Three of the four candidates running to represent Weyburn-Big Muddy in the provincial election gathered in an empty Weyburn Legion Hall for a candidates forum, hosted by the Weyburn Chamber of Commerce.
Dustin Duncan, the incumbent MLA, represented the Saskatchewan Party; Regan Lanning represented the NDP, and Collin Keith represented the fledgling Buffalo Party. A fourth candidate, Shane Caellaigh, represents the Saskatchewan Green Party, but was not present for the forum.
The first group of questions were posed by the Chamber, and then questions were brought that were emailed in by the public.
The chamber questions included issues like how their party will help the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, how to ensure Saskatchewan workers are employed on any large projects, and what their opinion is of the federal carbon tax.
Noting that the economy was already hurting prior to the pandemic with depressed oil prices, the candidates were asked how their party would help the economy recover.
Keith said his party recognizes there are significant issues, but pointed out some aspects are out of their control, such as the price of oil. They would address the issue of investor confidence for agriculture, oil and gas, and other sectors, by looking at things like more access to international markets.
This means more pipelines are needed and more railroads, along with tax incentives for startup businesses, and more capacity to refine oil and to process ag commodities here in Saskatchewan, by promoting a five-year tax break to investors to make these projects happen here, said Keith.
“We have one of the most resilient economies in Canada,” said Duncan, pointing out that even with challenges, Saskatchewan had the lowest unemployment rate in Canada prior to the pandemic.
“We are relatively doing well compared to the rest of the country,” he said, pointing out his government has created 75,500 new jobs since they took power in 2007. They are proposing to lower power bills for all Saskatchwan residents by 10 per cent over the next year if they are elected, and spending $7.5 billion on infrastructure projects such as new hospitals, schools and highway improvements over the next 10 years.
“The first step in economic recovery is to stop hiring out-of-province workers for Saskatchewan projects,” said Lanning, noting the NDP has a Sask-first procurement plan which will ensure large projects here employ Saskatchewan workers and support Saskatchewan businesses.
They also are proposing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and to institute $25 a day child care, which will help women to get back into the workforce, and to remove the PST on construction projects, which will put $2 million back into the economy under their plan. Lanning also noted there is a plan for $10 million for training or retraining workers who need to seek new jobs.
Each candidate was asked to state their opinion of the federally-imposed carbon tax.
“The Saskatchewan Party has been very clear,” began Duncan. “First and foremost, the federal carbon tax is unconstitutional, and that’s why we have taken the federal government to the Supreme Court.”
He added that even more important than this point is that a carbon tax doesn’t work in a jurisdiction like Saskatchewan, as the reality is with the geography of this province, people need to drive, and forcing people to reduce buying gas and oil isn’t going to be feasible here.
“It’s frustrating that the federal government doesn’t understand how life in Saskatchewan is,” said Duncan, adding there is “no evidence that a carbon tax will be effective in reducing emissions.”
Duncan also noted that Saskatchewan trades their commodities around the world, and the vast majority of those countries do not have a carbon tax, which immediately puts Saskatchewan at a competitive disadvantage as it’s an added cost to production for anything produced here.
“A carbon tax is not ideal, but sadly it’s our reality,” said Lanning, pointing that the Saskatchewan Party had an opportunity to come up with their own climate change plan made for this province, and they chose not to.
“So we would like to develop a made-in-Saskatchewan climate change plan that works better,” said Lanning. “Ride sharing is hard when we don’t have a bus system, but this takes into consideration that we have to drive everywhere. We need to have a plan for Saskatchewan made in Saskatchewan.”
Keith said he wanted to thank former premier Brad Wall and Dustin Duncan for fighting the carbon tax all the way to the Supreme Court, and agreed that trying to get people to stop buying fossil fuels is just not feasible in Saskatchewan.
“In cities maybe you can catch public transit to go to work, but in rural Saskatchewan we drive hundreds of kilometres, and it puts food on everyone’s table,” said Keith, noting that the carbon tax means that producers and workers in every sector are paying a disproportionate amount of the tax compared to anyone else.
The shortage of doctors in Weyburn was raised as an issue, and the candidates were asked what their party would do to address this problem. Keith said from what he understands, there is a problem with the hours doctors are required to do hospital rounds and man the emergency department at the hospital in addition to the time they need to be seeing patients at their clinics, and suggested there has to be some way to address this issue.
“I would say we’ve come a long way in this province,” said Duncan, who acknowledged this shortage has come up from time to time. When they came into power in 2007, there were only 60 seats for training new doctors, and that has been increased to 100, plus they established the SIPPA agency to assess internationally-trained doctors rather than relying on Manitoba to do it as they used to do. Duncan noted there are two doctors being assessed right now who will be coming to Weyburn once they are through that assessment process.
“We need to shorten wait times, and need to stop short-term staffing,” said Lanning, noting the NDP is planning to fund new positions, including 100 new doctors, 300 new LPNs, 150 new RNs and 500 more continuing care aides, along with $2 million for treating those with opioid and meth addictions.
“I know a lot of people who are without a family doctor, and in a pandemic that’s unacceptable,” said Lanning.