Leaders debate: A recap of Wednesday’s discussion on the province’s pressing issues

By in Features
The Saskatchewan Leader’s Debate, held at the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, is viewed live from a laptop on October 14, 2020. Ammara Syeda / Photo Editor

During the hour-long debate on Wednesday evening, Scott Moe and Ryan Meili faced off in attempts to sway the province’s voters before Oct. 26.

As to be expected, both leaders used their party mottos to shape their arguments. While Moe consistently brought up a “Strong Saskatchewan,” Meili stressed the importance of “Putting People First.”

The debate was streamed virtually and had few individuals present due to pandemic restrictions, but that did not stop it from raising important questions on what each party’s true priorities are.  

Moderated by CTV’s Molly Thomas and featuring a panel of broadcasters from various news outlets, here is what went on during the cordial yet critical discussion. 

COVID-19 response plan 

Premier Moe began the debate on a positive note, thanking Saskatchewan and recounting some of the province’s COVID-19 updates. According to Moe, the number of coronavirus cases in Saskatchewan are about 60 per cent below the national average.

However, he remarked that the biggest challenge in responding to the pandemic is the people that are not heeding existing health guidelines.

Meili started with similar points and criticized the Saskatchewan Party on the topic of budgetary cuts, calling them “the worst idea right now.” He then outlined what he is planning to do to get the province back on track.

“Now is the time for us to invest, get people back on the job, invest in health and education [and] make the investments now to keep us safe,” Meili said. 

The first open debate of the night followed immediately after, on the topic of what government measures should be taken to prevent COVID-19 spread. 

The conversation started with Moe stating that guidelines have been clear and that masks are not required during physical distancing, and it took an interesting turn when Meili claimed that Moe has been sending mixed messages. 

Meili claimed that the Sask. Party has failed to speak out against anti-maskers. He also said that overcrowding in schools and classrooms must be a priority, especially in light of the recent change in private gathering restrictions from 30 to 15 people. 

Economic recovery

After the discussion took a turn to focus on the topic of economic recovery, it was Meili that started the discussion this time. After talking about the dire situation of those trying to make ends meet, he emphasized the urgent need for the government to act immediately. Meili stated that the Saskatchewan New Democrats Party’s focus is on “doing the work to make life more affordable.”

His point was then quickly countered when Moe described the Sask. Party’s own recovery plan and their priority of investing in infrastructure. He promised a $2 billion “economic booster-shot” increase in investment for capital projects such as schools, hospitals and roads. 

“We have a plan for a strong recovery that includes balancing the budget by 2024,” Moe said. 

This was something that would be repeated by Moe throughout the debate; he stressed the importance of a balanced budget to ensure that funding is sustainable for future generations. 

Both leaders were then prompted to move on to the night’s second open debate.

While Moe reiterated his recovery plan, Meili criticized the premier’s unwillingness to invest in communities. After a heated debate that kept audiences at the edge of their seat, Meili finished with a pointed remark that Moe “may be satisfied but the people of the province certainly are not.” 

Responsible governance

On the question of responsibility in governance according to provincial deficits, the Sask. Party’s approach was confident, with Moe quickly referring to the party’s budget balancing plan that includes building schools, hospitals and more.

“We’re going to get back to the days … of having the second best job creation rates in this nation,” Moe said. 

Meili, however, contradicted the statement by bringing up the increased provincial debt under Sask. Party governance. He emphasized the damage of cuts to key areas like healthcare and education, repeatedly mentioning the Sask. Party’s “austerity” plan.

The following open debate centred on why rebates are the best option for both parties moving forward.

Moe mentioned cuts to power bills and taxes, stating that contrary to Meili’s belief provincial crowns will not be sold under a Sask. Party government. 

Meili cited how the Sask. Party has been assigning public projects to companies from various international industries but not to unemployed Saskatchewan citizens ready to work, and Moe denied this by naming local companies involved in projects. 

Sustaining Saskatchewan industries

According to Meili, the Sask. NDP’s strategy is to support workers from industries that have been hit hard by the pandemic and create “opportunities for a diversified, more resilient economy instead of sending those jobs away.”

Moe did not directly respond to Meili’s comments, stating that those industries will “continue to be the very basis of the Saskatchewan economy.” After outlining the Sask. Party’s growth targets, he proudly mentioned that the province also has the lowest unemployment rate in the last two months.

The debate proceeded on to the topic of how to make Saskatchewan more sustainable. 

