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Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader Doug Ford, left to right, Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner debate during the Ontario party leaders' debate, in Toronto, on May 16, 2022.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s four major party leaders squared off in a televised debate Monday evening in Toronto. The leaders clashed over the major issues facing the province including cost of living, the pandemic, the recovery of the health care system and education. This was the final chance for voters to hear from the leaders on one stage before the June 2 election.

Here are five takeaways from the 90-minute debate:

Hot topics

Party leaders were each given the chance to present their plans on affordability, health care, education, housing and climate change. Then they were paired off and participated in a head-to-head debate on each topic. This is where things got heated as the leaders attacked decisions made by previous governments. Notably, PC Leader Doug Ford and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca were the first to square off on making life more affordable for Ontarians.

Mr. Ford brought up former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne and argued that the previous Liberal government made life more difficult and more expensive for Ontarians.

“You destroyed this province,” he said. “The economy was going down quicker than the Canadian bobsled team.”

The Liberal Leader fought back by touting his party’s economic plan to ease the financial burden on the pocketbooks of residents, including by removing HST on prepared foods under $20 and reducing the cost of transit to $1 across the province until January 2024.

One of the harshest exchanges between the party leaders was about building the contentious Highway 413 (Mr. Ford brought the north GTA highway back on the table after it was shelved by the previous Liberal government. The three opposition parties have opposed the project.) The parties argued over how much time the new highway would save (with Mr. Ford touting the party’s research that commuters who go across the entire highway from Halton to Vaughan would save 30 minutes each way.)

In final Ontario election debate, leaders clash over health, highways

“What we don’t need is more highways to mansions that nobody can afford,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.

War of words

Here are some of the top quotes from the leaders during the debate:

“You’ve lost touch. You’re out of touch with the hard-working people of this province,” Mr. Ford said of Ms. Horwath as he pointed out that three labour unions have thrown their support behind the PCs rather than the NDP.

Referencing 15 years of Liberal rule, Ms. Horwath said “you left a wreck behind you,” to Mr. Del Duca.

Mr. Del Duca was critical of Mr. Ford when debating plans to improve the province’s elementary education system. “Your record on public education is an embarrassment.” He said that a Liberal Party would redirect the money earmarked for Highway 413 (estimated to be as much as $10-billion) into building 200 new schools and repairing 4,500.

When talking about health care, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner asked Mr. Ford, “have you talked to a nurse lately?” when bringing up issues facing the system including staffing shortages and surgical backlogs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fact vs. fiction

Leaders attacked the platforms of other parties, but some with incorrect claims. Mr. Ford continually said the “choice is clear” because the other three parties would “jack up your taxes” and reintroduce fees for residents, including hiking the gas tax and bringing back licence-plate sticker renewal fees.

But only the Greens pledge to bring back the licence-plate fees, while the NDP says they would reinstate the gas tax at 14.7 cents per litre. (The gas tax is temporarily being cut by 5.7 cents per litre for six months, but this change introduced by the PCs while in government isn’t permanent.)

With the debates now finished, only two factors could shake up Ontario election

The NDP and Liberals do plan to increase taxes for wealthier people and corporations. The Liberals pledge a two-per-cent increase for individuals making more than $500,000 and the NDP says they would raise income taxes by one percentage point for those with an income of more than $220,000 annually and two percentage points on earnings over $300,000.

Pandemic record takes centre stage

Mr. Ford defended his government’s response during the pandemic, but acknowledged that it wasn’t perfect. The four leaders were asked what they would have done differently. Mr. Ford said he worked around the clock and targeted the opposition parties as sitting on the sidelines and “criticizing” his response during unprecedented times.

Mr. Ford also pointed to the lack of PPE supplies the province had at the outset of the pandemic, blaming it on the previous Liberal government. “The cupboards were empty,” he said.

Mr. Del Duca fired back that this was the job Mr. Ford ran for and that the responsibility falls on his shoulders no matter what unexpected issues the province is faced with.

“You don’t just get to be premier when it’s parades and sunshine,” Mr. Del Duca told reporters after the debate in response to Mr. Ford’s comments.

Scenes from the debate

Before the debate, Yonge Street was lined with supporters of all four major parties outside the TVO Broadcast Centre where the debate was held holding signs for their party leaders. Protesters from health care union SEIU were also on scene chanting “Doug Ford has got to go.”

All four party leaders addressed the media after the debate, including Mr. Ford who skipped media questions after the debate in North Bay.

Ontario election: Party leaders debate affordability, transportation and improving public education

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