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Rural broadband, attracting labour force among priorities for Perth-Wellington MP John Nater

Perth-Wellington MP John Nater, who was re-elected to a second term in office on Oct. 21, was back to work the next morning at his Stratford office. Office of John Nater/Twitter Photo

PERTH-WELLINGTON – Conservative John Nater was overwhelmingly re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Perth-Wellington on Oct. 21, receiving 46.4 per cent of the vote, nearly double that of runner-up Pirie Mitchell of the Liberal Party.

On Oct. 25, Nater sat down with the Plus to talk about a number of topics, including the campaign, his thoughts on the performance of the Conservative Party in the election, the Liberal minority government, and his priorities for the next four years in Ottawa.

MW: In 2015, we sat down for the first time when I was a rookie reporter and you were fresh off being elected MP for the first time. It’s hard to believe that four years have gone by already. 

JN: It really is. It’s amazing how fast times flies. I’ve been gauging time with all of this by the age of my kids. They grow up so fast. I was just looking at pictures (on Thursday) of election night four years ago and Ainsley was a 14-month-old. Now she’s five and in kindergarten. That’s how I judge time now.

MW: Looking back at the first term, what are your thoughts about the past four years in office.

JN: It’s been an incredible experience for the past four years. It’s been such an honour to serve in the House of Commons, to meet with people in every corner of Perth-Wellington, to attend events and to hear people’s concerns and to try and take action on those concerns. What I think I am proudest of is the service that my staff and I have tried to provide to people on a one-to-one basis. We have people who come into our office on a daily basis who have incredible struggles and challenges with the federal government. To be able to help them out on a one-to-one basis and resolve their concerns and the challenges they have encountered, I think that’s probably what I am most proud of. 

MW: How does it feel to be re-elected for a second term as the Member of Parliament for Perth-Wellington?

JN: It’s an incredibly humbling experience, and also a great honour. To see my margin increase, both in terms of number of votes (25,504, up from 22,255 in 2015) and percentage (46.4 per cent, up from 43 per cent in 2015), it’s an honour and hopefully a reflection of the work my staff and I have tried to put in over the past years serving the people of the community. 

MW: After the long campaign – short if you compare it to our neighbours to the south – how have you spent the past week since election night?

JN: The first morning after the election I was back in the office getting caught up on a lot of things that were piling up on my desk over the last few weeks. My first order of business was drafting a letter to the Prime Minister (Justin Trudeau) stating and outlining some of the concerns I heard from the people of Perth-Wellington while knocking on doors, at all-candidates debates, and bringing those issues to his attention and outlining my priorities for the people of Perth-Wellington over the next four years.

MW: I don’t think people understand the stress that a campaign puts on a candidate. Now that the election is over, has your stress level dropped?

It can be an incredibly stressful time. For me, the most challenging thing was the impact that the campaign had on my family. Having a young family, a wife and three young kids, how it affected them more than anything. Now that it’s over, I can actually see the relief with my wife and my kids, being able to be home for supper more often than I was over the last six weeks. I think it’s been more of a relief for them than me. I think my kids are happy that dad is back a little bit more in their lives. 

MW: What are your thoughts on the overall result of election night, with the Liberals winning a minority government? 

JN: The people are always right. When it’s an election, we always accept the outcome that the voters have decided on. They saw fit to elect a minority parliament, so I think it’s incumbent on us as politicians to try and make that work. I don’t think anyone wants to see us back on the election trail in the very short term. It’s going to be a challenge to make this parliament work, but it’s also necessary for us to find compromises where we can. It’s now up to us to make it work.

MW: What do you make of the showing of the Conservative Party, gaining 22 seats in Parliament?

JN: It’s not what we were hoping for, but it’s still nice to see an increase. We did win the popular vote across the country – we received more votes than any other party – but obviously we fell short and need to reflect on why that was and what types of policies we need to be looking at to address the needs of Canadians. 

MW: What are some of the priorities for you this term?

JN: Some of my general priorities are focusing on rural infrastructure – roads, bridges, water/wastewater, rural broadband internet – working with municipalities on those types of issues. There are specific projects in each community that I will be advocating for and working on their behalf as well. 

