By Greg Price
All four candidates vying for an MLA seat in the upcoming provincial election for the Taber/Warner riding took time out of their busy campaigning schedules to speak at a student forum on Friday that saw a packed house at Central School gymnasium with approximately 350 students.
The Alberta Party, NDP, United Conservative Party and Liberal all answered six prepared questions by students, while also outlying their platforms to the youth as part of the federal Student Vote Initiative which W.R. Myers School helped spearhead alongside Taber Mennonite School. Each question also featured a five-minute general discussion period past each candidate’s answer to the question.
The first question out of the student gallery keyed on the downturn of the economy, asking where candidates stood on wage issues and employment if their party were elected.
“Under the NDP, we know the minimum wage has risen and we intend to keep it up there. We don’t believe in a two-tiered system where 17 year olds have lower minimum wage than the others,” said Laura Ross-Giroux, NDP candidate for Taber/Warner. “Unfortunately, not every student has the opportunity to live at home in a whole and happy family. For employment, we have to look at diversification. We live in an area where we can look at the plant protein industry and we can grow hemp. Let’s play to our strengths in agriculture and in manpower and creativity.”
Amy Yates, Liberal candidate for Taber/Warner echoed Giroux’s sentiment in not wanting to roll back minimum wage for youth.
“We do not want to see students get paid less for the equal labour that they do. With that though, we need better long-term solutions to reducing poverty. We need to have a realistic understanding of those solutions and it’s going to take time,” said Yates. “With school, we know how expensive it can be and we don’t want to put people out there with crippling student debt.”
Jason Beekman, Alberta Party candidate noted he has seen a lot of jobs lost due to the minimum wage increase, but chose to focus more on government red tape and taxation that has stalled the economy.
“As a small business owner, I can definitely say I have felt this over the last four years. People do deserve a fair wage and minimum wage stays no matter what your age is. There is no reason why a 17 year old should earn less than a 40 year old for doing the same job. Equal pay for equal work,” said Beekman. “But employers deserve to make a profit as well. We want to bring the corporate tax rate from 12 back down to 10 per cent, as well as increasing small and medium business’ tax deduction limit from $500,000 to $1 million dollars. It will make it more feasible for business owners to make a profit while still paying their employees a fair wage. Less government red tape equals more jobs.”
UCP candidate Grant Hunter was last in line to answer the question and brought up a story of his daughter who works at A&W. She was happy to see the $15 minimum wage until the business cut her hours back two-thirds.
“What’s happening now is she’s actually making less than she made before when minimum wage goes up. When you increase minimum wage 50 per cent in four years, it is a shock to the economy,” said Hunter. “Young people are not getting the jobs that they need and we have some of the highest unemployment among young people.”
There was some disagreement among candidates on whether or not minimum wage should be a living wage, with Hunter arguing it should be a ‘training’ wage during discussion period.
“I’ve seen this unfold the last four years as the labour critic. It has been devastating to our young people. In reality, for every increase of 10 per cent to minimum wage, you decrease employment of young people by two to four per cent. That’s a terrible trade off,” said Hunter. “We want our young people to be able to get great jobs. That doesn’t mean minimum jobs is a great job. Start out there, learn the skills you need to do, and be able to move up and get $20-$30-$40 dollars an hour. That’s what you really want, you don’t want people stuck at a $15 minimum wage. In reality, $15 an hour may work here, but it doesn’t work in Calgary.”
While Beekman agreed minimum wage should be seen as a stepping stone of bigger/better jobs, he countered it is naive to assume those bigger better jobs are plentiful for people to transition to.
“The problem is the higher paying jobs just aren’t available right now. So when bigger, better paying jobs aren’t available, we are relying on minimum wage jobs.”
“So to cut back minimum wage to create more jobs on the backs of people, we still have to make it livable for them,” said Beekman. “The secret to higher paying jobs is to cut back the red tape on the employer. We need to make it more conducive for employers to operate and open businesses. Entrepreneurship has taken a severe dive in this province because of high taxation rates. We need to make it more appealing for small businesses to open and to hire and it does not need to come off the backs of employees.”
Another student came to the podium voicing environmental concerns with climate change, and the carbon tax being a potential way to change people’s spending habits on products that produce carbon. She asked the parties what their plans were to address climate change if their party was elected.
“We see it (climate change) in our more extreme winters and our extreme, drier summers. What the Alberta Liberal government would like to see is more transparency in what the carbon tax is going for. With this, we’ve seen solar panels for public schools, we’ve seen buildings that have desperately needed to be upgraded, we just want to make it more transparent,” said Liberal-candidate Yates.
