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Saskatchewan’s NDP Leader Ryan Meili, left, and Saskatchewan Party Leader Scott Moe took part in a debate on Oct. 14, 2020.The Canadian Press

Party leaders in Saskatchewan stuck to their talking points in a largely civil election debate Wednesday night that was free of major fireworks and focused on the COVID-19 crisis and spending.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili accused the incumbent premier, Saskatchewan Party Leader Scott Moe, of having a hidden austerity agenda as the two parties campaign toward the Oct. 26 vote.

Meili said now is the time for the province to invest in health care, smaller class sizes and infrastructure that will get people back to work.

Moe warned that reckless spending by the NDP would harm the province’s economic recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said the Saskatchewan Party has an economic plan that would make life more affordable for families with cuts to power bills and home renovation tax credits – all while balancing the budget by 2024.

Moe told reporters after the televised debate that the plan does not include austerity.

“There are going to be no mass cuts across government. There’s going to be no sales of the Crowns (Crown corporations). There’s going to be no tax increases.”

Meanwhile, Moe accused the NDP of having no specific timeline to get out of the red.

“We are going to balance the budget as soon as we are able, but we’re not going to do it in a way that is going to hurt families,” Meili responded during the debate.

“People across the province, they want to see wise fiscal management, but the deficits that the people that I am talking to are the most concerned about are the deficits in our schools, the deficits in our hospitals and the deficits in the bank accounts of ordinary families.”

Moe recalled the financial record of the New Democrats when the party was in power in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“This is the NDP record of not balancing the budget in Saskatchewan,” Moe said.

“Mr. Moe, have you ever balanced a budget?” Meili interjected, a shot at the Saskatchewan Party government’s long string of deficits.

Moe also accused the NDP of planning to finance its investments on the backs of taxpayers.

“We will not raise taxes for ordinary families by a single cent,” Meili responded.

“The only increase that we are committed to is asking those very few families – those folks with over $15 million free and clear in assets – to pay a little bit more right now.”

Moe said the NDP numbers don’t add up.

“You are accounting, with your tax increase, for one per cent – one per cent – of your deficit spending that you have put forward. Where is the other 99 per cent going to come from?” Moe asked.

“It’s going to come from you,” he said turning to the camera, before Meili could respond.

Meili also tried to score points on the topic of youth suicide, criticizing Moe for not meeting with an Indigenous protester who set up a teepee camp on the lawn in front of the legislature earlier this year. Tristen Durocher fasted for 44 days in an effort to convince the government to legislate a suicide prevention strategy.

Moe countered that he sent two minister to meet with Durocher, even as the province was taking the young man to court to have his teepee removed. The government ended up losing the court case.

“Instead of meeting him, Mr. Moe, you sent two of your ministers across the road to basically say get off my lawn. What kind of a message do you think that sends?” Meili said.

“Words will not get us reconciliation. It takes action.”

Moe said working to recover the economy from the pandemic would bolster the forestry industry and create jobs for First Nations people.

On COVID-19, Meili criticized Moe for not calling out anti-maskers, but stopped short of promising to bring in a mandatory masking policy if the NDP comes into power.

The debate was a first for Moe and Meili, who both won their party leadership contests two years ago.

Moe, who moved into the premier’s office when Brad Wall retired from politics in 2018, has recently faced tough questions on the campaign trail about his past.

He apologized to the family of a woman killed in a car crash that he caused in 1997, and he disclosed an impaired driving charge from 1994 that was stayed.

Meili told reporters he chose not to drag Moe’s past into the debate. He said his goal was to focus on communicating the NDP’s vision to voters as they face uncertainty during the pandemic.

“That’s what I think is on the minds of Saskatchewan people right now.”

This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.