PC candidate Cameron Friesen (left) and New Democrat Aaron McDowell debate the issues. (Lorne Stelmach Morden Times)
By Lorne Stelmach
It doesn't bode well for the coming provincial election if the level of interest locally in the October 4 vote is gauged by the response to Tuesday's all candidates forum in Morden.
Barely 50 people turned out on a rain drenched evening to hear two of the three candidates seeking to become MLA of the new constituency of Morden-Winkler.
Formerly part of the long-time Tory stronghold of Pembina, the new constituency appears destined to be an easy victory for Conservative candidate Cameron Friesen of Morden. But he was taking nothing for granted as he debated the issues with NDP candidate Aaron McDowell of Winnipeg.
Liberal candidate Daniel Woldeyohanis, also of Winnipeg, did not attend the forum, which was jointly sponsored by the Winkler and Morden Chambers of Commerce.
Kept on tight leashes throughout the forum, both Friesen and McDowell closely followed much of the platforms set out by their respective leaders - opposition leader Hugh McFadyen and premier Greg Selinger.
Friesen suggested it was time for a change and a new vision for the province and new leadership that would be more fiscally prudent, while McDowell offered a stay-the-course message that preached continued investment in all key areas.
"The past 12 years of NDP government has weakened the province," said Friesen, who was born and raised in Morden and served as executive assistant to Member of Parliament Candice Hoeppner from 2008 to 2010.
"The NDP have been off on every budget forecast," he said, adding that the reckless spending of the government has plunged the province deep into debt. And he suggested the PC pledge to balance the books by 2018 is more realistic than the NDP promise to do so by 2014.
He went on to preach a message of targeted spending for key areas for Manitoba families from health care to public safety.
And on the issue that became the major focus of the question and answer session - the Bipole 3 hydro line - Friesen stressed the Tory pledge to reverse the NDP decision to run it down the west side of Lake Winnipeg.
Going up the east side will be "shorter, greener and cheaper" and protect the interests of taxpayers, said Friesen, who also maintained the opposition to the east side route is not as much of an issue as maintained by the NDP government.
McDowell countered with the message that going on the west side became necessary in order to not hamper plans to seek a UNESCO world heritage site designation for the eastern boreal forest while also avoiding potential legal clashes with both First Nations and the U.S. environmental lobby.
"I think there has been a lot of misinformation out there," Friesen countered.
McDowell maintained the stay the course message, citing how the NDP steered the province through the global recession while investing in infrastructure and aiming to cut the school tax burden on property taxes.
"I love helping people ... it's my passion," said McDowell, who has studied political science and worked as an assistant to a member of Winnipeg city council. "I believe in what the government has accomplished."
When questioned on how the two parties were saying little about rural Manitoba, McDowell said the basic needs are no different with all Manitobans needing investment in infrastructure, health care and education. Friesen, however, maintained there are also some areas such as agriculture where the NDP government has fallen short.
On education, McDowell stressed that the entire system has suffered since the previous Tory government slashed spending in that sector. Friesen cited the need to address areas ranging from setting out clear curriculum standards and evaluation processes to capping class sizes.
When questioned on health care - particularly related to the aging population - McDowell said the NDP have pledged to commit to more staffing while taking aim at the Tories by saying "we invest ... we don't cut." Friesen, however, noted there has been little or no increase in personal care home spaces under the NDP and it has left too many seniors on waiting lists.
On agriculture, McDowell suggested the NDP was right to fight the federal government's plans to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board, but Friesen suggested that was a misuse of Manitoba taxpayer dollars. And while Friesen agreed with a suggestion the NDP ban on further hog barn development wrongly made that sector an environmental scapegoat, McDowell maintained the NDP made the right choice for the environment.
And while both candidates agreed there needs to be more of a focus on tourism development, their approaches differed and produced one of the few chuckles from the audience.
"You want some money ... we'll give you some money," said McDowell.
"Sounds like a typical NDP response," countered Friesen, who stressed the need for significant private sector partnerships to support projects like the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden.