Former MLA and PC candidate Jack Hayden introduces himself at the start of an all-candidates forum held in Stettler on Monday

Former MLA and PC candidate Jack Hayden introduces himself at the start of an all-candidates forum held in Stettler on Monday

Candidates grilled over budget, education

The three candidates vying for the responsibilities of MLA for Drumheller-Stettler riding were in attendance...

At the Stettler Community Centre on Monday, April 28 to present their platforms and defend their parties.

Each candidate – incumbent Rick Strankman for the Wildrose party, former MLA Jack Hayden for the Progressive Conservative party, and newcomer Emily Shannon for the New Democratic Party – were allowed a few minutes to introduce themselves and present their platforms.

Following introductions came the questions, submitted prior to the event by email, at the microphone as people stood up, or submitted on paper to the moderator, Leona Thorogood.

Though some seats in the hall were empty at the Board of Trade-Public Library sponsored event, the majority were taken as people from the surrounding communities gathered to see who they had to choose from on May 5.

Each of the three candidates remained close to their party’s playbook, with Strankman insisting upon less government, Shannon on taxing the corporations rather than individuals and small businesses, and Hayden on staying the course and preparing for a bit of a tighter belt period.

Hayden broke with the party line when discussing education though, saying that he felt spending should be more in the control of school boards, rather than a situation like current, where the boards have to go to the minister of education to ask for permission to spend money the schools have saved or fundraised through the hard efforts of their students, staff and parents.

Both Shannon and Strankman were critical of the government’s decision to freeze reserves, not fund new students, and continue to fund schools on outdated information. While Hayden pointed out that education is the only portfolio in the government to see increased funding, he admitted the money was just to cover contractual obligations with teacher budgets.

The NDP budget plan came under fire as it promised no new taxes, instead taxing the large corporations that have operated in Alberta but haven’t put some of their profits back into the province.

“Frankly, I’m insulted,” Shannon said of the vast profits and limited taxation of the bigger corporations. “I’m talking about taxing Big Oil, not the mom’n’pop shop businesses or the people who already pay so much.”

The Wildrose budget also was questioned. Strankman was insistent, multiple times, that “Alberta doesn’t have an income problem, it has a spending problem,” saying that taxes like the new four-cent tax on fuel was unnecessary because the money was already there – just being squandered on upper management.

“We need to get back to a bottom-up government style,” he said, pushing for local autonomy rather than upper management.

“It doesn’t work,” he said. “If a bulb burns out in the operating theatre here they have to talk to Red Deer to replace it.”

Health care also was a topic that came up, with everyone in agreement that preserving rural health care was a vital task.

“Three of the 10 hospitals recommended for closure (in a recent newspaper article) were in this riding,” Hayden said. “Castor, Hanna and Oyen. We need to get Consort open.”

Agriculture, as one of Alberta’s big industries, was also discussed. Hayden noted that only three per cent of Albertans were behind one of the largest industries in the province, and it’s something that the province has to focus on.

He said that developing new markets for the prairie’s bounty was important, so the farmers aren’t reliant on the American market. Everyone agreed with him on that point.

Discussion about the weakness in the beef market also came up, with all parties acknowledging that the rancher has had a hard decade, with BSE – mad cow disease – putting a dampener on Canadian beef sales.

“I might be a large fellow, but I promise I didn’t eat all the cows,” Hayden said, earning a few chuckles from the crowd. “And I’m not responsible for BSE either.”

He noted that those same trade missions mentioned in regard to crops is another chance for politicians to find markets for Canadian beef, since its controls are tight and the very rare cases of BSE never make it to market.

Shannon added that the government should work on making it more possible for ranchers to ranch, not having to sell off all their stock to remain solvent but instead keep some behind to help revitalize its bloodlines for the following year.

All three candidates were firm that religion doesn’t have a place in politics when a submitted question asked if those who do not have Judea-Christian faith are capable of having the ethics necessary to be a good politician. All three noted that faith, or a lack of faith, isn’t an indicator of whether a person is a good person or not.

Shannon said that just because someone’s faith is different than hers, or yours, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Strankman emphasized he is running to represent all Albertans, not just Judea-Christian constituents. Hayden, the son of a preacher, admitted he has his idea of what faith should be, but he doesn’t bring that into his work.

The candidates were also queried on their positions on gay-straight alliances in schools. All three received applause when they said they’d support them.

“I may lose votes saying this, but suicide is a big problem in our gay youth,” Hayden said. “If this will help save lives, then I’m behind it.”

Strankman, while not saying he would support an LGBTQ agenda, said he would support any group or organization that strove to end bullying and make schools a safe place for teens.

The candidates were put on notice when one man stood and asked why anything they’ve said that night matters, when parties required their members to vote along the party line.

Strankman noted it was time politicians were able to vote as per what their constituents wanted, without fear of being cast out of their parties. Hayden admitted that voting with party lines is part of the political system present in Canada, but that it’s an MLA’s job to lobby inside the party for his or her constituents.

All three candidates said that if an MLA has a major, unredeemable moral objection to his or her party, they should leave the party – but instead of crossing the floor to another party, they should sit as an independent, then seek a nomination in another party for the next election.

One moment of the night drew coos from the crowd, as a young man, no older than six, walked up in a cowboy hat and boots, shyly presenting a written question to Hayden, who turned it into the monitor.

That question became the final question of the night, as the two hours allotted for questions had come to an close.

The question asked candidates what politicians would do to ensure that the young man’s generation wouldn’t be paying today’s debt, to which all three candidates answered balanced budgets.

Wildrose wanted to see the heritage fund restored, while Shannon said that balancing the budget, again reiterating the NDP plan to tax big corporations, would ensure that Alberta keeps what it has without grinding everyone down, and Hayden said that balanced planning will have Alberta in a good place again in just a matter of years.