With a possible early provincial election in the making, the four candidates vying for the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party nomination from the Lacombe-Ponoka riding took the opportunity on Friday, March 20 to connect with the public in an open forum held at the Morningside Community Hall.
Candidates Peter DeWit, Rod Fox, Larry Henkelman and Wayne Rempel answered a variety of questions on topics ranging from education to post-secondary education to taxes.
DeWit told the forum participants he would look to common sense and leadership to keep the small rural municipalities from being overlooked by the provincial government.
“Alberta is at a crossroads in its history . . . but the recent collapse in energy prices has created some economic difficulties for our province,” said DeWit.
“I was born and raised on a farm and deep down I’m still a farm boy. I understand the value of hard work and perseverance and I know what it takes to build a successful business,” said DeWit.
Fox currently sits at the Legislature as the Lacombe-Ponoka MLA and he faced a lot of backlash when he crossed the floor to the PC Party.
“For the last three years, I’ve had the humble honor and privilege of representing you in the Alberta legislature,” said Fox.
Fox stresses that he has been a lifelong Conservative and purchased his first membership in 2003. Under Wetaskiwin-Ponoka MP Blaine Calkins, Fox served in the Wetaskiwin Conservative Electoral District Association for three terms.
In his time in politics, Fox says he has built relationship and endorsements within the government and it is that base he would use to represent the constituency at the provincial level.
Henkelman says he is looking to bring his experience in governance, business and agriculture to represent Lacombe-Ponoka at the provincial government.
“I can be a team player. I can work with town councils, I understand councils,” said Henkelman.
Speaking from personal experience, Henkelman says he knows an entity cannot rely on just one source of income to support the province. In the past, he owned three furniture stores but had to consolidate to one when the economy dipped in the 1980 in order to have the business survive.
Rempel told the audience he has been a PC supporter for all his life.
“The time has come to take what I’ve learned being involved in municipal politics and apply that to represent the people of Lacombe-Ponoka constituency,” said Rempel.
In his opening speech, Rempel named senior care, efficient health care and education as some of his main focuses.
He says he is also looking to promote diversity among the government to help keep the pressures of a low economy off the working people.
“We need to stop relying on high oil prices to balance our budget,” said Rempel.
At the beginning of the evening, the candidates were asked why they feel they are qualified to make the tough decisions it would take to be the Lacombe-Ponoka nominee.
DeWit told the audience, as a business owner, he’s accustomed to making tough decisions to ensure the success of an entity.
“I think making decisions is based on information. “I’m a systematic person, I do my research.”
Fox feels his time serving as an MLA has given him the experience needed, as well as the experience that came in his decision recently made to rejoin the PC Party. “The most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make is joining the governing party.”
He says one may not always have all the information but the best candidate would gather as much as they could to make the best call in a tough situation.
“You make decisions based on the safety of the people in your community. I’m not afraid to make difficult decisions as long as it’s there to protect the majority of the people,” said Henkelman.
Rempel says his guide when it comes to making those decisions is choosing the path that is best for the taxpayers.
The candidates were also asked of their opinion on the process of how schools are chosen to be built and modernized.
“I would hope our government is taking a look at the proposals coming through and saying where is the greatest need,” said Rempel. If he gets the opportunity to serve as MLA, he promises to take a closer look a the process and go to the school boards for wisdom.
“Basically I think a lot of the decisions should be coming from the school boards,” said Henkelman.
In the last two and a half years, Fox has spent his time advocating for schools in this matter. “The way to do this is go with your local school board . . . from the local school board, you go to the local community administration.”
“The school boards are in a perfect position to make the right decision locally,” DeWit agreed. “I would advise to empower school boards more and not less.”
When it comes to the increasing cost of post-secondary, Henkelman feels the costly affair should see better support from the government. “There has to be some help with the education.”
Rempel says the government should be looking to save costs in other areas of the budget. He also feels an emphasis on educating Alberta’s youth should be a priority so they can properly take their place in the workforce as the baby boomers retire.
“The last thing you want to do is save money on education because education is very important,” said DeWit. He would advocate the government to keep a careful eye on which programs can sustain higher tuition prices through demand needs.
Fox feels a solution could come from bringing more degree granting programs to local institutions such as Red Deer. This would allow students to live at home while attending school and act as a cost saving measure
When it comes to the idea of a sales tax, Fox told the audience Premier Jim Prentice is not in favour of it. “Although, we can’t anticipate what’s in the budget,” he cautioned.
As a businessman, Henkelman is not in favour of a sales tax. “We don’t like it. It’s an unfair tax,” he explained, as he feels low-income earners would be affected the most.
“It wouldn’t matter to me, because I don’t pay it. When you have a corporation or a business you have a lot of write offs, so guess who you’re going to be taxing? You’re going to be taxing the low-income people,” he added.
Rempel made his point by saying no one wants a sales tax and on that basis alone, he knows how he would need to advocate of the people of his constituency.
DeWit feels it is a matter that would need further discussion. “I think it’s very important to maintain our Alberta advantage.”
“We should not be afraid to put all the options on the table,” he added.
The advance poll for the PC nomination takes place Wednesday, March 26 at the Morningside Hall, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The general poll is Saturday, March 28 at the Ponoka Drop-in Centre and at the Lacombe Memorial Centre, Servus Room, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. at both locations.