Transportation front and centre at all candidates forum

Moderator Johy Fryters introduces candidates Estelle Hjertaas (Liberals), Kelly Day (PPC) and Randy Hoback (Conservatives). -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Pension plans, healthcare and affordable housing were just some of the topics discussed during the first all candidates forum of the federal election season, however it was a provincial issue that drew most of the attention.

All three confirmed candidates were in attendance for Thursday afternoon’s forum, which focused primarily on seniors issues. However, they did dip into other topics during the question and answer session, like the closure of the STC in May 2017.

Moderator John Fryters, the Seniors Advocacy Centres executive director, said the STC’s departure has created serious problems for seniors trying to get to medical appointments in Saskatoon and Prince Albert. In some cases, he said, seniors are cancelling major appointments because they have no reliable transportation.

“I know this is a provincial issue, bit it’s really also a federal issue because I believe, as seniors, we should have freedom of movement,” Fryters said. “It’s not just a Prince Albert or Saskatoon issue. It’s an issue for rural communities all across Saskatchewan, and the major centres.”

Incumbent Conservative MP Randy Hoback offered only a few comments on the move because it was a provincial decision, however challengers Kelly Day (PPC) and Estelle Hjertaas (Liberal) didn’t hesitate to condemn the closure.

Hjertaas said the STC lost money, but not as much as was claimed by the provincial government, which reported a $34.2-million loss in the service’s final year of operation.  She also said the government failed to take into account how closing the service would affect vulnerable residents, and argued the benefits outweighed the financial losses.

“Transportation is critical and unfortunately in Western Canada, we do not have the density of population to allow for things like, ideally, high-speed rail,” Hjertaas said. “That’s not an option, so we do need to look at buses.”

Day also argued that seniors and people will disabilities were hit hard by the STC shutdown. She said the government should have explored other options to make the service more sustainable, like using smaller buses. The STC did purchase three 16-passenger buses, as well as a 22-passenger bus a year before the shutdown, but those vehicles were never put into service.

“I don’t see any other option but to find a way to get it back up and running, and I feel like the answer is fiscal responsibility and better business management,” Day said. “There should have been a way to deal with that…. There are ways to do this that could have saved us money.”

Despite her concerns, Day argued that the matter should be left to the provinces, with the federal government having minimal input. However, she promised to offer what support she could, if elected. Hjertaas on the other hand, called for the creation of a National Public Transportation Strategy, complete with public subsidies, to help find a replacement. She also pointed out that the Liberals did offer to cost-share subsidized routes in Jan. 2019, but the Saskatchewan government declined.

Hoback said seniors transportation was an important issue, and urged residents to look at other jurisdictions with small populations over large geographic areas, like Montana, or consider a cooperative instead of for-profit model. However, he said it was dangerous to speculate about the STC closure since he didn’t have all the details.

“I don’t know what (the provincial government) was looking at when they made those choices,” he explained. “I’m on the outside looking in, and that’s tough.”

Voters express frustration at debt levels and pension problems

While transportation may have drawn the most attention at Thursday’s forum, pensions and debt levels were by far the mostly hotly debated topics.

Audience members expressed frustration with how pension increases were being wiped out by increases in medical and housing costs. The discussion came to a quick halt when one audience member stood up and accused politicians of deceiving Canadians about what MPs received for a parliamentary pension.

Prince Albert’s current MP, Randy Hoback, was explaining that parliamentarians need to serve at least six years in government before they receive a pension when the audience member interrupted him. After accusing politicians of being deceptive about the issue, he left angrily after being told by the moderator to let Hoback answer the question.

According to the Government of Canada website, members are not eligible to receive benefits without accruing six years of pensionable service. MP contribution rates are determined by the Chief Actuary of Canada and published in the Canada Gazette. For 2019, the year’s maximum pensionable earnings (YMPE) is $57,400 for MPs.

Hoback said the federal government should lower taxes, since it’s no good increasing people’s pensions if the government keeps clawing that money back.

“You talk about increasing the payment to (residents), but the problem is you announce and increase in payment and your rent just goes up $100,” Hoback said. “Your costs just go up. It seems like everyone says, ‘oh, you’ve got more money? We’re going to take more,’ and it’s not equal to what you’re getting…. If you look at scenarios where you can save more tax and have more money in your pocket. That’s like us giving you a dollar, so we’re looking at those types of solutions.”

Hjertaas said there have been reforms to the Canada Pension Plan, which have helped protect residents from the failure of corporate pension plans caused by the collapse of large companies like Sears. She said private employers couldn’t be relied on anymore, and suggested changing bankruptcy laws so pensioners were paid before other creditors.

“I’m not sure exactly what the right answer is,” she said. “What I can say is our government has made efforts in terms of helping the most vulnerable seniors. Like I said, that’s increasing the OAS (old age security) and the GIS (guaranteed income supplement).”

Day argued that PPC plans to overhaul the temporary foreign workers program would business competitiveness, and lead to things like higher pensions from private companies as they try to attract the best employees. However, she also said she was open to hearing more from voters since the PPC is new party, and is still developing their policy around those issues.

“There are things we’d like to talk about moving forward with out immigration policy that do affect workers and jobs and things like competitiveness in the business market, which of course will affect things like private pensions,” she explained.

Representatives from the Green Party and the NDP were not in attendance for Thursday’s meeting. Neither party has a confirmed candidate for the riding of Prince Albert.

The federal government has not declared a formal date for this fall’s election, however it cannot be held later than Oct. 21.