Wynne, Horwath demand specifics from Ford about cuts during first leaders' debate

The leaders of Ontario's three main political parties squared off Monday evening in the first debate of an election campaign that hasn't officially begun, with PC Leader Doug Ford facing heavy questioning for specifics about his plan to find "efficiencies" in government and cut spending.

Monday's event was the first of 3 scheduled debates ahead of June 7 vote

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath pressed PC Leader Doug Ford for specifics about his plans to find 'efficiencies' in government spending. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The leaders of Ontario's three main political parties squared off Monday evening in the first debate of an election campaign that hasn't officially begun, with PC Leader Doug Ford facing heavy questioning for specifics about his plan to find "efficiencies" in government and cut spending.

Ford, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath all participated in the live debate in Toronto, which began at 6 p.m. and was broadcast on City.

It was the first of three debates for the leaders ahead of the June 7 election.

Both Horwath and Wynne jumped on Ford's claims that he would find billions in savings in government spending by demanding specifics about what jobs or services might be cut.

In her turn during a segment in which a leader could ask another leader a direct question, Horwath asked if Ford has plans to privatize parts of the health-care system, lay off nurses or close hospitals.

"That's not my vocabulary," Ford responded. "I believe in driving efficiencies and helping the taxpayers."

In the open debate that followed the question, Horwath asked Ford: "Why don't you have the guts to tell people what your cuts are going to look like? What is in store for the people of Ontario?"

In another portion of the debate, Horwath said Ford's "efficiencies actually are cuts and people will pay the price in different ways."​

Kathleen Wynne questions Doug Ford's comment police spending during debate. 0:24

In her own direct question, which she also directed to Ford, Wynne asked about whether he plans to cut teachers' or nurses' jobs.

"Why would you do that and do that in order to give the richest people in the province a tax cut?"

"That is disingenuous what you just said," Ford replied.

The PC leader did not offer many specifics about his plan to find efficiencies, except to say he would put money back in people's pockets and he would not lay anyone off. He has pledged to cut four per cent from the budget.

"We will create a government for the people," he said in his closing statement. "We will bring accountability, transparency and integrity back to the people of Ontario."

He did use the debate to say he would maintain the pledge by former leader Patrick Brown of some $5 billion toward regional transit in the Greater Toronto Area. He specifically mentioned "subways," "relief lines" and "two-way" GO Transit to Niagara Falls.

In the first debate of the Ontario Election, NDP leader Andrea Horwath points out Doug Ford and Kathleen Wynne's exchange. 0:54

PCs in comfortable lead

The campaign is expected to officially kick off later this week, but the polls in recent weeks have put the Progressive Conservatives in the lead.

According to CBC's updated Ontario Poll Tracker, which averages available polling data:

  • The PCs have 41.8 per cent support.
  • The Liberals have 26.2 per cent support.
  • The NDP have 25.5 per cent support.

During the debate, Wynne spent a lot of time defending her government's record against attacks from her opponents about high hydro rates and a hospital bed crunch.

In his direct question for Wynne, Ford accused the Liberal leader of caring for "your Liberal friends," and asked: "When did you lose your way?"

Wynne responded that Ontario's economic growth is outpacing other provinces, and unemployment has been its lowest in 20 years.

"This province is doing very, very well," she said. "I believe that government exists to do the things that people can't do themselves."

She said her government will continue with transit and other infrastructure projects, but will also move forward with a "care plan," as Wynne called it, promising more in mental health services and care for seniors.

It was the direct exchange between Ford and Wynne that made for the night's most uncomfortable moment. Before he asked Wynne his direct question, Ford fixed his gaze on her and said: "You got a nice smile on your face there."

Wynne replied: "So do you."

Ford then asked when the clock was to start on his exchange with Wynne and the moderator replied: "I'll start right now and that's about the friendliest moment we'll have."

Doug Ford compliments Kathleen Wynne's smile during debate. 0:22

For her part, Horwath sought to differentiate herself from Ford and Wynne, telling viewers they "don't have to choose between bad and worse" and repeated her pledges to broaden services for Ontarians while making life more affordable.

"We can have a government that makes sure our hospitals are there for people when they need them, our schools are in a good state of repair, that people can get the dental care and prescription drugs that they need," Horwath said.

"These are changes for the better."

The debate was driven by questions from audience members that were prepared in advance, but were unknown to the leaders. They covered a range of issues, including the practice of carding and de-escalation training for police; funding for autism treatment; transit; and drug use and rehabilitation.

Protest before leaders arrived

The evening's agenda got off to a fiery start as supporters of ousted PC candidate Tanya Granic Allen staged a protest outside. The small but vocal group held campaign signs with her name on them, standing across the road from Ford and Wynne supporters holding signs of their own.

Ford removed Granic Allen, a former candidate for the PC leadership, as the candidate from Mississauga Centre over the weekend, calling comments she made about certain groups "irresponsible" and inconsistent with party views.

Supporters of Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner were also on hand to lament his exclusion from the debate. They wore green tape over their mouths and staged a silent protest.

However, Schreiner was anything but silent, tweeting his answers to all the debate questions.

A Green Party supporter protests the omission of leader Mike Schreiner from the first televised Ontario leaders debate in Toronto on Monday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Missed the debate? Get caught up in our live blog from earlier in the evening below. Or click here.