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Layton courts cash-strapped farmers, elbows Ignatieff on the HST

NDP Leader Jack Layton pointed to rising inflation numbers to remind Ontarians – and perhaps those listening in British Columbia – that other federal parties supported the harmonized sales tax that increased the cost of some essentials in this province like gasoline and home heating fuel.

"Families are really struggling as a result of these necessities going up in price so dramatically," Mr. Layton said Wednesday at a farm in southwest Ontario, where he was highlighting his party's proposals to help the agriculture industry.

"It certainly didn't help when Stephen Harper, with the help of Ignatieff, brought in the HST that made life more expensive for families," Mr. Layton said, referring to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. "So we would start by taking the HST off home heating, which is one of those basic costs which families have to deal with."

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Mr. Layton has liberally inserted the HST demon into speeches in both Ontario and B.C. but has been less eager to talk about it in Nova Scotia, where an NDP government raised the tax by 2 per cent. In the Nova Scotia case, he said, the province has come up with "innovative" ways of dealing with it, including ensuring that it does not apply to essentials like home heating.

Statistics Canada said this week that the annual inflation rate climbed in March to 3.3 per cent, up from 2.2 per cent a month earlier. The hike was attributed, in large part, to rising energy and food costs.

Mr. Layton said an NDP government would make sure that Canadians have somewhere to go when they see gas prices rise by creating an ombudsman "who would have some real power to take on some of these unfair increases and toughen up the resources and abilities of our competition bureau to go after these companies when they collude together to raise prices."

The New Democrats would also promote locally grown food, he said.

"One of the most important aspects of the costs of food is the distances that food today has to travel, which therefore involves an enormous amount of energy," Mr. Layton said. "So we are saying let's promote local food production – that's good for the local farmers, it's healthy for the people eating the food, it's good for our economy, and it can help keep prices down in the long term."

Mr. Layton was in rural Ontario to talk about agriculture and what his party would do to preserve the family farm.

A New Democratic government, he said, would enhance supports for producers and increase food safety as well as introducing strategies to help farmers cope with rising costs. Those would include steps to make risk-management programs more accessible and to tackle freight costs.

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Mr. Layton said he also wants help for young farmers through skills training and mentorship programs, and that he would end political interference at the Canadian Wheat Board.

"Years of neglect have made it harder to stay on the farm, harder to grow the food Canadians will put on their tables this Easter Weekend," the NDP Leader said.

In the past 30 years, Mr. Layton said, Canada has lost 80,000 farms. "We're losing a whole generation of young Canadian farmers. That's not good for farm communities. And it's not good for Canada."

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