P.E.I. party leaders debate health care, housing ahead of provincial election
Land ownership, climate change segment sparks feisty debate between the leaders
Health care took centre stage as the leaders of Prince Edward Island's four main political parties faced off in a televised debate ahead of the provincial election.
CBC News: Compass host Louise Martin moderated the debate between Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, Liberal Leader Sharon Cameron, NDP Leader Michelle Neill and Progressive Conservative Leader Dennis King.
It was a far cry from the collegial, polite debate of the 2019 election — which saw the leaders of the day pretty well in lockstep on the big issues.
To get to the heart of the issues facing voters this election, CBC News drew directly from questions submitted by the audience. The leaders weren't given the questions before the debate.
Addressing the health care crisis
The debate kicked off with questions about the health-care system. Health care has been one of the biggest issues on the campaign trail, along with housing and the cost of living.
As debate opened, Bevan-Baker slammed the Liberals and PCs, saying previous governments have been "hellbent" on maintaining control and status quo within the system instead of fixing it. He added that the Greens have held "government's feet to the fire" as the Official Opposition for the last four years.
"Let's remember that the health-care system that we are labouring under and that health-care workers are struggling with was created by the Liberal and Tory governments," he said.
"What we need to do is take the political meddling out of the system, allow Health P.E.I. to have the autonomy and authority it needs to do its proper job. Get the politics out of the health-care system."
Cameron turned her attention to King, too, after taking a jab at the Greens. She said she's taken leadership of the Liberal Party because the Greens have been flailing as the Opposition.
She then questioned how King can say P.E.I. has the greatest health-care system in the country when tens of thousands are on the patient registry awaiting a primary care physician.
"What do you say to the 30,000 people and seniors who haven't had a doctor for six to eight years? What do you say to them and how do you convince them that this is the best health-care system we've ever had?"
King defended his government, saying the "finger-pointing" by opposition parties "doesn't get anything done," while his party has acted to help Islanders with initiatives like Pharmacy Plus and the Maple app.
"There are no simple solutions here, we have to roll up our sleeves and find Island solutions to serve our Island population," he said.
Neill said the health-care system is failing partially because of the amount of paperwork doctors are forced to take on when they could be seeing patients.
"That's something that we need to change. We shouldn't be paying a doctor their salary to be doing paperwork that can be done by an administrative assistant," she said. "That's one of the reasons why they're leaving. We have to listen to our health-care workers."
'They don't feel that anyone's listening'
While the leaders debated health care inside, about 150 nurses were protesting outside.
The P.E.I. Nurses Union has been without a contract for two years, and union president Barbara Brookins said the election has delayed negotiations with the government further.
The lack of a contract is hindering operations and recruitment, said Brookins. There are 1,100 nurses in the province, she said, and 300 vacant positions.
"It's having a huge impact on patient care, but also on the health of our members," she said.
"Our nurses are getting tired, they're getting burned out. They're just disheartened because they don't feel that anyone's listening. And if they are listening, they're not acting fast enough."
Mental health and addictions
Inside, the focus turned to what's been called the province's "mental health crisis."
King touted the long-awaited mental health and addictions campus — a $200-million project he called the "biggest capital project" in the history of the province since the Confederation Bridge — which he said is about 40 per cent complete.
Bevan-Baker and Cameron both jumped in, with Bevan-Baker saying the project is closer to four per cent complete and "Islanders have lost trust in this premier and they're not sure what to believe."
"Islanders are very familiar with a premier who will tell us one thing and we have to double check that indeed is what's going on here," he said. "We're not sure what sort of Dennis King we have in front of us. I'm not even sure that the premier knows what he believes anymore."
Cameron said not only is the mental health campus delayed but so too is the planned UPEI medical school.
"I'd agree with Peter as to, you know, why the delays and why say you're ready?" Cameron said. "How much longer will it take?"
Neill said Islanders can't continue to wait for access to mental health and addictions services.
Housing and land ownership
All four parties agreed more can be done to lead students into post-secondary education and encourage jobs in the trades in the hopes of addressing the labour shortage contributing to the province's housing crisis.
