Liberals, NDP target finance minister in CIJA debate

From left CIJA Toronto co-chair Joel Reitman, Bill Morneau, Joe Oliver, Hal Berman, and CIJA Toronto co-chair Berl Nadler CIJA PHOTO

TORONTO — A debate featuring representatives of the three major parties got a little feisty on Wednesday as the New Democratic Party and Liberal candidates took turns targeting Conservative Finance Minister Joe Oliver on issues of economic performance, anti-terrorism legislation and support for Israel. 

But Oliver gave as good as he got, questioning the Liberals’ past record of voting against Israel at the United Nations and pointing out the NDP had some “problematic” members running in the election.

The debate was sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and was held at The Warehouse Venue in Downsview Park. The debate was moderated by The CJN’s editor, Yoni Goldstein.

Both Liberal Bill Morneau, running in Toronto Centre, and NDPer Hal Berman, running in York Centre, took turns assailing the Conservative position that it uniquely supports Israel. Not so, Morneau and Berman said.

All the parties support Israel and the question of support should not become a divisive, partisan issue, Morneau said. 

“We all support Israel,” Berman agreed. Israel needs to understand that unless the Palestinians have a deal, there will be no peace. The NDP supports the peace process, he said, adding that “our country’s reputation sucks now” because of the policies pursued over the last 10 years.

Oliver got in a dig at Berman and the NDP’s position on Israel, saying, “You have some problematic members of your prospective caucus.”

Turning to the Tories’ position on the Middle East, Oliver cited the 2006 cut off of funds to the Palestinian Authority, the boycott of the UN’s Durban II anti-racism conference and the prime minister’s advocacy for Israel at a G8 meeting [in 2011 when the other countries proposed a resolution urging negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders]. 

He also referred to the Canadian voting record at the United Nations under the previous Liberal administration, in which Canada supported resolutions condemning the Jewish state. And he stated that former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin – who Morneau said had reversed the trend of votes against Israel – had laid a wreath on the grave of Yasser Arafat. (Pierre Pettigrew, the foreign minister under Martin, laid the wreath at Arafat’s grave in Ramallah, a few months after he attended his funeral.)

On the fight against ISIS, Oliver said the Canadian government is committed to continuing its participation in the coalition to degrade the Islamic State. He contrasted this position with that of his opponents, who he said want to run up the white flag of surrender.

Morneau said the Liberal position is to train local fighters to take on ISIS. “It’s not a retreat.”

Berman said the Conservative government had turned the country away from its traditional role as peacekeepers and into an aggressive country that drops bombs on civilians.

Both opposition spokesmen assailed the Tories’ proposed bill to address domestic terrorism. Berman said the Conservatives are presenting a false choice between security and fear, while Morneau said that for all the posturing on domestic security, the Conservatives were spending less on security agencies and federal prosecutors than before. That prompted an interjection from Oliver, who disputed Morneau’s contention.

Berman made the argument that “to have true security, we need to be respected… so people don’t hate us.”

There was a little drama in the Iran portion of the debate when Morneau asked Oliver for a yes or no answer to the question of whether Canada supported the P5+1 deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program. Despite Morneau’s repeated request for a yes or no answer, Oliver said only, “We acknowledge the efforts of the P5+1.”

Each of the candidates emphatically opposed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

In introducing a question on genetic discrimination, Goldstein noted Jews’ predisposition to diseases, such as cancer, that are linked to a person’s genetic makeup. There is concern that insurers might deny coverage to people with the gene and that employers would avoid hiring such people. That could lead some to avoid the kind of screening that would reveal possible illnesses, he said.

 Morneau said the Liberals had proposed a bill to prevent insurers from denying coverage or raising rates so high that people couldn’t realistically get coverage. Oliver said that if re-elected, the government would reintroduce legislation preventing such discrimination and Berman, said such legislation would be a No. 1 priority for a New Democratic government.

On the question of poverty, Goldstein noted that about 15 per cent of Jewish Canadians live below the poverty line. Berman said the NDP has a strategy to lift 10,000 seniors out of poverty over four years. It will lower the small business tax to create jobs, it will launch a $15 a day daycare program with 100,000 spots to better enable women to enter the work force and it will put millions of dollars into affordable housing.

Morneau said the Liberal plan is to grow the economy and lift people out of poverty. A Liberal government would invest in transportation, affordable housing and green technologies. It would lower eligibility for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and Old Age Security (OAS) programs to 65 from 67. And it would remove the Universal Child Care Benefit, which goes to millionaires as well as lower income Canadians, and replace it with the Canada Child Benefit, which will raise 315,000 children out of poverty.

Oliver said that under the Conservatives, more than one million low-income earners have been removed from the tax rolls, including 400,000 seniors. The Tories have increased the GIS more than in the last 25 years, and they have extended the Universal Child Care Benefit to four million families. He said more than 180,000 children have been lifted out of poverty because of government policies.