Questions on patronage and access to high-speed internet got the leadership candidates for the P.E.I. New Democrats fired up during the first of the party’s four scheduled debates Thursday night in O’Leary.
In shaping the question, moderator and a former leader of the party, Dr. Herb Dickieson, noted another former leader, Jim Mayne, had described patronage as a cancer on democracy.
“It’s also a cancer on people’s dignity,” Joe Byrne responded.
“This is predation on poverty,” said Byrne, one of the two contenders for party leader. “You hand out low-wage jobs because you want to keep people down; you want to keep them intimidated.”
Fellow leadership candidate Margaret Andrade said patronage is “completely and totally unacceptable.” She said her way of fighting it is in convincing more young people to become party candidates.
“Let’s move all of the cronies; let’s move all of the ones who are so wealthy and connected out of the provincial scene. Get them out of the government. Replace all of them so that we can start fresh and everything is fair again.”
Byrne recalled a screen shot of a message O’Leary-Inverness MLA Robert Henderson allegedly sent to a constituent during the last election campaign: “Remember who got you that job.”
He said he wants to encourage Islanders to write down and share such messages.
“It’s awful, it stagnates us but, more than that, it rips away our dignity,” he said of patronage. “When we witness this and we do nothing, we become complacent and compliant.
Fourteen party-faithful braved a winter storm to hear the candidates.
The candidates also had strong and similar stances on high-speed internet, insisting comparable high-speed internet should be available across P.E.L, but it’s not.
Andrade said her 19-year-old son is part of the first generation with computers in their lives from the moment they were born.
“If we think that we want to keep the youth on our Island and we don’t want them all to congregate in Charlottetown or Summerside; if we want them to stay on the Island, keep the family farms going, keep the outlying areas the rural areas strong, we must be able to combine internet services.”
Byrne was highly critical of the internet service contract the provincial Liberals signed with Bell Aliant, insisting many rural Islanders are not getting the level of service the company promised. He said companies should be penalized for not living up to targets.
“If you can’t live up to your part of the bargain, then you don’t get the money. That seems, to me, to be a reasonable way to proceed,” he said.
Both candidates suggested that with the competitiveness in internet service delivery it should be possible to provide adequate service Islandwide.
The two candidates shared similar views on all questions posed by Dickieson and members of the audience. They were still in agreement when asked about those similarities following the debate.
“I think Joe and I have a really strong understanding of what the NDP is, so I think we are not going to have a lot of differences of opinion. What we’re going to have differences on is methodology, style,” said Andrade.
“I think what happens is we’re a party where the leader doesn’t determine policy; the party does,” said Byrne. “We will have our own styles and we have different backgrounds. Each of us offers something a little different, and not substantially on policy, because we’re going to be leading the same party.”
Both candidates said they will still be part of the team once the votes are counted on April 7.