By Bevan Hamilton 
BELLEVILLE – A quiet debate among the four major party candidates in Prince-Edward Hastings came to life Thursday night when the issue of the College of Trades came up.
The provincial candidates were asked what their party would do about the gap between the skills of Ontario’s current work force and the skills required by employers. The conversation almost immediately turned to the hot-button issue of the College of Trades.
“The greatest obstacle right now in the province to growing the skilled trades is the College of Trades. It’s another new layer of bureaucracy that’s a tax grab in the province of Ontario and it’s actually going to kill the small business.” Progressive Conservative MPP Todd Smith  said another thing the College of Trades is doing is driving up the cost of everything.
The crowd of around 100 people in the Empire Theatre in Belleville reacted strongly to Smith’s comments. The crowd became lively from this point on, often cheering or booing the candidates. Smith was often on the wrong end of the reaction.
The Liberal government set up the College of Trades  in 2009 as a means to ‘’modernize the province’s apprenticeship and skilled trades system’’.
Smith said under the new system, you could have up to 11 different trades people working on one job rather than the one tradesperson you can currently hire to do the entire job. That, said Smith, is going to drive up the cost of renovations.
Thompson said she was addressing the topic from the perspective of being a former nurse and belonging to the College of Nurses.
“We need to have somebody regulate us and somebody to ensure that the people they’re working for are the right person in the right place at the right time so we’re not spending and duplicating money on someone who’s trying to be a nurse, a personal support worker or a heart surgeon, but they don’t have qualifications,” Thompson said to a big applause from the many vocal Liberal supporters in attendance.
Thompson said the same concepts apply to the College of Trades.
Stewart said there’s a reason people have licenses to do this kind of work.
“It’s because if it’s done incorrectly, it’s dangerous and actually saves you more money in the long run than if you hire someone who isn’t licensed.”
Smith responded by saying the College of Trades is unnecessary duplication because skilled trades people already have to be licensed by the Ministry of Labour.
Judging by the crowd response, the College of Trades was among the biggest issues in the debate, but it wasn’t the only hot topic.
Another controversial issue was the cost of emergency services. Candidates were asked about their plan to fix a “broken” labour arbitration system to reduce costs for citizens.
Green party candidate Anita Payne  said police chiefs should not be in charge of finances. Payne called this is a ‘conflict of interest’ and suggested a civilian administrator accountable to city council should take over that responsibility.
Stewart said he couldn’t see another way to settle conflicts.
“I feel a little uncomfortable saying that police officers are making too much considering what’s going on in Moncton, New Brunswick right now,” Stewart said, resulting in a huge round of applause from the crowd.
Stewart went on to say, “These are folks that we ask to put their lives at risk, people that really give up their all for us. If we want to employ highly-skilled people who can do these rare, difficult jobs for us, we’re going to have to pay them what they deserve.”
Payne said she appreciates the dangerous work police officers do, but suggested they don’t need to go out on every call.
“If they have a burglary in your home, then the police service can contract that out.”
Many in the crowd groaned at that answer.
Some of the debate questions were determined beforehand. Others were audience questions that were submitted just before the debate began.
One member of the audience asked Smith how he would police his party’s insistence that the proposed 100,000 public sector jobs will not be from front-line workers.
Smith said it comes down to ministerial accountability.
“What we can do is reduce the size and cost of government, mostly through attrition over a four-year period. We’re talking about reducing the size of public service back to the levels they were at in 2009.”
Smith said many times there are too many layers of bureaucracy and his government plans to eliminate that.
“The government keeps spending money but it never makes it to the students; it never makes it to the patients; it never makes it to the PSW clients because it’s eaten up in huge layers of bureaucracy.”
Smith pointed to the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) as an example. He said there are now 11,000 OPG employees on Ontario’s Sunshine List  (workers earning at least $100,000 per year). Smith said there is no bigger bureaucracy in Ontario than the OPG and cited this as waste in government.
Other topics in the debate included bringing a university campus to Belleville, the provincial pension plan, support for the impoverished, school services, lack of hospital beds in Belleville, the infrastructure deficit, cost of business in Ontario, protecting prime farmland and reducing the cost of industrial energy.
Belleville Chamber of Commerce  organized the debate. Residents go to the polls on June 12.