September 29, 2011
Stew Slater – Metroland Media
When the Wellington County Federation of Agriculture decided earlier this month to back out of a planned all-candidates meeting for the Oct. 6 provincial election, perhaps they should have checked the weather forecast.
Wary of suggestions that hundreds of anti-wind farm protesters might picket, the Federation backed out as hosts of the Sept. 14 event in Arthur. On the night of the meeting, however, a steady rain kept the protest — aimed at incumbent Perth-Wellington MPP and Liberal Environment Minister John Wilkinson (who opted not to attend the Arthur meeting after hosting duties were taken over by an anti-turbine organization) — to a minimum.
Members of the Perth County Federation of Agriculture, meanwhile, weren’t concerned about anti-turbine protests, and went ahead with their all-candidates meeting as planned, Monday, Sept. 26 at the Crystal Palace in Mitchell.
It was different from the Arthur meeting in one respect: Wilkinson was in attendance. But in two other respects it was very similar to the Sept. 14 meeting: a steady rain kept any protesters from setting up shop outside the hall; and the over-arching sense from the meeting was that people are concerned about the province’s approach to renewable energy generation.
Among the prepared questions projected onto a screen and posed to the six candidates during the early portion of the meeting, several touched on the Liberal government’s Green Energy Act. Then, when the microphone was opened up to the audience, three more questions were asked relating to the topic.
At times, the candidates seemed to be repeating their messages, after tackling the government’s renewable energy strategy from a slightly different starting point.
“It doesn’t make sense to pay people 80 cents for (generating) power when you can get it for five cent from conventional sources,” said Freedom Party candidate Robby Smink, who added technology for “scrubbing” coal has made the traditional fuel source much cleaner than in the past.
Smink shared the opinion, with Family Coalition Party candidate Irma DeVries, that the decrease in manufacturing activity in Ontario since the 2008 economic downturn has turned the province into a net producer of electricity, creating the need to sell power to the US at reduced rates.
“(The government is) not using market principles when it comes to the Green Energy Act,” DeVries commented.
An on-farm producer of small-scale hydro-electric power, she added that the two main focal points of the act – wind and solar – actually exacerbate the problem because they only produce power at certain times of the day.
New Democrat candidate Ellen Papenburg said the Green Energy Act versions of industrial-scale wind farms are “corporate-owned and they’re not very efficient.” Sharing the viewpoint of Green Party candidate Chris Desjardins, she said new developments must be smaller in scale, closer to the point of use, and directed by local decision-makers.
“For example, around factories. They should put turbines there. They shouldn’t affect your sleep there. You shouldn’t be sleeping at work,” said Desjardins, to a round of laughter.
Wilkinson countered the reason the Green Energy Act took away control over the siting of renewable energy installations from municipal governments was because the Environment Ministry wanted to ensure uniform setback regulations were being followed. He argued the setbacks chosen for the legislation are the furthest in North America, and the ministry is diligent in enforcing its decibel-level limitations for turbine projects.
“And the reason I continue to support (the development of wind farms) is that the medical community has told us repeatedly . . . how important it is for us to replace our addiction to dirty coal.”
Conservative candidate Randy Pettapiece told the audience “wind and solar (generation) should be part of the mix,” but called for a moratorium on large-scale wind farms until further research can be completed into their health effects. He added any diversification of the province’s energy grid “has got to be affordable, and that’s just not happening.”
Among the prepared questions, other topics were tackled – although not necessarily completely understood by all of the candidates.
A questions about payments for “ecological goods and services” – environmentally-friendly practices undertaken by farmers and rural landowners – was handled well by everyone. As Environment Minister, Wilkinson has obviously thought about the topic; as a farmer, the same can be said for DeVries.
Desjardins had attended a workshop about the topic recently; Papenburg said the New Democrats pledge to spend $10 million over three years to help farmers accurately attach monetary values to the practices they use.
And Pettapiece called for “fair and reasonable compensation for farmers whose land is set aside” to preserve the environment.
Only Smink strayed from the widespread support of the concept, arguing “it sounds like you’re asking for more government control” before suggesting payment for such practices should be left to the private sector.
A question about the extra-judicial powers of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA), meanwhile, had Papenburg and Desjardins criticizing the practices of large-scale, specialized, confinement-style livestock farms. Both candidates seemed unaware that recent farm-country controversy about the OSPCA has revolved, instead, around an entirely different type of farm: small-scale operations, generally with a mix of animals at one location.
Pettapiece argued that “these organizations have the power to go onto your property without a warrant, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
DeVries said the Family Coalition Party would examine all government-supported boards and agencies with an aim to get rid of needless or ineffective expenses.
“The cost to the taxpayer for (the OSPCA) to fight innocent people is exorbitant.”
Even Wilkinson seemed to question the status quo, suggesting the agriculture sector-supported Ontario Farm Animal Council should be handed the authority to enforce animal welfare on farms instead of the OSPCA.
Among the questions from the audience – which numbered about 150 – topics included ongoing funding for children’s mental health and ways to increase the province’s consumption of Ontario-grown food.