Agricultural Federations host federal Huron-Bruce debate
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Four of the five federal candidates vying for the title of Huron-Bruce MP debated the issues of the day last week, as the Huron and Bruce County Federations of Agriculture hosted a joint all-candidates meeting.
The federations co-hosted the meeting via Zoom and broadcasted the meeting on YouTube. Conservative incumbent Ben Lobb, joined Liberal James Rice, Jan Johnstone of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and independent Justin L. Smith in the debate, while Jack Stecho of the People’s Party of Canada sent his regrets.
Johnstone presented her opening remarks first, saying she has been a resident of the riding for over 30 years. As a long-time school board trustee, she said she is very committed to the ongoing education of children in the riding and that she hoped to continue her legacy of leadership and community involvement as the riding’s MP in Ottawa.
Lobb, who is seeking a fifth term in the riding, said the Conservative Party has many initiatives that are aimed at aiding farmers in the riding and across the country.
He said his government would continue to defend supply management and investigate some of the country’s existing trade deals, adding that Canada should not have a trade deficit with other countries. He also said that supporting rural infrastructure, such as water, sewer, roads and bridges in rural ridings would also be a priority for him, if he is re-elected.
Rice spoke next, saying that while he is a lawyer by trade and was not raised on a farm, his roots in agriculture go back to being involved with the Tiverton Agricultural Society many years ago.
He said that, just the day before the meeting, he had hosted an agricultural roundtable with industry stakeholders from a number of sectors to help understand the issues facing agriculture. One thing that kept coming up, he said, was that farmers in the riding feel as though their voices aren’t being heard.
Smith said he was running on a platform of law and order, as well as freedom. He said that the current “overreaching” government is power-hungry and that measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, such as shutdowns, mask-wearing and Premier Doug Ford’s newly-announced vaccine passport should all be eliminated.
He also said that any tax related to carbon emissions should be scrapped and that all government subsidies should also end, leaving more money in the pockets of Canadians. Smith also advocated for the consolidation of Canadian firearms laws to allow for safe gun ownership in Canada.
As an independent candidate, he said, he would bring the issues of the riding to Ottawa, not the other way around, and he wouldn’t be beholden to a party leader.
The first question of the night took aim at declining infrastructure in rural Ontario.
Johnstone said that while many roads and bridges are generally handled by the provincial level of government, the NDP would do its best to help with the state of infrastructure in rural Ontario.
Lobb agreed, but said that the current system of infrastructure maintenance was “backwards” to him, saying the money should flow from the federal government to the provinces and then to the counties and the municipalities with local direction. Now, with the provincial government having to come to the federal government to aid counties and municipalities, he said, it feels unnecessarily complicated.
Rice pointed to the Liberal Party’s rural economic development strategy as a reason to trust the Liberals when it comes to rural infrastructure, but agreed with Lobb that the current system is tied up in too many levels of government.
He said, however, that he would be a “strong voice at the table” for rural ridings and the riding of Huron-Bruce to ensure the riding gets its fair share of infrastructure funding and that rural Ontario is no longer ignored.
Smith said that more funds needed to be allocated to rural Ontario to aid its ailing infrastructure and that the process needed to be streamlined.
The next question dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and getting Canadians back to work, rather than relying on emergency aid from the government.
Lobb said the question struck at the most important issue in the country right now, which is its labour shortage and getting
Canadians back to work.
He pointed to leader Erin O’Toole’s million job plan that would provide incentives for both employers and employees to get back to work and ensure that it’s safe to do so.
Rice said the Liberal government is working to bring the economy “roaring back”, but that the fight against COVID-19 has to be finished first.
One of the Liberal Party’s main methods of getting Canadians back to work, he said, is through its proposed $10-a-day healthcare, which will help mainly mothers be able to afford healthcare and return to the workforce.
Smith again reiterated that, if elected, he would end all protection measures against the COVID-19 virus and return to life before the pandemic.
Johnstone said that the NDP’s work plan would aim to help small and medium-sized businesses safely get back to operation and an important part of that plan is getting as many people as possible vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
She said an NDP government would seek to raise the minimum wage, while also aiding small businesses to help them accommodate that change, and introduce paid sick leave.
The next question dealt with agricultural trade deals with other nations.