Moe was confronted with the recent 13-cent increase to the provincial minimum wage that still positions Saskatchewan as having the lowest minimum wage in all of Canada. Meili restated the Sask. NDP’s promise to increase that minimum to $15 per hour. 

“These are the folks on the front lines… what kind of thanks is a 13-cent raise?” Meili asked. “Why does Mr. Moe think the workers in Saskatchewan are worth less for their labor than folks in Alberta, in British Columbia [and] in New Brunswick?”

Despite the question, Moe’s response focused on the party’s investments in affordability for families. Moe said that 112,000 low-income families have been taken off of the tax roll and Saskatchewan has one of Canada’s highest tax-free thresholds. 

Engaging Indigenous peoples

On engaging with Indigenous peoples, Moe emphasized the importance of the topic and recalled a time when Canadian premiers went to Big River First Nation to meet an Indigenous community. 

In addition to reiterating the importance of these connections, Meili talked about the barriers he has seen First Nations and Métis communities experience in various parts of Saskatoon. 

“My commitment is to work with First Nation leaders and the federal government to close the gap in healthcare and education and justice and employment,” Meili said. 

The debate reached a climactic point when Meili criticized the Sask. Party’s vote against the  proposed Saskatchewan Strategy for Suicide Prevention Act, which was presented on Jun. 19. 

“Every single one of them voted against a legislated suicide prevention strategy,” Meili said. “Why did you vote against that important bill brought forward by a Métis MLA?”

Moe responded that the proposed act was not a necessity for acting on “something as important as suicide” and reminded Meili of the Sask. Party’s Pillars for Life strategy, the suicide prevention plan that was released in May this year.  

On the topic of Indigenous peoples participation in the economy, Meili began by citing the high poverty rates of kids on reserves in Saskatchewan. He said he would make a commitment to “allow this government to work as a facilitator instead of a barrier.”

Moe talked about supporting these communities in a holistic manner, including investing in Project Reconciliation, an Indigenous-led organization looking to purchase some of the TMX pipeline. 

Learning in a pandemic

On helping students keep up with their grade level, Moe referred to the provincial government’s recent investments into education including an increase in investment of $51 million. He discussed dispersing the money and providing support to over 440 staff to ensure schools can succeed. 

Meili’s points were less about finances and more about the safety of children. He brought up the issue of kids dealing with schoolwork in overcrowded classrooms. Meili stated the Sask. NDP’s commitment to hiring more staff, decreasing class sizes and supporting kids in their learning.

“COVID-19 has simply exposed the problems that already existed in our classrooms that teachers and parents have been speaking up about for years,” Meili said. 

According to one of the panelists, students are reportedly testing well below grade levels after the recent six-month school break. The debate turned to the topic of catching students up to their grade level. 

Moe spoke about the Sask. Party’s recent investments into the COVID-19 pandemic response to ensure that schools are safe. 

“We had a very public conversation on the return to school here in the province… that allowed us to ensure that we were able to come up with a plan that was adaptable [and] flexible,” Moe said.

All the while, Meili stressed the importance of investing more in the education sector.

However, when asked about where the money would come from for the Sask. NDP to make those investments, Meili stated that “this is a core investment,” but did not clearly say where the money would come from.

Overdose crisis

Meili said the Sask. NDP’s commitment to harm reduction includes a crystal meth and opioid strategy and implementing dedicated mental health and addictions emergency rooms.

Moe brought up the Sask. Party’s mental health and addictions budget, which he stated is the highest it has ever been. He mentioned more investments including a crystal meth treatment center in Estevan and more addiction workers in the province’s major centers. 

When both leaders were asked about safe consumption sites, Meili responded by emphasizing the urgency of the matter.

“We’re committed to harm reduction, but also to making the investments in prevention… so instead of getting sent away, as we see so often today, people get the help they need,” Meili said.

Moe responded by saying that the Sask. Party would consider safe consumption sites alongside other investments if they are elected. 

“This is an investment that’s in the works. It’s an investment that needs to continue, regardless of whose government [is elected],” Moe said.

Closing statements

The debate finished like it started, with Moe asking citizens to consider who they trust and recounting the Sask. Party’s past successes and potential to lead with a strong economy. 

Focusing more on the negative consequences of electing the Sask. Party, Meili affirmed Sask. NDP’s willingness to make changes that the Sask. Party will not and stressed the cuts that would be made if the current provincial government is re-elected.  

Ultimately, the final decision on which party will address these topics in the coming year will be made by those who participate in the elections this Oct. 26. 

Fiza Baloch | Staff Writer

Photo: Ammara Syeda | Photo Editor