One of the more specific things I am looking forward to doing is reintroducing my private members bill that died on the order paper of the previous parliament. It’s a private member’s bill to better protect young people and people living with disabilities from exploitation. That’s something I am looking forward to and hopefully seeing that come to pass during the upcoming parliament. 

MW: What are some of those local issues that you are going to advocate for? Let’s start with North Perth.

JN: Rural broadband, first and foremost. North Perth still has way too many pockets where you cannot access high speed Internet. There have been programs in the past that have been proposed to address some of those needs, but the funding never rolled out. I know of at least three projects that are in the hopper that haven’t been approved. So, pushing those (projects) to get approved and out the door. One of the biggest challenges you see with rural broadband is that the business case can be made for (installing fibre optic Internet) in the small hamlets and the villages, or even the larger hamlets and villages, but it’s the challenge of actually getting the fibre to those places. That’s where I would like to see the shift made in terms of federal funding so we can fund that portion – getting the fibre to these communities – and down the road getting it down the rural concessions as well. 

On the infrastructure side of things, I’ve heard at basically every rural all-candidates debate was the condition of roads and bridges, and the challenges of having a strong agricultural community when we don’t have the funding to go along with keeping roads up to standard. We have multi-hundred-thousand-dollar equipment going over them, and we need the roads and infrastructure to handle that. I’m going to be working with Mayor (Todd) Kasenberg and council to advocate for funding for those specific projects.

One of my general principles is that the federal government shouldn’t be telling municipalities what their priorities should be, it should be the municipalities focusing where they the greatest needs, and then advocating for those needs at the federal level.

MW: And what about northern Wellington County? I know one of the things that comes to mind immediately is attracting a labour force. Is that something you are going to work on finding a solution to?

JN: Absolutely. Northern Wellington and the northern part of Perth County, the challenges there with labour have been ongoing for the past few years, but they seem to be coming to a critical juncture, if you will. 

There are a few things I would like to see addressed there. 

First of all, the temporary foreign worker program. A number of local businesses are now relying on the temporary foreign worker program.  One of the misconceptions is that this is a way to get cheap labour. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The temporary foreign worker program is far more expensive than hiring locally. 

The challenge is that these businesses simply can’t fill these jobs, so they rely on this. 

What we need to see there, first of all, is a path to citizenship for people who come here, work hard, come here temporarily but are committed to working in the community and raising a family here. Second is reforming the labour market impact assessment that’s required for the temporary foreign worker program. In communities like Wellington North, Minto, North Perth where it is well established that there is a low unemployment rate, that these jobs cannot be filled, that there is some leeway and renewals that are given to the labour market impact assessment so that businesses aren’t constantly paying for applications and the workload that comes with those applications. 

The second thing is housing and transportation that comes with attracting a labour force. I think Wellington County, which has already established Ride Well, and Perth County is looking at Perth Rides, having those transportation options available to get people from one community to another… that’s absolutely essential. 

Currently, the federal government is not a partner on those programs; there’s provincial funding, not federal funding. I think we need to change the way the federal funding is handed out for transportation so that pilot projects like these are eligible because they are so necessary for the labour force. 

With housing, we need to work with municipalities so that there is federal funding for those attainable housing units that so many of these municipalities are eager to attract. So often when federal funding comes in, they are for larger, multi-unit complexes that don’t necessarily work in a smaller, rural community as well as they would in a larger urban centre. (I want) to shift the priority of the funding of those funding programs. 

MW: What are some of the other general goals for the upcoming term?

JN: One of the things we are hearing a lot of, especially from the agricultural community, are the challenges of market access internationally; the challenges with China, the challenges with the United States, and the kinds of programs we have domestically to address those challenges. First, we need to make sure we have market access for our agricultural products to literally feed the world. And secondly, when we have challenges, what are the programs we have in place to address those concerns? The risk management programs that are currently in place are not working as well as they should be. We saw challenges with that when we saw the trade issues, but we also saw the challenges of that last year with vomitoxin in the corn.

To link to that as well, just the rural issues generally. I think we need to have a concerted effort when we are creating policies and programs at the federal level that we have a rural lens and a rural viewpoint of how those are going to be implemented. Too often we see programs, whether it be housing, infrastructure, transportation, that may work well in the urban centres but when we apply those same programs to rural communities, communities either don’t qualify or they qualify in a way that makes it unfeasible to implement locally.