Rice said that trade is an important part of the Canadian economy, which is why the Liberal government has established deals with many of the country’s biggest trading partners. He also said that, if elected, the Liberal government would continue to provide grants for small businesses and that he would always stand up for supply management.
Lobb said that many of the country’s trade deals need to be re-evaluated, with Canada showing trade deficits with a number of countries and that shouldn’t be happening. He said that any agreement in which the country isn’t being treated fairly should be examined further, which is what the Conservative Party will do, if elected.
The next question was about the carbon tax and potential exemptions for farmers, recognizing the good work being done on farms to offset carbon emissions and sequester carbon.
Smith reiterated that he did not believe in any form of carbon tax and, if he were elected, he would eliminate it.
Johnstone said the NDP would not seek to eliminate the carbon tax, but would instead work with farmers to credit them back for their sustainable land management.
Lobb said that farmers being charged a carbon tax without any consideration for the carbon sequestration being done on the land was unfair and that would change if the Conservative Party was elected.
Rice said that the Liberal Party considers climate change to be very important, whereas the Conservative Party is still debating whether it’s real or not. Having said that, if elected, Rice would bring the voice of his riding to Ottawa and, with no alternative to fossil fuels for many farming functions, he would ensure that farmers’ voices are being heard in the federal government.
He suggested that if Lobb was so concerned about it, he should have raised the issue in the House of Commons during his time there.
Lobb rebutted, saying that he had raised the issue with the Liberal government’s Minister of Agriculture. She had no response, he said, but the clip of his question amassed tens of thousands of views online.
The next question was about the federal portion of the business risk management plan and potentially increasing the government’s portion from 70 per cent to 80 or 85 per cent.
Johnstone said that she and the NDP were in favour of raising the federal portion of the plan to 85 per cent. The farmers, she said, are the ones taking the risk and they need to be protected.
Lobb said that farmers needed to be supported, but that the current program is too confusing and tough to navigate, even for some of the most seasoned accountants.
The next question dealt with young people leaving the world of farming and the resulting labour shortage that has plagued agricultural industries for years.
Lobb said that communication is essential in this situation and that programs need to be established to show students the potential for exciting careers in the world of agriculture through trades and other skills being taught in the school system.
Rice agreed, saying that for every one person seeking a job, there are three job postings waiting. Communicating the potential in the agricultural sector for jobs needs to start as early as elementary school and high school, he said.
Johnstone said that education is one way to engage young people in the world of agriculture. She also said that the NDP has a plan for a pathway to permanent citizenship for temporary foreign workers who aided the sector throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that would help to close the labour shortage gap as well.
The next question was about the disappearing farmland across the country, which is a concern for many in Huron-Bruce.
Rice said the key is convincing developers to build vertically, rather than horizontally in city centres, rather than continuing to sprawl into farmland and rural areas.
Johnstone said it’s a provincial issue, for the most part, but that she has been really saddened by the loss of farmland over the years. She also noted, however, that the issue is also about the changing face of the farm, with farming becoming more industrialized and there being fewer family farms on each country block.
Lobb agreed, saying that, just within the last decade, he has really seen drastic changes all over the province.
He said the Conservative Party has a plan, if elected, for the federal government to divest itself of 15 per cent of its infrastructure holdings, many of which are in city centres, to be developed into housing options.
He added that the COVID-19 pandemic driving people out of city centres and into suburbs and rural areas like Huron-Bruce hasn’t helped the situation either.
One of the final questions of the night dealt with the country’s deficit and growing debt.
Johnstone said the NDP would plan to tax the “ultra-rich” and ensure they pay their fair share, reinvesting that money into programs for the country while ensuring that the country’s debt doesn’t spiral out of control.
Lobb said it has been frustrating for him when, in 2015, his government handed over a balanced budget, only to see the Liberal government spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the ensuing years in power.
Rice said that the country is coming through an unprecedented period and, during the pandemic, over eight million Canadians accessed government aid so they could support their families and pay their bills, while businesses were able to stay open.
He said the Liberals too would focus on banks and insurance companies that profited during the pandemic while people were suffering, as well as some of the country’s highest earners to ensure they pay their fair share.
The federal election is set for Monday, Sept. 20.