An electoral forum on agriculture saw candidates get heated about rural infrastructure problems, and take swings at the Pallister government on trade and land reform.
The Manitoba Farm Writers and Broadcasters Association on August 27 brought together candidates from the four provincial parties to answer questions from commodity groups and farmers.
Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler represented the Progressive Conservative party.
Terry Hayward spoke for the Liberal party. Hayward is the candidate for Lac du Bonnet, and worked in federal agriculture for 33 years, according to the party’s website.
Mitch Obach is the NDP candidate for Selkirk. He is a teacher in the Lord Selkirk school division and worked for the former NDP government in agriculture, conservation and rural development.
The Green party sent Martha Jo Willard. Willard is a retired medical doctor, former veterinarian and also holds a degree in wildlife conservation. She is the candidate for Notre Dame.
Issues of rural infrastructure and internet access got a rise out of the entire panel. Hayward, who has run federally in the southeastern riding of Provencher, said the government should help level the playing field so small, rural internet providers can compete.
“They’re not after government handouts,” he said of small providers, which he said he uses at home.
“I think the connection that has to be made is with those who live in the cities,” said Hayward. “We’re seeing a loss of understanding of what it means to be in the rural areas other than a gateway to drive to a vacation spot.”
Hayward said rural police detachments are understaffed, and response times are slow. He said as he canvassed in Lac du Bonnet, people expressed concerns over meth and theft during the night.
In the southeast, increased hauling of grain and silica sand is “pounding the s- out of our roads,” said Hayward before he was cut off by the forum moderator.
“I love rural Manitoba,” he added.
Eichler said rural internet is an issue “much bigger than Manitoba alone can handle,” before expressing suspicion about cellphone manufacturers.
“I think they’re crap,” said Eichler. He recalled his first “bag phone” that could call anywhere.
“You can’t walk across the street and you lose your connection, or you have to stand by the window. Our systems are manipulated, I don’t know. I don’t like them,” he said. “(The manufacturers are) all just money-makers and grabbers.”
Obach brought up telecom service Bell’s recent announcement that it would scale back its Wireless Home Internet rollout in smaller towns and rural communities by approximately 20 per cent or about 200,000 households. This followed a CRTC decision that forced companies to reduce their broadband internet wholesale rates.
“Obviously this is disappointing,” said Obach. He called Brian Pallister a “cheerleader” for the Bell MTS merger and said the premier is no longer talking about it now that it is hurting rural Manitobans.
Obach said the NDP is committed to expanding broadband services while keeping life affordable through utilities. “We don’t think this is something where we need to cosy up to business. We think that we need to focus on the needs of rural individuals.”
The NDP candidate added that it is important to talk about rural infrastructure.
“We are a different type of community than it is in Winnipeg, and we’re getting smaller population-wise,” said Obach. “We need to do whatever we can to build our rural infrastructure so that people have a great place to stay.”
Willard said the obstacle to greater rural internet access is money, not technology. She made no bones about the Green party’s underdog status. At one point she said, “I can pretty much assure you that we’re not likely to form government.”
Willard said the party would listen to its constituents and “shove the other guys” toward funding greater access for every citizen.
Obach used his opening salvo to criticize changes to the Crown Lands Act under the PC government, changes “making it harder for young producers and their families to be successful.”
In October 2018, the province passed legislation that officially allowed lease allocation by free auction rather than the previous points system. This led to some concerns over whether some ranchers would lose rights to leased Crown land, or be unable to sell the rights to them along with their farms.
Eichler replied that the changes had been made after extensive consultation.
“The life leases that were there before stopped our young farmers from access to that land,” he said. “If we didn’t modernize it, those young farmers would not get an opportunity to get that Crown land.”
Regarding an equitable funding model for education, which taxes based on land ownership, Willard was not prepared to comment for the Green party.
Obach said the NDP would keep the current Farmland School Tax Rebate, but added that education is currently underfunded.
“Why are municipalities involved in taxation for schools?” Hayward asked. He said the Liberals would do a total tax review “and to try and get Manitoba out of our wonderful, wonderful, wonderfully complicated boutique tax situation.”
Eichler said that before funding can be addressed, the province needs to complete its proposed review of the education system. Once it has decided how the school system will be revamped, it can consider how to change its funding.
He added that school taxes “should never, ever been put on land.”
On addressing the current trade hardships, all parties were concerned with appointing an ambassador to China. Former ambassador John McCallum lost his post in January. Hayward, however, offered words of caution.
“Ambassadors are very critical to getting the job done in either of those posts,” said Hayward, a former diplomat. “But they’re not the ones who are going to finish the job for you.”
He said that in some way, not having an ambassador allowed the task forces to China to focus more on results.
“What I see we here need in Manitoba is a little more open mindedness in co-operating with the Liberal federal government,” Hayward said.
The provincial election is Tuesday, September 10.