Political candidates disagree over how to aid Ontario's forestry industry; Conservative Yakabuski insists provincial over-regulation is main cause of sector's woes

OTTAWA , September 20, 2011 () – Candidates in Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke agree that the riding's foresters are hurting, but the consensus ends when it comes to finding the best way to help them.

Conservative incumbent John Yakabuski and two of his challengers, Liberal John O'Leary and NDP Brian Dougherty, sparred over forestry, green energy, health care and other issues Monday during a meeting with the Citizen's editorial board. Green party candidate Kyle Jones did not attend.

Yakabuski has held the seat since 2003. The former businessman maintained that the forestry industry's woes can be traced directly to overregulation by the provincial government. He called for a reduction in the cost of electricity and a review of recent legislation designed to protect the habitat of certain wildlife by controlling logging.

"The Endangered Species Act is the biggest threat to the forestry industry today," said Yakabuski, adding that the $18-million compensation the province is offering Ontario foresters does not go far enough to offset the cost of delays created by the need for habitat protections and other measures. "These regulations are making it tougher to get the job done."

O'Leary defended the Mc-Guinty government's efforts to protect wildlife, and said the forestry industry has been hurt by the global recession. Dougherty proposed to offset the impact of the regulations by addressing some of the costs - including hydro for lumber mills - and by instituting a "Buy Ontario" policy to encourage the local milling of lumber cut in the region.

Almost 100,000 people live in the mostly rural riding of Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, which includes the towns of Pembroke, Arnprior, Deep River and Barry's Bay. The riding was Liberal for many years, until Yakabuski won in 2003. The son of former Renfrew South MPP Paul Yakabuski, he took 62 per cent of the vote in 2003. His nearest rival, Liberal Sean Kelly, received just 24 per cent.

This time, the Liberals are running O'Leary, senior education adviser to Premier Dalton McGuinty. A Toronto native, O'Leary's roots in the region go back several generations and he says he and wife Leslie would move to the riding if he's elected.

O'Leary was on the hot seat often during the meeting, particularly when it came to green energy. He pointed out that 138 projects in the riding have taken advantage of the Feed-in-Tariff programs (FIT and microFIT), which enable producers of clean energy to sell electricity back to the grid at stable prices, in order to reduce reliance on coal power.

"They're producing enough power to supply 19,500 homes," said O'Leary, adding that the programs translate into direct jobs, opportunities for tradespeople and supplemental income for farmers.

But Yakabuski had harsh words for the Liberal programs, deriding pricing subsidies as "excessive and expensive." Dougherty - an electrician who has worked on large solar projects - applauded the programs but said the NDP would fine-tune some of the provisions.

"Prices do need to come down, but spending the money was necessary to get the (green energy) industry off the ground," Dougherty said.

When it came to health care, Dougherty lamented the fuss being made over the arrival of a single new doctor in Renfrew this week.

"One new doctor made headlines," said Dougherty. "It's fantastic they got that but it's ridiculous" that rural areas face such a struggle to recruit family physicians. Dougherty said the NDP would eliminate the debt of 200 doctors who move to rural Ontario.

Yakabuski pointed to the opening of a new dialysis program at Renfrew hospital as evidence of his own efforts on behalf of health care in the riding, and said the Liberals should have done more to expand the inventory of longterm care beds.

O'Leary countered that while the Progressive Conservatives closed hospitals during their time in power, the Liberals have opened 18 hospitals and increased the number of family doctors, resulting in 1.3 million more people with primary care. O'Leary added that the Mc-Guinty government has also invested in helping Ontario seniors stay at home as long as they can, rather than having to go into long-term care.

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