The Ontario leaders debate cut to the chase Tuesday night, with the NDP and Progressive Conservative leaders piling on Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne over the scandal that dogged her predecessor before all three turned their attention to their competing plans for the economy.
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A double-barrelled question about pensions and the $1 billion the provincial government paid out to cancel two controversial gas-powered electricity plants west of Toronto evolved into a three-way scrum about how the Liberals handled the issue, and Wynne's involvement in particular.
"You had a choice when you were going to sign off on those gas plant documents. You had a choice," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath admonished Wynne. "Why did you not choose to stand up for the people of Ontario and ensure that those documents weren't signed?"
PC Leader Tim Hudak waded in too. "You had a choice. You had an opportunity. You could have said no and saved us a billion dollars.... Why didn't you just say no?"
The direct questioning echoed one of the best-known moments in Canadian political debate: the 1984 federal election, when Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney lashed Liberal Prime Minister John Turner for supporting the patronage appointments of his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau with the line, "You had an option, sir. You could have said, 'I am not going to do it.' "
Wynne, who avoided the direct gaze of her opponents in the early stages of the debate and looked squarely at the camera instead, responded that the government made a mistake for which she has apologized — and for which she apologized again.
"I've said that the decisions weren't right," she said. "I did not direct all of the decisions, and I have said that they were wrong.... I acted to make changes that would ensure that that would not happen again."
Hudak's jobs promises scrutinized
The second chunk of the debate addressed electricity prices, before moving to a question about the merits of the PCs' pledge to create a million jobs in Ontario while simultaneously slashing 100,000 public-sector workers.
Hudak said provincial government's deficit is the single biggest impediment to job growth, which is why he would slash spending. "We need to balance the books," he said. "That's the biggest load we have on our backs that's holding back job creation.
Number of times key terms were mentioned in Tuesday night's debate:
- "Gas plant": 12
- "Tax": 19
- "Jobs": 28
Hudak suggested contracting out Go Transit bus drivers and eliminating "positions that we no longer need" at the Ontario Power Authority, which forecasts the province's electricity needs and contracts for new power plants, as well as at DriveClean, which ensures vehicles meet emissions standards.
The government could achieve the 100,000 public sector job cuts by simply not hiring to replace retiring workers, Hudak said. And for the second time in the debate, he committed to tough love for his own government if it didn't perform up to expectations.
Earlier in the evening, he said he would turf any cabinet minister who had administered during a scandal like eHealth or the gas plants; this time, he promised that if the million-job target wasn't reached — it's part of an eight-year plan — then he himself would resign as premier.
Speaking to viewers, Horwath said she understands people's worries about the PC platform.
"I know that you're concerned that a plan that somehow is going to bring a million jobs is also going to kick 100,000 families to the curb. That's not what we need in Ontario," she said.
Wynne said the million-job promise "is based on a flawed premise that no economists have agreed to."
She emphasized staying the economic course the Liberals have plotted since the 2008-09 recession: keeping program-spending the "leanest per capita" of any provincial government in the country, while not shying away from current tax levels because "taxes are the price of looking after each other."
The Liberal platform also calls for $2.5 billion over 10 years for grants to corporations, in a bid to draw businesses to the province. Both Horwath and Hudak said that, as premier, they would swear off handing out large amounts of money to private enterprise.
Wynne countered that the private sector wants to partner with government to upgrade technologies and expand facilities. "He would not have worked with the auto sector and supported the auto sector at the time when it was going through a crisis," she said of Hudak. "He would have walked away from the auto sector."
Transit: NDP vows no new tolls
When the debate turned to a question about transportation, Horwath restated her party's longstanding pledge to make driving more affordable for middle-class families by bringing auto insurance rates down by 15 per cent and eschewing any new road tolls or car taxes.
"I've listened to what drivers have said about how unaffordable it is to drive in this province," she said, before attacking Wynne for approving a new express train from downtown Toronto to the city's airport that's powered by diesel fuel. "The Liberals are putting a dirty diesel train right through downtown neighbourhoods. It makes no sense whatsoever."
Wynne responded that the train had to be built quickly, in time for the 2015 Pan Am Games in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, and that it will eventually be converted to run on electricity.
All three leaders clashed over how best to spend money on transportation infrastructure, with Wynne pushing her party's agenda of light rail in Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa, and Hudak calling for more subway stops in Toronto, including an expansion north of the city to Richmond Hill.
Party supporters rally outside debate
As the leaders debated in CBC's Studio 40, moderated by TVO's Steve Paikin, supporters of all three major provincial parties rallied outside the downtown Toronto building.
A youthful crowd of Liberal backers, decked out in red shirts and toting election signs, chanted "four more years." In a line directly across from them, a throng of blue-clad Progressive Conservatives yelled "Dalton, Dalton" — an apparent attempt to link Wynne to her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, and the scandals that emerged under his premiership.
Next to them, a group of NDP supporters danced to the rhythms of a Brazilian percussion band.
Tuesday night's debate format had six main questions — drawn from more than a thousand submitted by the public — put to the party leaders. They addressed the questions in a mix of one-on-one interchanges and three-way free-for-alls, on a spartan but lofty set.
Following the debate, party leaders scrummed with reporters outside the TV studio. Asked whether she was nervous in her first leaders debate, Wynne said it's up to "the people of Ontario" to decide how she fared.
"I had never done this before. I actually quite enjoyed it."
While the current campaign has seen the front-runners seesaw for the lead in polls over the last four weeks, there's no guarantee that a strong debate performance will catapult any one party to a clear advantage come election day.
And even if one of the party leaders emerges as a consensus winner, there's no guarantee that will translate into votes. Horwath was seen as having the momentum in a snap post-debate poll in 2011. It wasn't enough to propel her party past third place in the legislature, however.