Ontario PC leadership rivals take gloves off in final debate

All four candidates who want to lead the Ontario Progressive Conservative party are showing some fire, with voting in the race about to begin and Patrick Brown out of the picture.

Old friends Doug Ford, Christine Elliott engage in one of the nastiest exchanges

One political science professor noted that during the leadership campaign, there was little ideological distance among the candidates. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

All four candidates who want to lead the Ontario Progressive Conservative party are showing some fire, with voting in the race about to begin and Patrick Brown out of the picture.   

Doug Ford went after Christine Elliott in one of the nastiest exchanges of Wednesday night's leadership debate in Ottawa, while Caroline Mulroney finally put up a fight when Ford accused her of being a parachute candidate. Tanya Granic Allen, for her part, lambasted everyone else for failing to stand up to Brown during his reign as PC leader. 

Now that Brown is no longer hogging the spotlight, it seems the four leadership rivals felt free to unleash their pent-up animosity toward each other. Party members start voting Friday, which no doubt made the candidates sharply aware that they needed to give it their all, because it's crunch time. 

Those factors, plus a format that allowed the candidates to actually interact, generated several snippy exchanges in the 90-minute debate. It also laid bare some sharp rifts among the PCs. 

Ford vs. Elliott

Ford and Elliott are longtime friends, which made his attack on her particularly noteworthy. Ford tried to exploit one of Elliott's perceived weaknesses, that she is a flip-flopper.

'I am very proud to have served as patient ombudsman. and I don't have anything to apologize to you for,' said Christine Elliott in response to criticism from Doug Ford. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"Are [voters] going to get the Christine that was for sex ed? Or are they going to get the Christine that's against sex ed?," Ford asked. "Are they going to get the Christine that was maybe for the carbon tax? Or the Christine that's maybe against the carbon tax?"

Then Ford really twisted the knife, slamming Elliott for her tenure as Ontario's patient ombudsman. 

"Are they going to get the Christine that wants to replace Kathleen Wynne? Or are we going to get the Christine that took a $220,000 job, a political appointment, from Kathleen Wynne?"

Elliott was having none of it 

"Don't make up stories, Doug. Come on," she shot back. 

"I was chosen for this job out of an independent panel of people not associated with the government," Elliott continued. "I am very proud to have served as patient ombudsman, and I don't have anything to apologize to you for."

Granic Allen vs. Elliott

During the first debate, the other three candidates let Granic Allen steal the show virtually unchallenged, likely because they don't want to alienate her supporters: if she is knocked out early, her supporters' second choice on the ranked ballot could prove crucial to the final result. 

 This time, Elliott refused to let Granic Allen get away with one of her maverick proposals. 

Ontario PC leadership candidate Tanya Granic Allen during a debate in Ottawa on Feb. 28. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"I pledge that if I'm leader, I'm going to take those wind turbines and I'm going to rip them right out of the ground," she declared. 

Elliott struck a more moderate note, likely recalling that cancelling a couple of gas-fired power plants cost about $1 billion.

"You can't just rip wind turbines out of the ground," she said. Wind power generators "have contracts that they expect are going to be honoured. We cannot rip up contracts. How are we ever going to get people to invest in Ontario if we don't respect contracts?" 

Mulroney vs. Ford 

Mulroney was having little noticeable impact on the debate until suddenly finding her mojo during the last few minutes. It was prompted by Ford's claim that he witnessed "ballot stuffing" during the party nomination meeting in Scarborough Centre. 

"I am disturbed to hear, Doug, that you attended nominations and saw ballot stuffing and didn't do anything about it," said Mulroney.

Ontario PC leadership candidate Caroline Mulroney appeared to have her strongest moments near the end of the debate, but left abruptly in the subsequent question-and-answer session with reporters. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"Oh no no, hold on, Caroline," shot back Ford, before challenging Mulroney over her acclamation as the PC candidate in the longtime Tory riding of York-Simcoe. 

"I find it pretty rich for you to say this, a person that got parachuted into your area, no competition," he said to cheers from his supporters. "Maybe we should reopen your nomination and get more competitors in there."

"A month ago you wanted to be mayor of the City of Toronto," snapped Mulroney. "When you found out this job was available, you decided that this is what you wanted to do." 

Ford promises to save money without cutting jobs

The question-and-answer session with reporters that followed the debate also provided a couple of revealing moments.

During the debate, Ford repeated his claim that he had helped save $1 billion from the Toronto city budget when his brother Rob was mayor. This time, he also claimed it was accomplished without cutting any jobs. 

So I asked Ford if he thinks he can do the same at the province. 

"I don't believe we need to cut any jobs," Ford said. "I don't believe in taking food off people's table. We're going to find efficiencies and that's how we're going to save the money." 

'I don't believe we need to cut any jobs' to save money in the provincial budget, says Ontario PC leadership candidate Doug Ford. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Given that the bulk of the provincial budget is spent on salaries, I asked, "How do you save money without cutting any jobs? I don't get it."   

"I know, because you've never done it before. I have. That's the difference,"  Ford said. "Next question?"

A different line of questioning appeared to unsettle Mulroney. A reporter for CFRA radio asked whether her children go to public or private school. (It's a simple and fair question, given that Mulroney wants to be premier and will preside over a $20 billion public education budget. Mulroney also opens herself up to such scrutiny because of how often she and her backers choose to mention that she is a mother raising four children.) 

"It's a choice that my husband and I have made to send them to the schools that we've decided," Mulroney responded.

"But are they in public or private schools? That was the question," the Ottawa Citizen's David Reevely pressed.

"They're in private schools," said Mulroney. 

When he asked why, she replied: "We made the best choice that we could for our family and that's all I'll say about that."

As Reevely started asking another question, on a different topic, Mulroney said,"Thank you very much," turned on her heel, and walked away. 


Mike Crawley

Provincial affairs reporter

Mike Crawley is a senior reporter for CBC News, covering provincial affairs in Ontario. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. He was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.


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