NDP candidates square off on poverty reduction

NDP candidates Steve Ashton and Greg Selinger faced off on how they would tackle poverty in the province last Monday at the University of Winnipeg.

The forum, organized by the Make Poverty History campaign, provided the audience with what has been the only opportunity to see the two candidates debate during the leadership race.

The primary issues that were raised included affordable housing, disabilities assistance and post secondary education.

“Too many people in this province face poverty on a day-to-day basis,” Ashton said in his opening statement.

Selinger followed: “I think when you come into government, from day one everything you do, every decision — whether it’s a hydro decision or a tax decision or a social policy decision — it has to have a quality and an equity component in it.”

Both agreed on the need for more affordable housing in the province, each stating they were committed to creating an additional 300 units of housing.

In terms of social assistance, Selinger said he believes those individuals in need should be taken off welfare entirely and provided with a pension option “[ . . . ] so they have a long term approach to income security, and they don’t have the stigma attached to social assistance.”

“When a person’s on pension, they should have the right to work; there shouldn’t be any conditions to that. It’s a pension, then you get to do what you want with your life.”

In response to the same question, Ashton returned to the issue of affordable housing, explaining that addressing the erosion of the right of habitat is critical.

“I see it all the time, across this province. People are having to give up the most basic needs to pay for rent. This is Manitoba. This is 2009. That’s unacceptable.”

When asked about their stance on post secondary education and bringing back the tuition freeze, Selinger and Ashton highlighted the staples of their PSE platforms.

Selinger talked about his plan to make the 60 per cent tuition tax rebate available to students while they are still in school.

In terms of tuition fee increases, he said, “We would not leave them completely unregulated. They will be allowed to go up in a reasonable fashion.”

Ashton confirmed that he believes accessibility of education is a critical issue and that he wants to bring the tuition freeze back.

“One of the things I’m proudest of in the past 10 years of government is we have moved our tuitions in Manitoba to some of the most affordable in Canada,” said Ashton.

“I will reinstate the tuition freeze. It’s not that hard to back it up, quite frankly, with additional funding.”

The biggest difference separating the candidates was their stance on setting targets for measuring progress on poverty reduction.

Ashton indicated he was in support of setting such targets and that they were essential for tackling poverty in Manitoba.

“We need poverty targets. We knew it was important to set targets for the environment, we can do it for poverty as well,“ said Ashton.

Selinger explained that while he would like to have indicators to show progress, he was concerned that setting strict targets would be constricting.

“I’m a little concerned about targets locking us into what I see as a tunnel vision approach,” explained Selinger. “I’d like us to be accountable [ . . . ] but I’d also like us to be doing new things.”

He continued, “When we see a suicide problem [ . . . ] I want to be able to put $3 million bucks into finding ways to reduce that. If we see sexually exploited young people in the community, and it’s not in our targets, I want to be able to respond to that anyway.”