tuition fees in advance so students can plan ahead. He also pointed out that the provincial government provides universities with stable funding each year and also helps support research at post-secondary institutions.

He said the best way to help students pay down their debts following graduation is to ensure there are job opportunities for them out there. Olscamp says further development of our natural resources will open up some of those opportunities for skilled and professional workers.

"We can only do as much as our financial ability will allow," he said.

Environment

Fracking, of course, was the main topic of concern under environmental issues; but also up for discussion was what each candidate/party has planned for renewable energy initiatives in the future.

Boudreau said shale gas development, in particular the hydraulic fracturing aspect of the process, is a concern in the Memramcook-Tantramar riding and the NDP has committed to a legislative ban.

She said her party would establish a Human Health & Environmental Protection Agency, which would put science, not partisanship politics, at the forefront of decisions affecting the province's natural resources and environment.

Boudreau said before proceeding on shale gas development, "we need to make sure our environment and our health are protected." She also pointed out that the Liberals and the Conservatives did not do their homework before allowing the industry to move forward.

As for new programs focused on renewable energies, Boudreau said it will be important for the province to develop the various sectors further but she said it will be essential to get the economy on track to do so.

"We have to ensure our economy, our education system and our health are well taken care."

LeBlanc said the Liberals will put a moratorium on fracking until such time as the scientific evidence can show it's a safe practice.

"It's a risk to our environment, our health and our water . . . and I can't see why the present Conservative government can't see that."

He said there are still too many questions around the impacts hydraulic fracturing might have on our wellfields, our air or our infrastructure – so it's better to wait until they are fully answered.

"It's not worth it," he said of the expected revenue. "Shale gas will not bring riches to our province right now."

Boudreau said the Liberals also vow to reinstate the home energy efficiency retrofit program and will continue to support the environmental trust fund.

Mitton said the Green Party would ban the "exploration and exploitation" of shale gas altogether.

"There is a threat to our water, to our environment and to our health," she said. "We don't need a moratorium, we need a ban."

She said the science shows there are too many risks involved to outweigh the possible rewards.

"It's not sustainable . . . and it's only contributing to the fossil fuel economy."

Mitton said New Brunswick needs to stop putting all of its hopes on economic recovery around traditional resource development and instead transition to renewable energy alternatives.

"The future is around green technology."

Olscamp has a difference of opinion when it comes to the development of shale gas, saying shale gas exploration is part of a Conservative government's plan for natural resource development.

"I wouldn't sit here in front of you today and say I was for it if I didn't think it could be done in a safe manner," said Olscamp. "We need to do it and we will be pursuing that."

He said he's met as many people in the riding who are pro-shale gas development as those who are opposed to it and the province will benefit economically if it's

As for pursuing other renewable energy projects, Olscamp said the government has been working to bring wind farms to the region (although opposition from local environmentalists has prevented that from occurring on the marsh), and solar power is also an option being considered for the province. Energy efficiency initiatives will also be important going forward.

"The key is to have a mix of what we have here now," he said.

Economy

Rebuilding and restarting the economy was also on the agenda Sunday night as the candidates laid out how they would stimulate job growth and generate revenue in New Brunswick.

LeBlanc said his party would provide more education and training to fill the gap of skilled workers in the province. He also said the Liberals have plans to invest in infrastructure renewal, including road reconstruction, which would create hundreds of jobs for New Brunswickers.

The Liberals also plan to cut out tax "giveaways" to big industry, find efficiencies by eliminating cross-government offices, and increase taxes for the wealthiest residents.

Mitton said the Green Party would encourage investment and business start-ups through New Brunswick savings bonds and Community Economic Development Investment Funds (CEDIFs).

Also within their platform are plans to support agriculture and create more jobs in forestry, work with Efficiency NB to bring back more home energy retrofits (which would create jobs), and to invest further in renewable energies.

The Greens would also end subsidies and tax breaks to the resource sector, establish a new tax bracket for those making over $150,000, and increase the corporate income tax rate, said Mitton.

"We want to ensure everyone pays their fair share to provide the services we need."

Olscamp said the government needs to find ways to bring our skilled workers back home. He said there are jobs in aquaculture and fisheries and the hope is to provide more growth in the future in mining, forestry, and natural resource development.

There also needs to be continued support of small to medium businesses without forgetting the larger businesses who provide employment to thousands of New Brunswickers, said Olscamp.

As for reducing expenditures, Olscamp said the Conservatives would continue to "live within our means."

"We're staying the course. We're going to find economies."

Boudreau said her government would continue encouraging young people to start up small to medium businesses in New Brunswick, as well as doing their medical residencies here. The NDP is also promising to invest in the arts and culture sectors, tourism, as well as bio and tech opportunities, so the province is not relying solely on manufacturing, she said.

Boudreau said the NDP would also look at restructuring to find efficiencies within government, including the promise to reduce departments from 17 to 10. As we

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