Liberal front-runner gets it from both sides during CBC leaders' debate

Dwight Ball stood in the middle during the CBC leaders' debate in St. John's Monday night, and he was attacked from both sides for much of the 90 minutes as Paul Davis and Earle McCurdy looked to rattle the Liberal front-runner.

Paul Davis, Earle McCurdy tear strips off Dwight Ball's diversification plan; Liberal leader refuses to buckle

David Cochrane moderates a 90-minute debate between Paul Davis, Dwight Ball and Earle McCurdy 1:30:01

Front-runner Dwight Ball fended off repeated attacks from both flanks Monday during the CBC leaders' debate in St. John's, with PC Leader Paul Davis and NDP Leader Earle McCurdy both trying to poke holes in the Liberal platform.

But Ball stood his ground during the 90-minute debate, which was carried live on CBC television, radio and streamed online at cbc.ca/nl.

Davis said the Liberal plan is full of "fairy tale promises" that cannot be implemented without tax increases or large-scale public sector layoffs, while McCurdy said it proves nothing more than the fact the Liberals know how to say "diversification" over and over.

"It's a fantasy plan," Davis said early in the 90-minute debate.

McCurdy said the Liberal hatchet is being "drawn across the stone" in preparation for massive layoffs, and asked, "will it be nurses, ambulance drivers, snowplow operators, doctors or teachers?"

In a scrum with reporters afterward, McCurdy compared the Liberal plan to a letter to Santa.

No surprise Ball in the crosshairs

The relentless onslaught against Ball came as no surprise, with the Liberals heavily favoured to win a large majority of the 40 seats up for grabs during the Nov. 30 provincial election.

Davis, who is fighting to hold onto his own seat, let alone his job as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, was clearly the most aggressive debater.

He didn't reference McCurdy or the NDP a single time during the evening, and continually railed against a proposal by the Liberals to trim $380 million in "government waste" over the next four years.

Paul Davis (left), Dwight Ball and Earle McCurdy (right) pose for photos prior to the start of the CBC leaders' debate in St. John's Monday night. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Davis compared the Liberal pledge to trying to grab fog, adding, "it's not affordable. It's not sustainable. It can't be created."

But Ball stood his ground, saying a Liberal government will generate millions in new revenue by diversifying the economy, something he charged the PCs failed to do during their 12 years in power.

He said the PC plan is to wait for oil prices to rebound.

"No people will lose their jobs," said Ball, with Davis chiming in with "it can't be done."

Lowering the jobless rate

The event was the last of a series of debates during the campaign to feature all three party leaders, and it was undoubtedly the liveliest.

It featured a wide range of topics, including contentious issues relating to the provision of health care. There was plenty of back-and-forth about how to address the need for more long-term care beds, the growing problems posed by mental illness and addictions, and how to rein in health spending, which accounts for more than 40 per cent of the provincial budget.

The debate started with a question about jobs and the economy, with both McCurdy and Ball saying they would like to see the unemployment rate, which now stands at 13-plus percent, drop into the single digits within four years.

When asked, Davis refused to give a projection, but added "our plan is clear."

And for the first time in any of the debates, the leaders engaged in a spirited discussion about the future of the fishery, an industry that has sustained the province since the very beginning.

Davis doesn't need a lecture

One of the feistiest exchanges occurred during a debate about creating safer communities. 

After Davis described the Liberal economic action plan as a fantasy, Ball shot back at Davis for the controversial decision last year to "take justice out of the justice department" by renaming it public safety.

That generated a forceful response from the PC leader.

"I don't need any lectures from Mr. Ball about ... the impacts that violence, addictions and mental health can have on our communities," Davis, a former police officer, said.

The debate ended with discussion about whether the leaders would support a move towards democratic reform of the election process, with all three suggesting they would be willing to re-evaluate the so-called first-past-the-post system.

Ball also suggested a strong female presence in his government if his party is elected, saying "many of them will join a Liberal cabinet."

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