By Joseph Quigley 
COBOURG – Though the candidates at the Northumbeland-Peterborough South debate in Cobourg often agreed on health issues, conflict arose on free trade.
Liberal Kim Rudd, New Democratic Party candidate Russ Christianson and Green party candidate Patricia Sinnott generally agreed on a wide range of issues during the health-care focused debate hosted by the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario . Conservative Adam Moulton declined to attend the debate.
But when asked about how free-trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership , are affecting drug prices and Canadian industry, the debate became heated.
Though all three candidates said that free trade has been hurting Canadians and that the deals need to be better negotiated, Christianson added a jab at the Liberal party, accusing its leader, Justin Trudeau, of supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership while being uninformed about it.
“Justin Trudeau actually agreed with the TPP without even reading the agreement,” Christianson said. “These trade agreements are just agreements – they’re contracts. That means that you can renegotiate. And these free-trade agreements need to be fair-trade agreements. The Liberal party and the Conservative party agree on a lot, and one of the things is free-trade agreements. The NDP does not.”
Rudd defended Trudeau and said that the Liberal party does not support unfair free trade:
“Russ, I know you have to find somebody to bash, but at least use the quotes correctly. Justin Trudeau has never said he is for trade without reciprocity. You’ve done it a few times and it’s getting old. It’s about trade agreements with equality: I give you something, you give me something back of equal value. The fact that there have been terrible negotiations in this country that have ended up with terrible agreements doesn’t mean that the process, or that the idea of a trade agreement, is a bad thing,” she said.
Sinnott said that Canada needs to do more of its own manufacturing and that free-trade agreements can hurt Canadian sovereignty.
“We need to be looking to add more value by manufacturing and processing agricultural products,” she said. “We need to do more of that because that’s where trade benefits and jobs are. And a lot of that can be done through small business development. Unfortunately, our sovereignty is under threat with TPP and other free-trade agreements. It’s going to take some time to get it all sorted out, but I believe where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
However, the three candidates were conciliatory for much of the evening and were similar in their support for a number of policies.
When asked, all three immediately agreed that the long-form census needed to return. They also said that veterans would get more support – including the re-opening of recently closed Veterans Affairs offices and the return of pensions for disabled veterans – if their party were elected. The candidates also agreed on quickly negotiating a new health-care accord with the provinces and working to improve the health of aboriginal peoples.
One question posed to the candidates pertaining to the nurses’ association, the sponsor of the event, was how they would support expanding the role of nurses in health care as the population ages.
“I think the provincial government is finally coming to grips that (nurses) are very effective at providing good quality health care of people,” said Sinnott. “We don’t need to see a physician every time. I very much support expanding those roles. There’s a lot of ways to change how we deliver primary health care through a variety of providers. Myself and the Green party are very supportive of that.”
Christianson said that the NDP also supports nurses through the party platform.
“It’s important for us to increase the number of doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and other health-care providers. This is about healing. It’s not necessarily just about medication and immunization; it’s about actually having a human touch. And I think that’s maybe the single most important thing that nurses do as primary health-care providers. Nurse practitioners are going to continue to expand and the NDP fully supports that. It’s in our platform that we would hire 7,000 doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners over the next three years to help fill the gap. We need a long-term plan to what we’re going to do about this aging population,” he said.
Rudd said she was limited by her party having not released its health platform at the time of the debate, but added that her party supports nurses and health-care innovation.
“I honestly think that we’re not going to have any option in this country but to turn health care on its head. We have a system that’s 50 to 60 years old that we’ve been putting Band-Aids on. Nurse practitioners and registered nurses are what I call on-the-ground care. And it’s the role that gets us into places that sometimes otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get into in terms of health care. The innovation will not just be about technology; the innovation will be how we manage our human resources – how to best get services to people, not people to services,” she said.
On a question about what the parties would do about private clinics, all three candidates said they support maintaining and defending a single-tiered, equal health-care system.
However, Christianson was critical of the provincial Liberal government’s health record and said that the debate was about which party you can trust with health care federally.
“We’ve had a Liberal government here in Ontario for quite a number of years now and we have lots of privatization under that Liberal government. So you have to ask yourself, who do I trust, federally? Liberal, Conservative, NDP, Green – who do I trust to actually take care of our public health-care system? That is the fundamental question of the evening,” he said.
Regina Elliott, president of the Durham-Northumberland chapter of the RNAO, said she felt that the debate was successful and that people were engaged. But she added that she did not personally enjoy some of the attacks during the debate.
“I think that everyone was somewhat collegial. Probably that’s what most of the audience enjoys hearing. I would think (to) some, hearing the negative of other politicians isn’t always helpful. That’s just my own personal opinion.”