Candidates at last week’s debate here tackled the issues of health care, the federal surplus, and the international border crossing, offering their views on how they should be dealt with.
< *c>Health care
“The public health care system of Canada is something I will always support and always have supported,” Liberal incumbent Ken Boshcoff said when asked about the role of private health care in Canada.
Boshcoff pointed to the Liberals’ 10-year accord with the provinces, signed in September, 2004, that will see $41 billion in new money invested in health care.
“Here in Fort Frances, you probably can get your knee replaced faster than anywhere else in the country,” he said, referring to the new Total Knee Arthroplasty Program, under which Dr. John Porter shares his time between Fort Frances, Kenora, and Dryden performing knee-replacement surgeries.
Conservative candidate David Leskowski pointed to the billions of tax dollars wasted on the gun registry and the sponsorship scandal that could have been used for health care.
“Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought in Canada the government would decide to cut health care in order to fund these programs,” he remarked.
“History shows you can’t trust the Liberals to address the health care system,” he warned.
Leskowski said people’s fear about the Conservatives privatizing health care are unfounded.
“Stephen Harper’s family was bankrupted when his father had medical problems and the bills were too high for them to pay,” he noted. “Stephen Harper is not a millionaire, and will not privatize health care.’
“No, no, no, no, no. Privatization, absolutely not,” Green candidate Russ Aegard stressed. “Profits from people’s illnesses is disgusting.”
The most effective way to improve health care is to improve the general health of Canadian citizens, he argued.
“We are killing ourselves slowly with the poisons, the chemicals, that are in our food systems, our air systems,” he said, adding healthier habits, including proper diet and exercise, will “reduce the health care burden.”
NDP candidate John Rafferty said the Liberals pose as defenders of public health care, “but we know they’re not.”
“We wouldn’t be having an election right now if Paul Martin had said he would adopt NDP proposals to stop the creeping privatization by the provinces.
“He refused to do that,” Rafferty noted.
The NDP’s health care plan includes expanding home care and long-term care for seniors, as well as addressing hidden health issues such as mental health.
< *c>Federal surplus
While some might think a $10-billion surplus, such as what the Liberals say Canada has right now, is a good thing, “we propose it’s not a sign of good financial management,” Leskowski said.
“When your projections of surplus are three times higher than you estimated in your budget, that means you have no idea what’s going on,” he charged, adding Ottawa is overtaxing Canadians.
The reason the federal government has such a large surplus is because it passed along expenses to the provinces “in tremendous amounts,” and the provinces then downloaded those costs onto families.
For example, Ontarians now must pay for each visit to the optometrist or the chiropractor—services that used to be covered by the province.
“The deficit exists in families,” Leskowski said.
The Conservative party would reduce the burden on taxpayers by reducing the GST to six percent immediately, and then to five percent in the next five years.
“This would affect the lower 32 percent of the population who we feel have been most disadvantaged,” he claimed.
The Conservative budget allows for a $3 billion surplus each year to pay down the debt.
Rafferty agreed with Leskowski regarding the meaning of an enormous surplus. “It means there’s some incompetence somewhere,” he argued. “The NDP believes in balanced budgets.”
The NDP proposal includes increasing the personal exemption on income tax “until over the next five years it reaches the poverty level,” which is $14,800/year.
This would benefit lower- and middle-income earners.
Rafferty also pointed to the NDP’s success in cancelling $4.6 billion in corporate tax cuts from the Liberal budget last year, which instead was invested in education, training, housing, and the environment.
“Eight consecutive balanced budgets is the best record in the G7 nations,” Boshcoff said. “Most people would agree a surplus is better than a deficit.”
In 1993, for instance, 38 cents of every tax dollar was going towards debt servicing. That has since been reduced to 18 cents per dollar.
“There’s a reason we have the best record in the G-7. We’ve applied ourselves to wrestling that debt down to the ground,” Boshcoff said.
The Conservatives’ proposed GST cut “will only affect the upper classes,” he charged.
Aegard said he was skeptical whether the financial reports are even accurate. For example, following the provincial election in Ontario in 2003, it turned out the Progressive Conservative government had accrued a huge debt while they had been reporting balanced budgets.
“I wonder how much of a deficit [the Liberals] have been fudging all this time,” he said.
“Lowering taxes is a great idea for the people that deserve it,” he added, referring to lower- and middle-income earners.
“I like paying my taxes. I love living in this country. I have a problem with how my taxes are being used,” he noted.
The federal government reports a $10-billion surplus while one in every five children in Canada lives in poverty.
“I don’t know how politicians can feel good about themselves sitting on a surplus when I’m in a school teaching these children and seeing the struggles they’re going through in terms of their education, in terms of their home life,” Aegard added.
“This is a role the governments need to step into to improve now.”
< *c>Border issues
Rafferty said when he first heard of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative—the U.S. plan to require everyone entering the country to carry a passport—he was “appalled.”
Then he saw the Ontario Auditor General’s report that some 54,000 blank driver’s licences were missing from private licensing agencies across the province.
Such mismanagement puts into serious question the security of an Ontario driver’s licence as a form of identification.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “Passports or an official travel card is, in fact, a good idea, not for the Americans and to satisfy the issues that they have, but it will also confirm that you are a Canadian, and it will also probably save us a lot of hassles getting across the border.”
Rafferty also said a Canadian’s first passport should be free.
Boshcoff said he spoke in the House of Commons on this issue, adding the important thing is to keep an open dialogue with the U.S.
“It’s going to hurt their tourism and their business as much as it will ours. And that’s really where the solution lies,” he said.
The government, including the Canadian Tourism Commission, Foreign Affairs, and International Trade, all are working to convince the U.S. that this initiative will do more harm than good, Boshcoff added.
“I don’t believe in having a passport between our countries,” Leskowski said. “It’s senseless to specifically harm border towns that way.”
In order to convince the U.S. to not follow through with this initiative, Canada must take its own steps toward improving security, he added.
“Canada has to be serious about its security. The Americans have to know we’re serious about it,” Leskowski said. “We’ve become almost irrelevant to the Americans.”
One way to do that is to crack down on the 36,000 people still in Canada who have been ordered to be deported.
“The Auditor General calls it a disgrace for our country to have these many individuals who could pose security concerns not leaving our country,” Leskowski said.
“This whole thing about the passports is a knee-jerk reaction,” Aegard said.
Having been attacked on home soil on Sept. 11, 2001, it is only natural that Washington would be eager to prevent such an incident from happening again.
The issue calls for patience and discussion, Aegard added, saying any discussion about security also should include a look at “the underlying causes of crime and terrorism, and that’s poverty.”
Canada needs to make a commitment to the UN to put 0.7 percent of the GDP toward international aid, Aegard remarked.