Alberta Party candidate Jason Beekman stated the argument of whether climate change is real has to end, being it is real and steps need to be taken to ensure clean air and water. He tipped his hat to the NDP in making inroads to that end, having seen significant reductions in emissions since the carbon tax was introduced. But, he found problems in the carbon tax in that it is a flat tax and it shouldn’t work that way.
“Light bulbs, shower heads, they just aren’t enough. What we need is a more incentive-based carbon tax to target the big polluters, the heavy hitters. There needs to be exemptions made for homes, not-for-profits, schools and small businesses,” said Beekman. “It’s unfair to punish someone for heating their home in the middle of winter, or punish a school and have them take away a teacher or an educational assistant just to pay a carbon tax. The target should be the heavy hitters and that’s the Alberta Party’s plan.”
United Conservative’s Grant Hunter acknowledged climate change is real but added the NDP’s path to address it is a poor one.
“They have put a $1.4 billion tax burden on Albertans. This is the largest tax hike Albertans have ever seen in their history. It’s affecting senior citizens on fixed incomes, it’s affecting schools. This is not the right approach,” said Hunter. “I’ll straight out tell you we are going to repeal the carbon tax. That will be our first bill,” Hunter added to rousing applause.
NDP’s Laura Ross-Giroux admitted no likes a tax. But, she added the tax has remained in Alberta to be invested. She furthered if Alberta had not brought in its own plan for climate change with the carbon tax, the province would have had a carbon tax imposed on it from the federal government.
“Who knows where that money would have gone. We are making great strides in reducing our carbon footprint. We’ve reduced carbon emissions by seven megatonnes, that’s one third of the total output by Manitoba right now. The money that is taken is spent right here in Alberta, we know where it’s going,” said Giroux, adding 63 per cent of households are getting a rebate.
In general discussion period, Hunter added Canada produces 1.6 per cent of GSG emissions in the world. Hunter divided that number down to less than one percent for Alberta’s emission given its overall population to the country.
“We are going to punish Albertans to buy social licences to be able to get pipelines. Zero metres of pipelines have been built in the last four years,” said Hunter. “You want to hook your lucky stars to Justin Trudeau. That man is not a friend to Alberta.”
Beekman added he has a problem with rebates which the NDP and Liberals were noting because it’s not money that is the government’s in the first place. A carbon tax should be incentivized to the big polluters.
“But let’s be real here. Removing a carbon tax is not just as easy as waving a magic wand. There is a $1.4 billion income coming into the province. How are we going to replace that? Also, when we remove that, we just saw the federal carbon tax get implemented April 1. There are four provinces who have refused to do it and they are now in court,” said Beekman. “If we remove our carbon tax and the federal government gets their way, we will be paying into Ottawa. And what has Ottawa done for us in the first place? Wouldn’t we rather see that money in Edmonton instead of going all the way to Justin Trudeau?”
Given it was a student forum, education funds were on the minds of kids in another one of its questions, and also class sizes and educational assistants for students whose first language is not English. The candidates were quizzed on how they would help make education stronger and better.
UCP’s Grant Hunter held up his party’s 117-page platform, highlighting two parts of society, the heart and the head. The heart is health care, education and other wrap around services which make a society run.
“But if we don’t have a robust economy, there is no possible way that we will be able to provide excellent education. We need to get our economy back first, so that we can provide those quality services,” said Hunter. “In our platform we would say we would maintain or increase public education funding. Teachers are front line, if we need more teachers we will hire more teachers.”
Giroux highlighted the NDP’s record on education, noting 4,000 teachers being hired to deal with class sizes, with an estimated 15,000 new students coming in next year.
“Under the Notley government, we have frozen tuition rates for secondary-schooling. We are looking into doing more technical schooling. We want to make sure you can stay in school as long as you can to get the skills you need to enter the workforce the best way you possibly can,” said Giroux.
Liberal’s Yates agreed class sizes need to be lessened with more assistants so no student is left behind.
“We are looking at more training to get into the workforce at the high school level,” said Yates.
Beekman was last to speak on the education question from the student gallery, adding it is the top priority of the Alberta Party platform. They want to keep the curriculum review going forward.
“Inclusive education is the way to go. Aids in creative thinking and problem solving, as an employer, that is the number-one skill I look for when I hire someone. We do not need standardized testing for seven and eight year olds, nor do we need an 1980s-style curriculum. There is no reason why the future should be running on that,” said Beekman. “Alberta Party is doubling the funding for inclusive education, including a 50 per cent increase in hiring solely educational assistants. Other parties have been proposing a freeze. With 15,000 new students coming in, a freeze is a cut, it’s just a nice way of saying it. The Alberta Party promises to keep funding on the same level as enrollment increases.”
The student forum also asked questions on health care and pipelines.