As the race for leadership of the Saskatchewan New Democrats nears the home stretch, the two vying to secure the top job are slowly separating themselves from one another — though still overwhelming pitch parallel ideas.
Regina Rosemont MLA Trent Wotherspoon and Saskatoon Meewasin MLA Ryan Meili had a more form-style, laid back debate in Prince Albert Saturday night, covering issues spanning population growth, rural outreach and carbon pricing. They were asked questions from various media outlets in the province alongside those submitted by residents online.
Carbon levies and environmental protection was a topic both pulled their additional 90-second talking card on, each stressing a need to craft a ‘made in Saskatchewan’ solution over waiting on the federal government's imposed plan.
Both cautioned, however, that any carbon pricing scheme must actually work to decrease emissions and protect consumers, families, producers and trade exposed markets. Meili made note of the Alberta carbon levy program and said, “a majority of people … are actually making money off of their carbon levy system [rebates] rather than paying more.”
“This is not a scary idea. We have been told we need to fear acting on climate change when the reality is this is an enormous opportunity for us,” Meili added.
Wotherspoon echoed his response and said the province was missing an opportunity by not acting “aggressively, right now, on renewable power generation.”
“We pay for drought, we pay for flooding and we pay for the damage [of climate change] and we need to act,” Wotherspoon said.
Citing its detrimental impact in the North and rural segments of the province, each made numerous calls throughout the night to restore some version of the shuttered STC service, especially for medical needs.
“This is a priority and it speaks about values,” Wotherspoon said.
Meili said a new system would “not look the same," adding there is an opportunity to consult with residents to redevelop a more financially sound and modern public transportation system.
Historically, the NDP has faltered when it comes to securing votes in rural Saskatchewan. Both admitted the party had an uphill battle in which they needed to prevail if they were going to win in 2020. After the leadership race, Wotherspoon said he is committed to embarking on a listening tour across rural segments of the province to better understand the challenges and solutions they need.
“We need to be willing to take time with some folks who might push as back, maybe even rightly on certain fronts, and be willing to accept some of that conversation,” Wotherspoon said.
Meili touted the recent release of his rural and agriculture policy, which outlines various solutions to meet the needs of rural Saskatchewan, such as the lack of employment opportunities and access to services. He said there was a need to reinvigorate a rural issues caucus.
Addressing the disproportionally high number of Indigenous citizens in the prison and justice system was also asked of the candidates. Each called for an enhanced effort on achieving proper and full reconciliation within the province, deviating from the 'tough on crime' approach and to redirect focus on prevention and rehabilitation.
The NDP has routinely come under fire from the SaskParty for the stagnated population growth during its previous tenor in government. Both Meili and Wotherspoon called for greater supports to immigration and enhancing settlement programs in the province. They said there is a need to approach the feds and work to rebuild the family class within the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program.
“Let’s figure out a way that allows people to stay for those who want to do so,” Meili said.
Parallel answers were had on health care, with each opposed to the two for one MRI program the government introduced, warning of queue jumping for those who can afford it, saying “it is unethical and unfair.” They individually headed calls for greater investments in pharmacare programs, childcare and improved supports for mental health and addictions, adding the economic returns in these sectors would pay dividends. On the education portfolio, the two vowed to restore and expand resources in the classroom and hand local autonomy back to school boards.
This was the first debate for the NDP since learning who they will face in the next election: a Saskatchewan Party led my Premier Scott Moe.
When asked how this changed the race, Meili said it painted a more clear picture of what the next two years across the aisle will look like.
“I think we will see someone who is very committed to the same approach [as Brad Wall] and that approach has been wearing thin with people,” he said. “That gives us a real opportunity.”
While Wotherspoon cautioned a need to not “underestimate him from a political perceptive,” he was “ready to go.”
“The tired operation we see being led by Scott Moe right now really has fallen out of touch with Saskatchewan people,” he said. “I know we have a big hill to climb, but I feel the momentum and I am so encouraged.”
The two will next take the stage in Saskatoon on Feb. 17. Party faithful will select a new leader on March 3 at a convention in Regina.
On Twitter: @JournoMarr
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