CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - There was minimal mudslinging among P.E.I.’s party leaders during a debate that focused on Islanders who make a living from the province’s soil.
Wednesday’s debate, hosted by the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, was largely cordial as the four leaders shared common ground in wanting to support the province’s major industry.
One of the few instances of direct criticism came when Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker challenged PC Leader Dennis King on his party’s plan to address climate change after King pledged earlier in the day to extend the province’s marked fuel program to all farm-plated vehicles.
During a question on Canada’s carbon tax, Bevan-Baker said when combined with rebates, it’s the most “effective, efficient and fair” emission-reduction method and pointed to P.E.I.’s poor growing season last year as an example of climate change’s impact on farmers.
“Denny talks about how important it is that we look at climate change … I’d love to hear what plans he has,” said Bevan-Baker. “We have a huge choice and a huge responsibility coming up. We don’t need some sort of haphazard grab bag of random choices, we need a coherent plan.”
Bevan-Baker listed a number of policies, including precision agriculture (using drones to pinpoint crops needing treatment), import substitution, customized buffer zones and clean energy rebates as ways to help farmers mitigate and adapt.
“There is no single solution here,” he said.
Due to the format of the debate, King did not have a chance to respond directly.
However, earlier he said the carbon tax had an unfair burden on Islanders and that P.E.I. farmers do not have transit or trails to bring produce to market.
“(It’s) having a solution for all of Canada that doesn’t make sense for independent jurisdictions such as P.E.I.,” said King. “We’re not sticking our heads in the sand … we realize we want to reduce carbon, we want to help achieve those goals. But adding to our costs without achieving the goal, I don’t think it’s a very fair solution.”
King said he was perplexed by governments who seem “more interested in catching a farmer doing something wrong” to fine them and pledged to work with industry on environmental challenges.
“It must be ironic for all of you, to find four people who don’t farm telling you the options of what you should do as a farmer. I’d rather ask you what you need from government,” said King.
Liberal Leader Wade MacLauchlan was also hesitant on increasing the marked fuel program because he said it could lead to unintended consequences in other industries.
He instead preferred to invest in new export markets and product development while also praising Island farmers for their innovation.
“If we didn’t have farming in Prince Edward Island, I don’t think we’d have bioscience,” said MacLauchlan. “And we wouldn’t have the growth we’ve seen in manufacturing.”
MacLauchlan pointed to investments in the energy cable, reforestation, the alternate land use program and increased crop insurance funds as helping farmers deal with climate challenges.
NDP Leader Joe Byrne questioned the effectiveness of carbon tax rebates, instead preferring to see more investment into new farming technology.
“Because the same capitalist market that has left farmers struggling so much, is frankly incapable of getting us out of global warming,” said Byrne.
Carbon pricing and climate change effects were just two of the issues discussed during the debate, which was hosted by former managing editor of The Guardian, Gary MacDougall.
Candidates also touched on trade agreements, soil health, labour shortages and other topics related to the industry.