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A chat with new PC leader Tony Wakeham

MHA Tony Wakeham (Stephenville – Port au Port). –File photo

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter STEPHENVILLE — Voting for the new leader of the Progressive Conservative party began on Wednesday, Oct. 4 and ended on Oct. 7, with MHA Tony Wakeham (Stephenville– Port au Port) coming out on top. Since winning the election, things have been understandably busy for Wakeham. “I tell people I didn’t run to be the leader of the opposition, I ran to be premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. So my intent is to keep focused on bringing the issues that matter to people in Newfoundland and Labrador to the forefront,” said Wakeham in a phone interview last week. “Issues around the cost of living, issues around access to healthcare, issues around affordability. When I travel throughout the summer all over Newfoundland and Labrador, these issues were prominent in every district, so there are people in our province who are hurting and they need a government who’s willing to step up and help them.” Wakeham has been a vocal critic of the sugar tax since it was first announced, and it’s still very much on his radar. “I’ve reminded the Premier and Liberal government that if you’re opposed to the carbon tax, you should also be opposed to the sugar tax, which is something that they introduced, which is something they can certainly cancel immediately. The other thing I think we need to do long term is we need a poverty reduction strategy like we had in the past, which was geared to inflation and it was considered to be one of the best in the country,” said Wakeham. “So these are the longer term strategies that need to take place. We also need to look at how we might increase the benefits index, senior’s benefits, and those type of things. We have to find a way to help not just the people, seniors and low income, but middle class people in this province who find themselves struggling now with the high cost of everything. So it’s a real challenge for government to look at how we might find ways to help different people in different sectors.” If elected premier in the next election, Wakeham said that he will ax the sugar tax. “It’ll be gone the next day as quick as I could get rid of it, because it’s not doing what they said it was supposed to do. And the real challenge for me is they talk about the impact of sugar on our diets — and we all agree with that — we all understand that too much sugar is not good for you. There’s no argument on that, but I believe in education, not taxation, in order to help people. But in order to be able to get people away from those sugary drinks, you need to have alternative things to drink,” said Wakeham. “In many of our communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, there are over 200 communities on boiled water (orders), and in my district there are a lot of communities that don’t even have a water system and their wells are contaminated. So if the government is serious about health outcomes, one of the key things of social determinants of health is clean drinking water. So that’s where their focus should be, not simply on taxing people.” The amount the sugar tax adds to sugary drinks is considerable, and Wakeham believes it’s contributing to the cost of living hike. “I had a lady come in my office the other day when I was back in Stephenville who brought me in a receipt. She had purchased two cans of fruit punch powder that had cost $4.60. When she went to the cash register and the cashier rang it in, it was over $16 because she paid almost $11 in sugar tax based on the volume that it would produce,” said Wakeham. “You tell me how that is helping Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. It’s making things more difficult. It’s hurting people, and those are the type of decisions that governments make, and I think we need better choices and better decision making.” The increase in taxes is directly related to the rate of inflation across the province. “One of the things that has driven inflation has been the high cost of gasoline, and the high cost of gasoline has in part been driven by taxation. So when then the Bank of Canada raises its interest rates, which turns around and puts some people in extreme pressures with their mortgages that they currently have, or for some people trying to enter the housing market, it makes it unavailable to them because it’s just too much and they just can’t afford it. So there’s different ways that government can look at how we might fix some of that in terms of different incentives and programs for first time home buyers and stuff,” said Wakeham. “We used to have a program years ago for the building of seniors cottages where government would subsidize private developers, but then the rates of rent that they could charge were fixed for ten years. So there’s different ways of doing things that need to be looked at.” Another issue Wakeham wants to address is how government subsidies to lower-income households are divvied out. “The government subsidies and the limits are never increased. The thresholds have not been increased, and as inflation goes up, those thresholds need to be increased. So one of the things that I’ve called for when we form government is a complete review of all of those programs and services we deliver like that to make sure that they’re actually doing what they were meant to do, because that’s what you need to do,” said Wakeham. “If you’re going to introduce income support programs and other programs or benefit programs, then you need to make sure that at the end of the day, they’re actually doing what they were set out to do, and that hasn’t been done. And that needs to be done because too many people are getting left behind.” Between now and the next