By Brendan Burke 
TRENTON — At Monday night’s Bay of Quinte all-candidates debate in Trenton, the economy took centre stage.
Hopefuls from each major party running in the Oct. 19 federal election were in attendance. The NDP’s Terry Cassidy, Liberal Neil Ellis and Progressive Conservative Jodie Jenkins fielded questions from the audience that covered a wide array of issues.
As a Quinte West Chamber of Commerce-hosted meeting, however, discourse was dominated by local business. When asked by the moderator – local journalist Paul Martin from Starboard Communications – what they would do to spur new economic growth and prosperity in the region, the three nominees echoed similar ideas.
Jenkins called for an end to bureaucratic red tape and promised lower taxes for small business owners in the area, while Ellis emphasized the need to not only help these businesses take off, but also to use mentoring to help them stay open. Cassidy encouraged looking at new forms of revenue generation through research and innovation.
Ellis also promoted the need for new economic avenues within the Bay of Quinte and pushed the importance of harnessing alternative bio and green energy resources. With a diverse economy, he said, the region can avoid placing all its eggs in one basket and can move away from the oil dependence seen on a federal level.
On the issue of the growing wealth gap in Canada, stark differences in ideology among the candidates emerged.
Asked to evaluate the merits of trickle-down economics , Cassidy condemned what he called a “pervasive” theory.
“It’s not just. It doesn’t treat everyone fairly. We need to start from the bottom up,” he said.
The New Democrat nominee added that eliminating the Conservatives’ income-splitting plan – which he maintained only benefits Canada’s wealthiest – would be a step forward in closing the disparity gap.
Jenkins, on the other hand, disagreed and said targeting the nation’s top tax bracket is not the answer.
“I’m a firm believer that the wealthy in our area will empower and offer opportunities,” said Jenkins.
Ellis promised to remedy the issue by raising the taxes on $200,000-plus earners by three per cent.
The candidates also disagreed on ways to facilitate local job creation and growth. When questioned about the possibility of bringing a casino to the Bay of Quinte, Cassidy and Jenkins found common ground. Both said they would not support a casino in the area – but for different reasons.
Cassidy lamented the potential negative social impact associated with gambling, while Jenkins said he is not convinced of its economic benefits.
Ellis called the casinos in Peterborough and Gananoque a success, and said he would support a local bid in order to usher in new, wel-paying jobs.
Economic discussion later gave way to social-security concerns.
Questions related to regional transit and Via Rail resonated with both the audience and candidates. Each nominee admitted that more work needs to be done to establish accessible transportation in the area.
“The system lacks infrastructure. The connections aren’t there,” Ellis said, adding that the region’s economy depends on rail.
Cassidy reiterated the sentiment.
“It’s a tough battle,” he said. “ The funding is not there.” He added that efficiency is not possible without investment.
On transit, Jenkins called the service a critical need and promised to work with small communities to create solutions that work for specific regions. The Conservative candidate praised his party’s gas tax decreases that he said have made rates reliable and predictable.
Discussion about the region’s hospital woes were also a dominant theme in the debate, with the topics of care for seniors and veterans also raised.
Ellis said a strengthened social infrastructure remains the most viable solution. “It’s an aging riding, so we need to look ahead,” he warned, adding that he would work to improve Trenton Memorial Hospital – a pledge made by Cassidy and Jenkins as well.
Jenkins promised to bring these local issues to Parliament, while Cassidy encouraged a dialogue between riding members and their representatives.
On seniors, each candidate agreed that more can and should be done to address the needs of the vulnerable demographic.
“Seniors are an asset, not just people to be warehoused,” Cassidy said, emphasizing the importance of not only long term care, but home care as well.
Jenkins said he is well aware of the issues faced by the area’s elderly, and promoted tax-free savings accounts for seniors.
While social issues commanded portions of the debate, the discussion eventually returned to the economy.
When asked how the candidates would combat the area’s high youth unemployment rate, Jenkins said he would promote Quinte’s quality of life and low cost of living to bring in new tech jobs.
Ellis said he would continue to invest in Loyalist College, something he said he had done while serving as Belleville’s mayor.
“The youth are our future,” he said.
Both Cassidy and Ellis stressed that economic growth and strengthening of social programs can only occur with support, collaboration and co-operation from all levels of government – something both nominees say has been missing under the current Conservative administration.
Jenkins maintained that the “money is there,” and that if elected he will fight to bring these regional issues to Ottawa, particularly the underfunding of Canadian Forces Base Trenton and what he called the “local hospital crisis.”
Other questions touched on issues including Bill C-51  (the federal anti-terrorism bill), the Senate, and the possibility of switching to a proportional-representation election system  – a topic that caused lively discussion. Cassidy called for an end to the current first-past-the-post system in favour of proportional representation.
All candidates pledged to bring the voice of the Bay of Quinte to Ottawa.
–With files from Tyler Penney of QNet News