Two of the three political party leaders vying for the premier's chair in Ontario squared off in a mild-mannered debate on northern issues Monday.
Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath answered questions from community leaders at the hour-long debate hosted at the Valhalla Inn in Thunder Bay. Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict as he attended an event in Peterborough.
Each candidate was given two minutes for opening and closing remarks as well as two minutes to respond to each question, posed by a small group comprised of two mayors, two chamber of commerce leaders and the deputy chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. The format provided little fodder for a heated debate, though each leader fired off criticism at the other parties.
Ms. Wynne kept her target on the absent Mr. Hudak, whom she has set as her main opponent throughout the campaign.
"Cutting 100,000 jobs from the economy – which is what Tim Hudak wants to do – will push us back, will actually slow our recovery and slow our ability to deal with our deficit," Ms. Wynne said when answering a question about eliminating the province's deficit. She spent little time taking digs at her opponent on stage.
Ms. Horwath, however, was equally critical of both the PC and Liberal leaders, posing her party as an alternative option and spending the two minutes for her closing remarks laying out a laundry list of controversies in the Liberal party's 10 years of running the Ontario government.
"[Your tax dollars] have been wasted on partisan advertising, CEO bonuses, billions wasted on corruption, incompetence: ORNG air ambulance, eHealth, the gas plants scandal," Ms. Horwath said, calling the Liberal party "corrupt" and the PC party's plan "nonsensical."
Ms. Wynne brushed off the notion that her party is corrupt, calling it "sad" that the NDP Leader would use such language when Ms. Wynne has endeavoured to answer all questions about the gas-plant scandal.
The debate was attended by 350 people who paid $45 a ticket to sit in on the lunchtime event.
Questions in the debate included inquiries about hydro bills, policing costs and municipal property taxes, but the biggest issue of the debate was developing the Ring of Fire area in northern Ontario. In her platform released Sunday in Thunder Bay, Ms. Wynne pledged to spend $1-billion to build a highway to spur industry in the remote area that contains large mineral deposits. During the debate, Ms. Horwath promised to spend $1-billion or more to ensure the area is developed quickly and properly. She accused the Liberal party of dropping the ball on the Ring of Fire by not making much progress over the last few years.
"It is obvious that the Ring of Fire is a great opportunity for Northern Ontario. It's an opportunity that sat waiting to be realized, though, while the Liberals have done nothing over the last number of years," Ms. Horwath said, referencing the decision from Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. to walk away from plans to open a chromite development project in the area.
"That is because there is no confidence in the Liberals to get it right in the Ring of Fire."
But the Liberal Leader touted her plan – which would see a development corporation with invested parties established within 60 days of re-election – and said her party has been laying the groundwork for development over the last few years.
"It is so important that I will not consider my premiership successful, if I'm privileged to be re-elected, unless we've been able to deliver on significant progress in the Ring of Fire," she said.
The debate also marked a first in Ontario politics: a leaders debate where two women held the podiums. Both Ms. Wynne and Ms. Horwath perked up at the mention of the milestone, saying they were proud to be able to take part and set a positive example for young women.
All three party leaders will take part in a general issues debate on June 3 in Toronto.
Mr. Hudak spent much of his day fielding questions on why he had not taken part in the debate.
At a press conference in Thornhill to discuss his proposed public sector wage freeze, he suggested he could not participate because of a scheduling problem.
"I had wished that the schedule had worked out," he said. "[Debate organizers] just didn't have the flexibility."
Asked if he would visit the North during the campaign – which he hasn't so far – he would not answer the question.
"I'll keep working hard and travelling with my message anywhere I can," he said.
Later in the day, PC campaign manager Ian Robertson held a conference call to attack Ms. Wynne's budget-balancing plans, but found himself again pressed for a more thorough explanation of Mr. Hudak's decision not to go to the debate.
"I'll let the Leader's comments stand on that," he said.
Asked if Mr. Hudak would visit the North at all, Mr. Robertson would not say, suggesting that to reveal anything about the campaign's travel plans would give an advantage to the Liberals.
"I would love to tell you but I also know a lot of Liberals enjoy following your tweets so I'm not going to tell you where we're going," he said. "We're not going to talk about our tour plans with the media."
With files from Adrian Morrow