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Premier Robert Ghiz participates in a leaders' debate for the Prince Edward Island provincial election in Charlottetown on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS / Andrew Vaughan)
Premier Robert Ghiz participates in a leaders' debate for the Prince Edward Island provincial election in Charlottetown on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS / Andrew Vaughan)

PEI Premier tells debate audience he welcomes immigration investigation Add to ...

Premier Robert Ghiz of Prince Edward Island says he welcomes any investigation of the province’s immigration nominee program, which has emerged as an election campaign controversy after a former government employee alleged it was marred by bribery.

During the provincial election campaign’s only televised debate Thursday night, the Liberal leader took the opportunity to defend the program, saying it benefited the entire province.

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“We made sure that any program that we offered, we offered it equally across Prince Edward Island,” Mr. Ghiz said.

“We believe in helping each and every Islander regardless of what their political beliefs are.”

Mr. Ghiz has found himself on the defence since a former employee of the immigration program alleged last week that senior provincial officials were paid bribes in order to expedite applications.

Conservative Leader Olive Crane said Mr. Ghiz’s handling of the program, which was suspended by Ottawa in 2008, illustrated poor leadership.

“You let Islanders down,” Ms. Crane said. “You’re a disgrace on the (immigration nominee) program and my government will restore integrity once again.”

Ms. Crane alleged that members of Mr. Ghiz’s family benefited from the program – an accusation Mr. Ghiz angrily denied.

“My family did not benefit whatsoever,” he said. “Why individuals choose to slander my family is beyond me and I think it’s very dirty politics.”

The RCMP are now considering whether to proceed with an investigation after Svetlana Tenetko alleged she saw some senior provincial officials accept cash that she believes were intended to fast-track immigration applications from China.

The Liberal party has denounced the accusations as unfounded, saying they were orchestrated by the Tories – a claim Ms. Crane denies.

Hours after Ms. Tenetko went public with her allegations, the Liberals released two e-mails she sent to a cabinet minister.

In one of the e-mails, Ms. Tenetko said she would go to federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenny and The Globe and Mail if she did not get another job with the government after her contract was not renewed.

“I would welcome an interview to further discuss job opportunity and hope to hear from you soon at your earliest convenience,” said the e-mail dated Dec. 7, 2010.

“If I get a negative answer, I will go to Ottawa to Minister Kenney and the Globe and Mail.”

Ms. Tenetko has filed a complaint over the release of those e-mails with the province’s privacy commissioner, who is now investigating how they ended up with the Liberals.

Following the debate, Mr. Ghiz said he didn’t know who released the e-mails but is looking forward to the privacy commissioner’s findings.

“We’ll find out when the privacy commissioner looks at it,” he said.

The immigration nominee program was a federal-provincial initiative in which the province nominated people for immigration to Canada in exchange for an investment of $200,000 in a local business.

Immigrants were to pay a $25,000 deposit that would be returned after living in the province for one year.

The nearly 90-minute debate, held at the University of Prince Edward Island and hosted by the Charlottetown Guardian and EastLink, was at times raucous. The crowd – some of whom loudly expressed their partisanship – sometimes booed and heckled, drowning out the five party leaders who participated.

“I thought the wild cheering from the audience was a major distraction and diminished the import of the debate,” Peter McKenna, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, said in an e-mail.

“In the end, I highly doubt that this debate is going to alter anyone's voting preference on Oct. 3. So in terms of the election outcome itself, it was generally inconsequential.”

The economy, health and education were also discussed at the event, which included NDP Leader James Rodd, Green Leader Sharon Labchuk and Billy Cann, leader of the Island Party.

The vote is set for Oct. 3.

At dissolution, there were 24 Liberals, two Conservatives and one vacant seat in the legislature.

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