REGINA – Name calling and verbal sparring characterized the leaders’ debate Wednesday night ahead of the provincial election on April 4.
Saskatchewan Party leader Brad Wall and NDP leader Cam Broten went head-to-head over a number of issues such as First Nations employment, public spending and health care.
READ MORE: Blog Replay: Saskatchewan leaders’ debate
However, the tone was set by the first question, which was about diversifying the economy. The two leaders then argued over the film employment tax credit.
“You are the only person in all of North America who thinks what you have done is the right thing,” Broten said while referring to Wall eliminating the credit.
Wall countered by saying Saskatchewan now has a grant.
“Why can’t you just admit that we have a film grant, just like Alberta has today?” Wall asked Broten.
FULL COVERAGE: Saskatchewan Election 2016
Diversifying the Economy
During the first one-on-one exchange, the leaders not only discussed the tax credit but other ways to diversify the economy.
“There is relative strength in other sectors of the economy in manufacturing, in agriculture, in mining and also in the new economy, in innovation,” Wall said.
Broten said although the province is lucky to have natural resources, he felt the government hasn’t seized the opportunity to expand the economy during periods of growth.
“We need a big expansion into green jobs and renewable energy, into R&D (research and development) and we also need to rebuild the film industry,” Broten said.
Broten pointed to the NDP’s commitment to hire 300 more teachers and education assistants respectively.
Wall said under the last NDP government, schools closed and the province lost 400 teachers. He said now there are 600 teachers.
He then talked about the Saskatchewan Party’s commitment to support enrolment increases by increasing teachers and other education supports.
“Operational funding for school boards is up, operational funding for health boards is up,” Wall said.
“That’s the bottom line.”
That led to a tense face-to-face with each leader becoming louder during the rebuttal.
“I’m going to trust an educator and administrators and school divisions over the self-interested spin that we’ve heard from and your ministers,” Broten said.
The leaders continued to argue while discussing P3s, or private-public partnerships, such as the Regina bypass project, schools and hospitals.
“We do think we need an all-of-the-above approach to infrastructure,” Wall said.
“We have an infrastructure deficit. We need those schools, and the P3 schools are providing savings. It will cost us $100 million to build those joint-use schools across the province.”
Wall also defended the Regina bypass, saying the cost includes the cost of maintenance to be covered by the companies building the bypass.
Broten strongly criticized the P3 approach and called the land deals “sketchy” when addressing the Regina bypass, which Broten said isn’t a bypass because it goes through the city.
“Time and time again, [Wall] has chosen a more expensive approach and given these contracts out to foreign corporations,” Broten said.
“The only thing that the bypass does bypass is Saskatchewan jobs, Saskatchewan workers and the interests of the Saskatchewan economy time and time again.”
Broten added that the Sask. Party wasted a rainy day fund that was built up by the previous NDP government.
“You inherited a fortune,” Broten said.
“You inherited a $2 billion rainy day fund and now you’ve got nothing because you’ve made bad changes.
Wall suggested the previous government actually caused the province to struggle.
“The challenge in Saskatchewan is we’ve inherited such an infrastructure deficit from the previous government who closed hospitals, who closed schools, who didn’t fix the highways.”
Donald Trump gets a mention
While Donald Trump is involved in his own election south of the border, Canadians were not immune to hearing about the controversial Republican nominee Wednesday night.
Trump is well-known for his remarks on the campaign trail, including his plan to make Mexico pay for a wall on the U.S. border to keep out illegal migrants.
While discussing Crown Corporations and utility affordability, Wall said the NDP promises were similar to Trump’s in terms of spending promises.
“You haven’t said how you’re going to pay for these?” Wall said. “This is the Donald Trump section of your platform. Who’s going to pay for this? Mexico?”
Broten then laughed.
“I’ve never been compared to Donald Trump,” Broten said.
“That’s a first for the debate. I don’t think that was on the bingo sheet for keywords in this debate.”
According to the province’s most recent labour force statistics, the unemployment rate for First Nations people is two to four times that of the rest of the population.
The leaders were asked what they would do to fix the issue.
“Not enough has been done on education, and on employment programs. This is a question about the future of our province, where every young person can reach their full potential whether they’re born on a reserve in the far north, or in Saskatoon, Regina, or on a farm,” Broten said.
“For Saskatchewan to be strong in the future for many generations it means engaging every person by giving them the education they need and the opportunity to pursue that job that they want.”
“This is a crucial issue in Saskatchewan. There is that gap between Aboriginal employment and overall employment in the province,” Wall said.
“So we focused on education as a starting point. We doubled funding to an excellent institution called the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology. They’ve got a great track record of connecting graduates to actual jobs. We worked with the FSIN on something called the joint task force to pilot education programs that are actually increasing graduating rates.”
A big portion of the debate on health care revolved around the Sask Party plan to introduce private-pay CT scans, based on the current model of private-pay MRIs.
“If someone chooses to buy their own CT or MRI under our system, the provider of it, the clinic, has to provide a scan for the public system,” Wall explained.
He said this is based on the model introduced by the previous NDP government, which allows the Worker’s Compensation Board or Saskatchewan Roughriders to pay for a scan.
Wall said this approach has opened more locations to get MRIs and CT scans done, and will lower the amount of people on the waiting list.
According to the Sask Party, the average wait time for a CT scan is 26.5 days.
Broten countered and said that model doesn’t represent the spirit of Medicare.
“I want to see it fixed for everyone. I don’t just want to see it fixed for those with the deepest pockets,” Broten argued.
The NDP leader went on to accuse Wall of “changing” during the open debate portion.
“He said he would never let someone with a bulging wallet jump the queue and get faster care. But this is exactly what this is doing,” Broten said.
Wall brought back his point that when someone pays privately for a scan the clinic would have to also provide a scan for someone on the public system.
The two argued about this for the rest of the debate section.
Seniors Health Care
Despite the arguing both leaders agreed that more needs to be done for front line staff in long-term care facilities.
The Sask Party are promising to reduce administrative costs by $7.5 million and to transfer that money to front line staff.
“Nurses, continuing care aides, nurses of all designations. That is in response to what is a very important issue,” Wall said.
“We also increased home care support by 50 per cent.”
Across the aisle, Broten said $20 million should be cut from administration and transferred to the front lines, along with some other issues.
“We need to have minimum care standards in place, something that your government deleted,” Broten countered.
The agreement on cutting administrative cuts quickly ended, though, and the debate spiraled into the leaders arguing about issues they have with each other’s party’s record.