'It's hard to agree this much:' NDP leader hopefuls face off in 1st debate

The two candidates currently vying for leadership of the Saskatchewan New Democrats took part in their first debate on Saturday afternoon as part of the party’s 80th annual convention.

Ryan Meili, Trent Wotherspoon commit to building a new provincial bus system

Ryan Meili (left), comedian and moderator Steve Patterson (centre) and Trent Wotherspoon (right) pictured on stage in Saturday's first NDP leadership debate. (CBC News)

The race to lead Saskatchewan's New Democrats picked up Saturday as the two men campaigning for the party's top spot faced off in a debate — sharing common ground on many issues. 

Besides blasting the cuts made by the Sask. Party government, Ryan Meili and Trent Wotherspoon expressed the need for a so-called "made in Saskatchewan" approach to carbon pricing and climate change action that would create green jobs.  

Other policies agreed upon by Meili and Wotherspoon included:

  • Building a new provincial bus system to deal with the shutdown of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company
  • Legislating the protection of Crown corporations to require a referendum before any potential sale
  • Hiring local instead of outsourcing construction and other contract work

"It seems that we're in fierce agreement to build a stronger, inclusive economy," Wotherspoon said to Meili at one point during the debate, which was watched by hundreds of delegates packed into a room at the Queensbury Convention Centre. 

"It's hard to agree this much," Meili said in response.

But Saturday's debate — scheduled as part of the party's 80th annual convention — was not without difference.

Wotherspoon, MLA for Regina-Rosemont, promised to enact universal coverage for mental health and addictions services, as well as introduce $15-a-day childcare.

Meili, a recently elected MLA for for Saskatoon-Meewasin, committed to offer a $15 an hour minimum wage and universal pharmacare coverage.

NDP leader hopeful Trent Wotherspoon says he's the candidate that can deliver results. (CBC News)

Leading the fight

In his opening remarks, Wotherspoon laid out a vision for the party by committing to build "a Saskatchewan for everyone."  A Saskatchewan which included policies for "world class" education system and "saving, protecting and locking down our Crown corporations for good," by amending the Saskatchewan Act. 

"As you know, this is a critical time in our party and our province and that's why I'm so motivated to lead the fight back and to serve as the next NDP Premier of Saskatchewan," Wotherspoon told the room.

Ryan Meili says he's the leadership candidate offering 'real change' for the party (CBC News)

Real change

Meili, who committed to "meaningful" action on climate change and improving health and education outcomes for First Nations peoples during his opening statement, also told members he's the candidate for change.

"I'm running for leader of Saskatchewan's New Democrats because I believe this province is ready for change" Meili said. "It's time for us to move beyond opposition to real leadership."

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Meili characterized himself as the new face and new voice of the party.

Wotherspoon highlighted his experience with the party.

Ryan Meili celebrates his victory in the Saskatoon-Meewasin by-election with then NDP interim leader Trent Wotherspoon. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

"I think I'm ready to deliver. I have the support of six incredible MLAs. Those are people that I work with, those are people that have watched me in action and that we've worked together for sometime," he told reporters.

Wotherspoon also said his time spent as interim-leader of the party — a position he held from their defeat in the 2016 general election until this past June — has provided him more understanding as to what it takes to lead the party. 

Campaign donations challenged

Delegates vote in 2018

The Saskatchewan NDP is set to elect a new leader on March 3, 2018.

Candidates have until Jan. 12, 2018 to enter the race. In order to be eligible to vote in the race, potential voters have to buy a membership by Jan. 19, 2018.

Wotherspoon has been the MLA for Regina-Rosemont since 2007. He took over as interim leader of the NDP when Cam Broten stepped down after the party lost last year's provincial election. In June, Wotherspoon stepped down from the interim position and later put his name in the hat for the permanent job.

Meili was elected MLA for Saskatoon-Meewasin on March 2 of this year. The Saskatoon doctor ran for the party's leadership in 2009, losing to Dwain Lingenfelter, and again in 2013, when he lost to Cam Broten by just 44 votes.

During Saturday's debate, each candidate had the chance to pose a question to the other.

Meili, who committed not to accept neither corporate or union donations during the campaign, asked Wotherspoon if he would do the same. Wotherspoon introduced a bill banning such donations in the legislative assembly

"The period right now is not to tie the hands of Saskatchewan people behind their back in this very important fight back and as for the members of this party. We have labour members of this party that are here right now that care deeply about winning that next election, saving our Crown corporations and stopping the cuts," he said to cheers from the crowd.

"The party will do the right thing for workers whether we get money from them or not," said Meili in rebuttal.

Wotherspoon said he has not taken a donation from any corporation during his leadership bid, but didn't rule out future contributions.

"I guess I've tied my hands behind my back somewhat, but I think that's something that people are looking for," Meili said after the debate.

Supporting workers

For his question, Wotherspoon asked how Meili would level the playing field for workers in the province while being fiscally responsible. Meili answered by saying he'd stop the outsourcing of government contract work.

Save STC assets, expand Crowns

Going rural

With respect to winning back rural seats, Wotherspoon said he plans to go door-knocking in rural and First Nation communities and mentioned the strong rural ties the party has.

Meili also touched on the the party's history, encouraging support and protection for farmland province-wide.

Both mentioned that there needs to be consultation with people in rural and isolated communities to best serve their needs. Each candidate mentioned their opinion that STC was a service that was unfairly cut but the Sask. Party.

On the matter of Crown corporations, Wotherspoon and Meili both promised delegates to continue the fight against any efforts to privatize.

Wotherspoon also said he'd continue to stop the government's selling of STC assets, while Meili said Crowns also need to be strengthened.

"We have to stop this foolish policy that we can't do business outside the province or outside the country as Crowns. Let's' grow these companies,' he said.