THE LEADER’S DEBATE: STIFF, PREDICTABLE AND EVASIVE

On Oct. 25th the Premier and Leader of the Opposition squared off in the leader’s debate for the Nov. 7th election. I listened closely and then watched an internet replay later to be sure what was said and not said. It was a debate, of sorts, though it was stiff, contrived and skirted fundamental matters.

Several questions were about vulnerable groups – low income seniors, First Nations, students with huge debts and street people. The event was so scripted that spontaneous, honest, communication was impossible. Premier Wall answered by referring to his 4-year record, while Lingenfelter stressed what the NDP would do if elected.

SUBTLE DIFFERENCES

There were some subtle differences which the journalists present barely explored. Wall talked of “targeting help” for the needy whereas Lingenfelter talked of creating overall services to help the community. Lingenfelter stressed that all seniors, regardless of income, would benefit from a rebate on property tax, that all renters would benefit from rent control and that all students would benefit from his proposed tuition freeze. Wall talked of removing seniors from income tax, providing subsidies for low-income renters and providing student scholarships.

The dots weren’t connected. When CBC reporter Stefani  Langenegger  asked Lingenfelter why better-off seniors would get the rebate, he responded that there weren’t many wealthy seniors and he wanted to avoid “red tape”. But he didn’t defend universal services. Whenever possible Wall stressed reducing provincial debt and balancing the budget, rather than intervening to see wealth more equitably distributed.

POTASH ROYALTIES

Lingenfelter called for an increase of potash royalties from 5 to 10 cents on each dollar of sales. He contrasted the low salary increases going to Saskatchewan workers with the high salary increases of company heads and shareholders. Wall never bit, staying on his macro message about economic progress. Wall finally opposed a royalty hike because it would upset the business climate, so the two party leaders did disagree on potash royalties. The NDP seems to have selected this as the strategic issue that could prevent them from being routed at the polls.

Wall tried to get the NDP’s promise to share royalties with First Nations into the debate. Lingenfelter stuck with his point that First Nations get far less resources for education than do other children in the province, and decried the increasing use of food banks during an economic boom. The two leaders were clearly targeting their messages to different voters.

When Lingenfelter raised ongoing school closures, Wall responded that these could be stopped if the local economy were “rebounding”. Tying universal services like access to education to the state of the local economy is an unprecedented position and Wall wouldn’t dare argue this in relation to healthcare. But Lingenfelter let this slip by as if he didn’t realize what the Premier had said. There was to be little debate on matters of principal.

Wall often argued his case by pointing to previous NDP government policy, and he had a point.  Lingenfelter was highly selective in making his points; if potash is a problem, so too is uranium. Of the $1.3 billion dollars of sales in 2009 only 105 million came to the province as royalties.

The last question was on the issue ranked # 1, healthcare, but there wasn’t any opportunity to explore this in depth. Different stats on wait-lists were presented but nothing was said on the importance of protecting environmental health as part of health promotion and cutting healthcare costs. Lingenfelter proposed 100 primary healthcare clinics across the province, arguing that the “team approach” would be cost-saving. Wall did not respond to this idea, preferring instead to talk of reducing wait lists by increasing “training seats” for doctors.

NOTHING ON ENVIRONMENT

The leaders went “toe to toe” on whether or not to distribute more corporate-controlled wealth to Saskatchewan people. But they never acknowledged that all the people, whose votes they were trying to win, needed clean water, air, land and energy to survive. Then I realized there was no mention of the environment at all.

There are two kinds of questions that should be asked of those wanting to control our government. The first set is about the nature of the wealth being produced and how it is or isn’t being distributed within society. The second is about the impacts of production and consumption on the environment and whether existing practices are sustainable. Of the questions asked during the debate none addressed the second; six addressed how the wealth is distributed, two addressed the wealth itself. The other one addressed the popularity of the leaders.

POLITICS OF ENERGY

Both leaders side-stepped energy! The only mention of renewable energy was when Wall accused Lingenfelter of not costing his proposal to put more wind power on the electrical grid. Lingenfelter didn’t reply. There was no mention of climate change or what Saskatchewan is going to do to lower its record-breaking carbon footprint (nearly twenty times the global per capita). No mention that at present two-thirds of our electricity comes from fossil fuels. No mention that the ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Japan involves uranium fuel from here.

The environment was made invisible. One might conclude there was collusion to avoid the politics of energy. With Walls’s endless talk of “responsible spending” I wondered why Lingenfelter didn’t ask him why Sask Power was spending $1.2 billion to sequester carbon from a 100 Megawatt coal plant at Boundary Dam, when many times this capacity of renewable energy could be produced with much less cost to the taxpayer.

The journalists were partly to blame; they could have insisted that serious environmental questions were addressed. One could have asked what the leaders’ position was on bringing nuclear wastes from Ontario to a dump in the north. There were, after all, several northerners outside the CBC studio raising this issue, while the leaders “debated” inside. However when CBC reporter Langenegger  got to ask her second question it was about how important the party leaders thought their popularity was in the campaign.

Wall and Lingenfelter differed on whether and how to distribute wealth, including how much royalty companies should pay. But they pretty much agreed on how wealth should be produced. Tommy Douglas used to refer to the Conservatives and Liberals as “tweddle dee” and “tweddle dum”; the same thing might soon be said of the Sask Party and the NDP. With the Greens excluded no one was likely to ask whether corporate-driven economic growth was even sustainable. The only time that the Premier even used the term “sustainable” was when he questioned whether a program had a “sustainable plan”. There was no indication that either he or his opponent grasped and/or cared enough to raise the matter of ecological sustainability.

IGNORING THE NORTH

In his closing statement Lingenfelter called for a “better balance between the wealthy and those having trouble making ends meet”. Wall claimed that Saskatchewan “leads this nation in quality of life”. This reflected their underlying differences. But the debate remained highly abstract, attempting to court particular voters to the polls. With all their campaign-generated concerns for people facing hardship, neither leader mentioned that the north, where much of the resource wealth comes from, remains Canada’s second poorest region.

Saskatchewan will likely need a new generation of political leaders to grapple with the justice and environmental challenges we now face.

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