provincial election, Wakeham says his party still has a lot of work to do. “We’re simply going to be holding government to account for the things that they have. There’s two things that we will be reviewing. One are the commitments that government made, the things that they said they were going to do but haven’t done, or the things that they have done which are actually hurting people, not helping them, and we’ll continue to expose those,” said Wakeham. “We’ll continue to talk about the cost of living. We’ll continue to talk about health care access and those critical issues and offer solutions to people which we believe could be implemented in the short term and in the long term. I have talked about healthcare, about we all recognize we have shortage of healthcare staff, but has the minister, has the premier reached out to every single person enrolled in healthcare program in our colleges or in our university and offered them a full time job when they graduate? As I have said, let’s not wait for them to exit the program before we offer them a job. Let’s offer them a job when they enter the program. There are lots of different approaches that we need to be taken, but we need to keep people here.” Wakeham wants people to be incentivized to stay in the province. “We want a province where we want people to live and not leave, a province where people don’t come from, they come to. Those are not just words. They have to be what we truly strive to make our province. And that’s the only way collectively that we can move this province forward.” One way to encourage residents to stay is by providing them better access to healthcare, and in order to do that, those already working need to be retained just as much as new workers need to be brought in. “We have to focus on retention just as much as we focus on recruitment, because if we don’t retain the workers we have now, we’re going to be in even worse shape, and we’re seeing that day after day where people are exiting the healthcare system, and some of that has to do with the workload conditions, the workplace environment, things that are happening that are forcing people to leave full time jobs and we’ve got to find solutions to that,” said Wakeham. “But I believe some of the solutions to those issues are actually when you go out and talk to the people that work directly in the system, because I will guarantee you if you go and talk to frontline workers, you will get solutions, and sometimes it’s not always about money. It’s about process. It’s about how we can do things differently, how we can use other resources to get a job done. So I think there’s lots of things that we could be doing that we’re not doing, and it’s not simply always about money.” The formation of a central health authority is something Wakeham believes created a distraction as opposed to a real solution. “That’s what happens when you talk about all the recommendations in the health accord document of things that could be done or should be done, and we focus on simply changing from four health authorities to one health authority. That’s a deflection that takes us away from what we should be focusing on, which is on frontline workers,” said Wakeham. “It seemed to be doing something, but does moving from four health authorities to one health authority increase access for people to see a physician? Does it increase access for people to see a primary care provider? Does it increase access for people who need an MRI or a CT or a specialist appointment? I would argue no. It deflects from the important things that we should have been focused on and continue to focus on, and that’s healthcare access.” Wakeham also points to the concerns raised by healthcare unions in years past. “It’s got to be about the people of the province and how we increase their access to healthcare services, and if the government had listened to what the unions were telling them back in 2015 and 2016, what the nurses were telling them, what NAPE was telling them, what CUPE were telling them, what the doctors were saying, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in healthcare. Now, I’m not suggesting that it would be perfect, but I think it would have been a lot better,” said Wakeham. “These people were calling for staffing reviews. They were calling out the government to say, ‘we’re going to have a problem’, but the government ignored it, and then COVID came along and made it worse. Now, while they say it’s right across the country, yes, it is, but that doesn’t mean you fold up your hands and say there’s nothing you can do. There’s lots of things you can do, and it starts by communication, talking with the people on the front lines, talking about using the assets we have already, technology that we have already, and little staff that we have already and finding ways to make it work. I say if you go back and talk to people on the ground, they will tell you what possible solutions are that could be implemented that don’t necessarily increase cost.” Now that he’s been elected as the new PC provincial party leader, Wakeham is eager to address these issues. “Obviously, as you can imagine, coming right out of an election, and the House of Assembly is open, it’s about working with the caucus that we have and our staff that we have and making sure that we continue to bring the issues that are important to the people in Newfoundland and Labrador, to the forefront. Because ultimately, as I have said on numerous occasions, politics should not be about politicians, it should be about people,” said Wakeham. “I firmly believe in that, and I have also said and will continue to, that I don’t want to be a politician who focuses on the next election. I want to be a politician who focuses on the next generation, and that’s where I think we need to go.”

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