(Photo credit: photo provided with story through CUP)
ST. JOHN’S, NFLD. (CUP) — Despite agreeing on most issues, including eliminating tuition for post-secondary students, the NDP’s federal leadership hopefuls each say they offer a new direction for their beleaguered party.
The candidates were in St. John’s last Saturday to participate in a leadership debate. The two-hour event, in preparation for a convention in January, attracted about 100 party supporters. However, it was tamer than most political debates, with the candidates readily agreeing on several key issues.
Toronto city councillor and part-time professor Jack Layton, United Church minister and MP Bill Blaikie, long-time Saskatchewan MP Lorne Nystrom, lawyer and MP Joe Comartin, and former NDP associate-president Pierre Ducasse participated in the debate. British Columbian social activist Bev Meslo is also running for the leadership, but could not afford to make it to Saturday’s event.
An e-mail question from a Newfoundlander living in the United Kingdom started the question period asking how each candidate would address student debt and increasing tuition.
“We have to eliminate tuition fees,” said Comartin, citing the success Ireland has had not charging tuition. “They had their society ready, they had their students ready.”
Blaikie focused on student debt, saying the federal government should administer the loans system. Layton went further, saying the government should forgive all interest accrued on loans since 1995, the year severe cuts were made to the amount of money the federal government transfers to the provinces.
“There is no reason students should be making banks rich,” Layton said.
Out-migration was another hot topic at the debate. Some candidates say tuition is partly to blame for Newfoundland’s declining population.
“Right now, it’s almost like an economic imperative that when you’re loaded up with student debt you’ve got to leave town. And that’s terrible,” Layton said. With lower and eventually no tuition fees, he said, “:the young people leaving Newfoundland today to pay off their debts with high-paying jobs elsewhere in the country would be able to stay.”
Nystrom says the situation would best be resolved by increasing opportunities in Newfoundland.
“I’ve been stressing in my campaign, more than the other candidates, that economic issues are the most important issues,” he said. “If you educate people and they still leave, that doesn’t really help Newfoundland, and that’s why you need equality of opportunity in terms of job creation across Canada as well.”
All the candidates also expressed misgivings about partnerships between universities and the private sector. In this month’s speech from the throne, the federal government said it will encourage partnerships in years to come.
“The problem is some universities, because of the cutbacks, almost need this funding,” Ducasse said.
Comartin says corporations on campuses have already caused problems in other provinces because corporations often benefit economically from patents that result from university research.
“In effect, what we’re doing is we’re subsidizing . . . the corporations in this research, and they get all the economic benefits. And there are times when some patents, some copyrights, have meant tremendous amounts of dollars for the private sector that, in fact, we’ve contributed to as a society,” he said.
Layton worries that funding for research could hinder basic rights.
“It’s all part of a worldwide movement to take things that used to be public and make them private,” he said. “I think it’s fundamental to the concept of freedom of thought, of freedom of speech, that your training and education not be financed by one particular subset that has a very distinct economic interest.”
Corporate control and foreign policy received the most attention during the debate.
The candidates broke from their measured, calm manner of speaking when Memorial philosophy professor David Thompson asked about world peace, which turned the debate to Iraq and the United States.
“We’ll say to George Bush, read our lips – we’re Canadians. Your father got it wrong, and you’ve got it wrong,” Layton told a cheering audience.
“We’re all tired of being the puppets of George Bush,” Nystrom said. Comartin went further, saying Canada has become “a joke” on the international scene since Brian Mulrooney strengthened ties with the United States in the 1980s, breaking away from the more distanced attitude of Pierre Trudeau.
-With files from Lindsay Harding.