Norm Sterling is the longest-sitting member of the PC caucus, and sees no reason he shouldn't be elected to a seventh term based on the Tory record over the last four years.
Liberal candidate Dwight Eastman and NDP hopeful Shanone Sansome will challenge that assessment by the PC Minister of the Environment in Lanark-Carleton, a redistributed riding that combines the high-tech world of Kanata with a traditional Tory rural stronghold.
Sansone, a registered nurse from Smiths Falls for 34 years, will be attacking what she has called "horrendous changes" in the nursing profession that have subjected patients to assembly-line care.
But Sterling responds that changes implemented by the Harris government have actually strengthened health care, particularly in rural Ontario.
"Everybody realises it is a continuing problem to finance the health care system, with the increasing sophistication of treatments and high technology," Sterling told The Agrinews. "I think we've done a very responsible job. The previous government shut down 80,000 beds, but didn't do anything about the empty space."
Sterling said the rationalisation of resources had led to better vital care and fairer access across the province, citing as example the addition of a dialysis machine in Smiths Falls
"Now 72 of 90 hospitals in Ontario have 24-hour emergency service," he said. "The rural policy for hospitals has been well-accepted, and we have done a good job planning for an aging population and long term care."
Eastman, a farmer and councillor for the Township of West Carleton Council since 1991, takes issue with that assessment, calling cuts to health care "too much, too fast."
"They have closed 45 hospitals so far," Eastman said. "They are talking about building cancer clinics, but in 1995 they cancelled two such clinics planned by the NDP. They spent $400 million firing nurses with severance packages, now they are going to spend $375 million getting them back."
Eastman also takes issue with PC cuts in education, a problem exacerbated in a riding that combines a rural and urban population, something Eastman says never really works and has led to chaos in the education system.
"We can't build any new schools until all schools are filled to capacity. In the urban core some schools have 45-55 per cent capacity , while we are bursting at the seams in Lanark," he said. "Our children spend half their school life in portable classrooms; we are holding our children to ransom."
Sterling counters that the Harris government has tried to equalize opportunity. "Actually, rural schools get a bigger piece of the pie with the same funding now in rural and city schools," he said.
And Sterling is quick to defend tax cuts, "We are sticking to our initial five-year plan. Those who say tax cuts take money out of the commnunity are saying they want to create fewer jobs. Dalton McGuinty says no tax cuts for three years. But tax cuts create jobs."
Tax cuts are particularly important in Kanata to prevent a brain drain where high tech skills are very transferrable, he said. Losses in Kanata would also be felt in rural communities like Almonte and Carleton Place.
Eastman says he is in favor of tax cuts, but "every cent of tax cuts was borrowed money, creating an additional $22 billion in debt."
"The Conservatives have simply downloaded services to the municipalities," he said.
Eastman has spearheaded a rural alliance for one-tier government including Osgoode, Rideau, Goulbourne and West Carleton, with a combined population of 60,000, that he says would get them out of the regional level of government and save taxpayers money.
"We can not only do it, we can do it a lot cheaper," he said, quoting a BDO Dunwoody study that said the same services could be be provided with a $300 to $600 saving per household.
Eastman also attacked a Tory agriculture policy that he says has taken $70 million out of agriculture. "When is the last time anyone has ever seen an Ag rep in the field. They are all buried under paper," he said.
But Sterling says the Conservative government has done a good job for farmers.
"I am proud of our response to the agriculture community. We came up with 40 million in aid to hog farmers; we reacted quickly to the ice storm, some even had cheques before repairs had taken place."
"Spending in 1995 on Agriculture was $263 million. It is $365 million this year. I have not heard any complaints about spending in rural community," Sterling said.