The three candidates vying to represent Inverness County as local MLA are (from the left): incumbent Allan MacMaster of the Progressive Conservatives, Michelle Smith of the NDP, and Bobby Morris of the Liberals.

MABOU: The three candidates looking to represent the people of Inverness County visited the Mabou Community Hall last Thursday night and, at times, hotly debated the issues.

Incumbent Allan MacMaster was on hand, representing the Progressive Conservatives. He was joined by NDP stalwart Michelle Smith and first-time candidate Bobby Morris, standing for the Liberals.

The event was sponsored by the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce (SACC) and 101.5 The Hawk. As the discussion was hosted by the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce, the theme was growing the economy.

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“I was elected in 2009, and Inverness is a wonderful place,” said MacMaster. “We have many cultures in this county, and it’s a wonderful how we get along.

“I’ve been traveling around this past election campaign, and hearing from a lot of people who are seniors, people traveling for medical appointments and treatments, that’s a significant issue. Roads have been a significant issue.”

MacMaster said he didn’t want to linger on opening comments, as he was anxious to get to the issues.

“When I had the opportunity to spend more time with my family and come home to Cape Breton, I felt like I won the lottery,” said Morris, who’s worked in finance, accounting, and economic development for the last 10 years.

“In my role with the Cape Breton Partnership, I put a high priority on job creation, year-round tourism, keeping our young people home. We need to do this to reverse the last 20 years of youth leaving.”

Morris said he’s proud of the programs that have been presented by the Liberal Party.

“Rural [development] is the most important driver of the future of the Nova Scotian economy,” he said. “I’m so happy I was able to find full time employment here. I want to make that possible for everyone.”

Smith said the 2017 election is about the future but, to put a finer point on it, the future of rural Nova Scotia.

“There is new scientific evidence that Halifax is not the centre of the universe, but tell that to the Regional Health Authority – Oh, we don’t have one anymore,” she said.

“Nova Scotia has a high percentage of its population in rural areas, but most of the decisions are not made with our needs and priorities in mind. Yet, our needs and priorities – and our vision of the economy – could be serving all Nova Scotia.

“Even in rural areas, there’s so much room for innovation in the technical sector, agriculture, fisheries, farming, forestry,” she said. “We need to develop that strength here and now for all of us.”

Morris said the condition of local roads is, most likely, the number one issue brought up when meeting with constituents. He said the Liberals have a robust infrastructure program in place that includes a gravel road maintenance budget of $70 million, constituting an increase of 120 per cent.

He noted that the Liberals have a plan for twinning without adding tolls.

Smith agreed that roads are certainly on everyone’s mind, and that rural areas tend to have the worst roads.

MacMaster added that he’s hearing about roads everywhere he goes. He said since 2010, there’s been a 25 per cent decrease in the rural road maintenance budget.

“We have seen this government’s lack of action in investment in these roads,” he said. “We need more investment in roads, and that’s one thing I’ve been consistently about for the last number of years.

“We’ve seen this government talk about glorious plans,” he said. “A $2.4 billion plan to twin highways across the province, yet they’ve trimmed the maintenance budget to a measly $6 million each year.”

In the rebuttal, Morris countered quality of roads has not been declining for the last three years but over the last 20. He said MacMaster’s comments were misleading, but the incumbent disagreed.

Having high speed Internet and good cell phone service is necessary for many businesses in the area, as technology allows many opportunities for rural entrepreneurs.

Smith agreed that such things provided key infrastructure, but she was hesitant to say much is being done right now to enhance the services locally.

“One of the items in the, kind of, pretend budget that the Liberals put out is allocated $50,000 for Internet and digital education for seniors,” said Smith. “What does that pay? Two people’s minimum wage for one year?”

MacMaster noted that, in January of 2015, he teamed with Inverness Municipal Council and Bell Aliant to improve cell phone coverage in the Margaree Valley.

“We can talk all day about the cell service in Margaree,” said Morris. “Let’s talk about the cell service in Judique, Pleasant Bay, and even parts of Port Hood.

“I think we finally have a government committing to a partnership and investing in infrastructure. The current platform in the past two years has been about leveraging money from the municipalities and federal government.”

One thing that all businesses have to contend with is taxation, and businesses in Inverness County are no exception. The three candidates were asked what they would do to help businesses manage their tax burden and, more generally, create a competitive tax environment.

“What we’ve purposed in this budget is an increase to the small business deduction,” said Morris. “Our small business rate is one of the lowest in Canada – it’s a three per cent tax up to $350,000 and we’ve moved that to $500,000.

“That’s $150,000 more earnings before you hit the next bracket.”

Smith said there’s a problem with how small business is defined, in that a small business is defined as 500 or fewer employees. She said that number, by local standards, is pretty large. The NDP said there ought to be more support for what could be called micro-businesses.

“We have a plan for earned tax relief,” said MacMaster. “Simply, if you create jobs, your corporate tax is lowered. It can be lowered as far as 10 per cent, and I believe this will encourage businesses to reinvest those tax savings into their businesses, creating more jobs and tax revenue for the province.”

This election, the NDP is the only party committed to running a deficit, as both the Liberals and PCs have said they want balanced budgets.

Smith explained that while running at a deficit is risky, she feels it’s better to take that risk in order to invest in the future.

Having enough workers to make sure businesses run effectively is something with which all businesses contend.

MacMaster said government has to do a better job of connecting with people who are out of work, to let them know what opportunities are out there.

“Our economy will not grow unless we have people working,” he said. “We need people working, and people want to work. It’s something we have to do a better job of.”

“We have a system that penalizes people who are on community services,” said Morris. “If they go to work, they lose benefits. We have a proposal that allows a progressive return to work program, so you don’t have your benefits stop when you go to work.”

Smith said she wasn’t keen on the program Morris detailed. She called it a “work for welfare” program, and Morris said that definition didn’t fit.

“We need good healthy communities that people don’t mind working in,” she said. “When you need people to work, you have to treat them with respect.”

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Sports reporter Grant McDaniel is a Port Hood native, who after graduating from StFX University, joined The Reporter in 2001.