Wynne, Horwath press Ford for details on his plan at last leaders' debate before election
Wynne painted NDP as too radical for Ontario, while Ford dodges platform questions
Kathleen Wynne tried to position herself firmly in the political centre while Andrea Horwath and Doug Ford both tried to secure the frontrunner's role at the last leaders debate before the June 7 Ontario election.
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The 90-minute debate in downtown Toronto was punctuated by lively exchanges on hydro rates, health care and declining trust among voters in politicians. The first part of the dialogue included questions that were chosen by a panel of broadcasters, while the second part was based on audience questions curated by the moderators.
The event started with an attention-grabbing opening statement from Wynne: "Sorry not sorry."
The phrase telegraphed her strategy through the debate, which included forceful defences of her government's record and attempts to paint her Liberals as a reasonable middle ground between the NDP and PCs.
"I'm genuinely sorry that more people don't like me. But I'm not sorry for the things we're doing to make life better in Ontario," Wynne said.
"Leadership is about finding the fairest way forward for the largest number of people. It's not a slogan," Wynne said, adding that the NDP is "tied by ideology" and the PCs have "no coherent plan."
Wynne also used her question in a leader-to-leader section of the debate to challenge Horwath, who said she couldn't imagine a scenario in which she would use back-to-work legislation — as the Liberal government did to end a five-week strike by college faculty last year.
"I know that you are beholden to the unions on this," Wynne told Horwath.
"Oh Kathleen, wow. That's really sad," Horwath replied.
Both the Liberal leader and Horwath quickly moved to point out that Ford, the PC leader, is the only one among them that has not released a fully costed platform with 11 days to go until election day.
"You wouldn't buy a used car without looking under the hood. Why should anybody buy your plan without seeing it?" Horwath asked.
"What does it look like to have a Ford government in Ontario? I don't think you are being honest with folks about that," she added.
Horwath, anxious to separate herself from both her rivals, frequently interrupted Ford and Wynne throughout the night.
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On the campaign trail, questions about funding Ford's pledges have largely been met with vague promises of finding "efficiencies." The Liberals and NDP say that just means cuts to public services, but Ford has said his efficiencies wouldn't result in a single job loss.
Ford fired back at Horwath during the exchange, saying that each of her campaign's announcements have come with an estimated price tag attached.
"This comes down to who you trust with your money. The NDP made a mistake of $7 billion in their budget. The NDP can't do math, and the Liberals are cooking the books. There is one person who has a proven track record. We keep our promises," Ford said.
On the campaign trail and during the debate, Horwath has admitted to an error that led the NDP to understate its projected budgets by about $1.4 billion per year.
"I think if you had a plan you would share it with the people of Ontario," Wynne then said to Ford, adding that he has failed to put forth a coherent vision.
Later, as Ford criticized the state of the province's health care system under the Liberal government, he said he would consult with front line health care workers to fix the problems.
"We're going to make sure that we listen to the front-line doctors and the nurses," he said.
"You know what Doug, you could have had those conversations then you could have had a platform ready," Wynne interjected.
"The fact is, that's actually how you write policy. That's how you develop a platform and policy, you talk to the people in the field."
Stakes high as election day looms
The high stakes parley comes at an important crossroads in what has proven to be a volatile campaign. A lot has changed since the trio last met face-to-face. Less than two weeks from election day, some polls suggest that a considerable PC lead has all but evaporated. The NDP are closing the gap, while the Liberals may be facing political disaster.
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The NDP is currently enjoying what one pollster described as an unprecedented upswing in public support. While the PC base remains motivated, in pockets across the province ridings once considered locks are back in contention.
The evolving situation has pitted the New Democrats firmly against the Tories, a dynamic that was on display throughout the night as Horwath and Ford focused their attacks mainly on one another.
"Your plan would annihilate the middle class. Your plan would bankrupt the middle class," Ford said of NDP promises to boost spending on various social services.
Testy exchange on hydro rates
One particularly testy exchange of the night came after an audience question centred on affordability and hydro rates. The province's steep hydro prices have been a constant point of emphasis on the campaign trail so far.
Wynne, in keeping with her theme of defiantly defending her government's record, was visibly agitated as she fended off attacks from both Horwath and Ford about the Liberals' sale of part of Ontario's troubled utility, Hydro One.
"You know what Andrea? you want people to believe that we sold Niagara Falls and we did not. We did not do that. You want people to believe we sold the water, and we did not. We sold a piece of a piece of a piece. And we sold that in order to build roads and bridges," Wynne said.
When one of the moderators tried to intervene, Wynne insisted that she finish her statement.
"Every dollar coming from the broadening of the interest in Hydro One is going to infrastructure," she continued in response to a comment from Horwath that revenue from the sale has been left unused in a trust.
With files from The Canadian Press