Logging, ferries, pipelines, green energy, healthcare and education dominated the discussion as three of the North Island’s four provincial candidates faced a wide range of questions last week in a pair of all-candidates meetings in Port McNeill and Port Hardy.
Liberal MLA candidate Nick Facey and Conservative candidate Bob Bray both emphasized the development of natural resources as a way strengthen the economy and pay for services.
NDP candidate Claire Trevena, the incumbent, reminded the audience that B.C. has human resources as well as natural resources, and highlighted her party’s plans to close the inequality gap and invest in rural health care.
The most striking delineation between the candidates came on the issue of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat. Bray, who called for lower taxes and a reduced regulatory burden on industry, said the Conservative Party is in favour of building the pipeline.
“How soon, we don’t know, because the environmental review is still under way,” said Bray. “But we’ll kick-start the development of our natural resources.”
Trevena noted the NDP is opposed to the pipeline, and took a shot at the Liberals by noting the current ruling party is fine with bitumen flowing through B.C. as long as the province gets a sufficient slice of the income.
“We don’t think it’s worth the risk,” she said. “I don’t think B.C. could ever be paid enough.”
Facey declined to take a solid stance either way, noting the review process is still under way, along with negotiations between B.C. and the governments in both Alberta and Ottawa.
“I’m interested in seeing the full proposal before I make up my mind,” he said. “We’ll need to address spill response and prevention, recover, involvement of First Nations and economic reimbursement. I am excited, though, about the possibility of the refinery David Black has proposed in Kitimat.”
Asked about their commitment to easing the cost of coastal ferry ridership by Jo Mrozewski, co-chair of the local Tri-Island Ferry Commission, the candidates again differed.
Trevena drew the loudest applause for announcing an NDP freeze on ferry fares and saying the ferry system should be treated like any other highway — though her party’s platform does not specifically call for a return to Crown corporation status or full public funding of the system.
Facey noted government already subsidizes ferry operations and suggested one way to control spiralling costs could be alternative energy, including ferries that run on the liquified natural gas expected to be developed in Northern B.C. in the coming decade.
Bray called for a tax credit for heavy users of the ferry system. He also said his party wants to scrutinize all areas of government more closely, while noting B.C. Ferries “is outside our reach because it’s run by the ferry commission.”
Logging was also a hot topic in Port McNeill. A fired-up Joe Skrlac asked why B.C.’s sawmills have disappeared in favour of exporting raw logs, and if the candidates favoured brining back value-added jobs.
Trevena pounced on the question, noting the NDP’s five-point forestry platform includes keeping B.C. logs in the province to create B.C. jobs. “We recognize there has to be log exports, as well, but we have to ensure we’re keeping logs here so the small mills and the larger mills that need them have access to them.”
Facey followed by noting his family ties to the logging industry and pointing out B.C.’s problem was not a lack of logs, but an uneconomical market that keeps inventory in the bush. “We haven’t come close to our allowable cut in 15 years,” he said. “But I believe logging is returning to the point where we can have sawmills here.”
Bray agreed that the market is on the upswing, and said local sawmills are not always the best way to extract value from logs.
“There are some trees that, when you go to dimension lumber, the market does not support them,” Bray said. “But the export logs get such a premium that the cut block becomes viable and it does create some jobs.”
On green energy, Port Hardy Mayor Bev Parnham pointed out to the candidates that clean energy projects currently being undertaken are rapidly approaching the capacity of the transmission lines to carry the electricity produced. In order for further expansion to take place therefore, BC Hydro would need to increase the power capacity of its lines from the North to the South Island. She asked how the candidates would treat this issue.
Trevena quipped that the North Island had been described to her as “the Saudi Arabia of wind power,” but said that her difficulty would lie in potentially pitting communities against each other.
Bray said that he was unaware of a specific policy on the issue from his party but was in favour of promoting and encouraging business ventures on the North Island while Facey was in favour of upgrading the grid saying, “It’s important to continue to be green energy leaders.”
The candidates found some common ground on healthcare, inasmuch as there was a consensus that the current state of North Island healthcare was untenable. The candidates fielded questions on physician recruitment and access to services in the area.
Bray took a broad view of the problem and suggested that the way hospitals are run plays a major role, becoming unwelcoming to new recruits. “Hospitals are becoming a colder place to work,” as he put it. But he held out hope for change seeing “no insurmountable problems,” and noting that the issue itself is an important one, the current levels of service playing a negative role in bringing new blood to the North Island.
Facey said that he would like to see a change in how doctors are paid. A pay-per-visit model favoured urban areas, he argued, where is simply a deeper pool of patients. In addition, he outlined a plan to subsidize home-grown physicians, helping fund local students through medical school with an understanding that they would return home to practice. “We expect, demand and deserve world-class healthcare,” he said.
Trevena also espoused a change to the funding model and a move to clinic-based services, reducing the load on physicians. She said that she had been lobbying VIHA for changes to the system, drawing applause when she said that, “I’ve been trying to explain to VIHA that the North Island doesn’t stop at Campbell River.”
Teacher Shawn Gough told candidates that he personally subsidized his classroom for around $1,000 per year and asked how the candidates would ensure education was fully-funded.
Bray said that under the Conservative budget education funding would be maintained at its current level and grow as the economy strengthened.
Facey said the education budget should be increased, it being “crucial to educate our youth to the highest possible standard.”
Trevena also believed in the “need to be investing in public education,” and said that she would be in favour of reexamining the funding model, calling the current per capita system, “a ludicrous way to fund education.”