Verbal sparring at first Liberal leadership debate

There were several heated exchanges at the first debate of the Liberal leadership election — and candidate Cathy Bennett's pro-Muskrat Falls stance was the front-and-centre topic.

The five candidates vying for the party's top job debated publicly Thursday night

The five candidates, Paul Antle, Dwight Ball, Cathy Bennett, Danny Dumaresque and Jim Bennett participated in the first Liberal leadership debate on Thursday night. (CBC)

There were several heated exchanges at the first debate of the Liberal leadership election on Thursday night in Gander with candidate Cathy Bennett's open support of the Muskrat Falls Hydro project as the front-and-centre topic.

The five candidates; Paul Antle, Dwight Ball, Cathy Bennett, Jim Bennett and Danny Dumaresque, met publicly to debate issues in front of an audience at the Arts and Culture Centre.

The evening started out on a convivial note, but it wasn't long before Antle set his sights on Cathy Bennett and started firing rounds about her support of the controversial Muskrat Falls project.

At one point in the proceedings, Antle and Ball spoke over Bennett, making it difficult to understand exactly what she was saying.

Bennett was pleading her case for the $7.7 billion hydroelectric project. After several interruptions, she asked, "Mr. Antle, are you going to let me explain the business case to you?"

"I think I have a right to know what's going on with the tax dollars in this province, so everyone can understand whether this is a good decision — unbelievable," Antle shot back. 

The pot shots didn't end there.

Dumaresque also took aim at Cathy Bennett.

"We have misplaced priorities, Ms. Bennett, and the misplaced priority in this province is that we have taken all of our cash and put it into a sink hole called Muskrat Falls … and we haven't got the money to do anything," said Dumaresque. 

Cathy Bennett is listed as a supporter of the Muskrat Falls project on the "I Believe in the Power of N.L." website while the Liberals have been critical of the project.

The hydro project wasn't the only issue discussed, however. The candidates also spent time debating education, health care, the fishery, seniors' issues and tourism. 

The date for the next debate is yet to be decided.

The party will select its new leader in November.