Bevan-Baker took aim at the PCs and Liberals, placing the blame for the crisis squarely on previous governments for growing the Island's population without having a housing plan in place.
"We have significant investment in publicly built housing, almost $500 million over five years. This is something that previous governments have chosen not to invest in," he said. "They have allowed the private sector not just primarily but exclusively to try and meet our housing needs and clearly it's not working."
When the subject turned to land ownership, which is tightly controlled on the Island, Bevan-Baker said the PCs and Liberals have "utterly failed" to implement a land-use plan.
"Let's not forget who's been in government for the last 20, 30, 40, 50, 180 years here, and it's the red team and the blue team," he said. "Without a land use plan, the ability to control land use and land development is absolutely gone."
Cameron fought back, pointing to a controversial construction project in Point Deroche as an example of the Greens' failure in Opposition. She said the party "didn't kick up a stink" about the rock wall erected along the shoreline until it was in the news.
"I want to make sure, through a commission, that we have First Nations represented, we have everybody who's not been in that conversation before," Cameron said. "And we raise it to a place where we say, 'How do we protect our environment and balance that against our economic success?'"
Bevan-Baker defended his party's criticism of Point Deroche, calling the controversial development "a monstrosity."
"A Green government would never allow that to happen," he said. "This is an absolute failure of the current administration, but I have to tell you the Liberals were no better when they were in power four years before that."
King didn't engage as Cameron and Bevan-Baker exchanged barbs.
"I don't want to step in the middle of this altercation over here to my right, but I think we need to get back to the question that is how complex land use here is on Prince Edward Island," he said. "There's a whole lot of components to this that are going to require all of us working together, and if we're just going to sit here and fight with each other I don't think we're going to make any progress."
He said P.E.I. needs to consider building up versus building out while protecting the Island's precious farmland.
Neill jumped in to say Point Deroche is an example of development that can't be grandfathered in.
"We don't want to block our beautiful Island beaches from everybody trying to walk on them," she said. "We don't want to set that kind of precedent. It's not right."
Environment and climate change
Shoring up critical infrastructure and launching a public inquiry into what went wrong during and after post-tropical storm Fiona was central to debate around climate change. The storm walloped the Island last fall, downing trees across the Island and leaving some Islanders without power for weeks.
Neill said P.E.I. should bury its power lines to prevent widespread power outages in the event of future catastrophic weather events.
"We certainly saw during Fiona that a lot of the trees were leaning on or bringing down completely our lines," she said. "By burying them we'd have a much more resilient system to be able to deal with any kind of climate issues that will come in the future."
King agreed, saying his government is already working on plans for the future.
"We need to come up with some plans and [Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy Minister Steven Myers] and some others in his department have been working on some long-term contingency planning around improving our electrical grid resilience but also some on-Island, green clean energy capacity as well," he said.
Bevan-Baker, however, berated the PCs for failing to launch a public inquiry after Fiona. Seniors in public housing were left without power, he said, and thousands of Islanders were forced to drive to Charlottetown only to wait for hours in line to access provincial disaster relief funds distributed by the Red Cross.
"This government did a dreadful job of looking after Islanders and unless we do a full review we will never know," he said. "When we have seniors in the dark and the cold that [government] are the ones who can call the shots and say 'This is a priority,' … you know what, I'm not going to be able to know that. None of us are going to be able to know that unless we have a public inquiry."
King defended his party's record of transparency after Fiona, saying a standing committee explored the role of third parties like Maritime Electric and the Red Cross in the aftermath of the storm.
"We need to learn from all of this so we have committed to doing a review, we will do that. We will learn from that and it's the reality of life we're in here right now," he said. "This will be the new reality, it seems, in terms of catastrophic events. We have to learn from the last one. We learned from Dorian, we'll learn from Fiona and try to make our province more resilient."
Neill said the Red Cross should never have been responsible for delivering the disaster relief funds government was best equip to provide.
Islanders head to the polls on April 3.