By PAT WATSON
With just one week to go, the leaders of the three front running parties in the province met for their only televised debate, with the goal of trying to win favour among the 38 per cent of undecided voters. Not surprisingly, Progressive Conservative (PC) leader Tim Hudak and New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Andrea Horwath made it their main mission to go on the attack against incumbent premier, Liberal Kathleen Wynne.
With no clear winners in the 90-minute debate, Wynne still lagged behind the challengers as they put her on the defensive.
Questions for the debate were selected from close to a thousand sent in by Ontarians from across the province from which six were selected representing the issues most commonly raised. In filmed segments, ordinary Ontarians posed the questions.
As expected, the matter of the $1.1 billion gas plants cancellation was raised and it was the first question of the debate. Wynne made a point of acknowledging “mistakes were made” and repeated that she was “sorry” for what has happened. She also insisted that the rules have been changed to make sure that such an episode is never repeated.
The other questions covered were the matter of the Liberals’ Ontario retirement savings plan; the high cost of energy and how to alleviate it; Hudak’s promise to cut 100,000 public sector jobs while creating one million new jobs; meeting the deficit reduction by 2017 as promised by the Liberals and the NDP – Hudak promises to do so in two years; whether Ontario drivers should pay for Toronto transportation; and again in the face of Hudak’s talk of job cuts, the matter of support for educators and the education sector as well as respect for the contract negotiation process.
Left out of the debate were issues such as healthcare, poverty and affordable housing, which means that this debate and the focus of all three parties is on middle class voters.
Wynne was strongest when speaking about the Liberals’ transportation infrastructure plan and education outcomes, which she said has improved with students graduating from high schools at a rate of over 80 per cent, up from 68 per cent since the Liberals were first elected.
Hudak stuck to his message of creating jobs even though Horwath and Wynne challenged him continually on his calculations, dismissing his math as incorrect. His most memorable moment came when he promised to resign as premier if he could not make this promise a reality.
Horwath laid out a plan for lowering taxes on small businesses, raising corporate taxes and lowering insurance rates for motorists. She held to a strong presentation as the alternative that can be taken seriously, despite the NDP lagging in third place. The NDP leader even made a point of calling the Liberal government corrupt.
Hudak at times agreed with Horwath, particularly when she was attacking Wynne. Horwath’s memorable line of the debate in promoting the NDP as the alternative was that the choice between the Liberals and the PCs was a choice between bad ethics and bad math.
The questions coming as they did from the electorate meant that the politicians had to at least appear to be responding to the concerns of ordinary Ontarians, but they nevertheless stuck to their talking points in their attempt to appeal to those who are still undecided. But given the tenor of the debate, with participants at times shouting over each other, making it difficult to decipher what was being said, it is unlikely that the presentation generated any significant shift among those still unsure of who should get their vote. Even for political junkies, there was very little meat on the bones.