By Doug Hallett
Local NDP candidate James Gordon was in danger of catching a chill at Monday’s election debate, so icy were the exchanges between the candidates sitting on either side of him – Liz Sandals of the Liberals and Anthony MacDonald of the Progressive Conservatives.
The four main local candidates had two hours to explain their positions and challenge their opponents during the debate at Cutten Fields.
It was mostly cordial, but the stark contrast between the Liberal and PC platforms in this election was reflected in the often pointed exchanges be-tween Sandals and MacDonald.
Near the end, answering a question about how their parties would help children with special needs, MacDonald said he’d like to see efficiencies found from within other government operations to free up more money to help such children. “I’m really confused by Anthony’s answer,” Sandals said of the PC candidate’s response to helping children with special needs.
Educational assistants, who help children with special needs in classrooms, would be one of the targets of public sector job cuts promised by PC leader Tim Hudak, but now MacDonald was talking as if he thinks this is an “underfunded” area, she said.
“I didn’t want to start a fight,” MacDonald shot back before accusing the Liberals of having “lost countless billions of dollars” through the gas-plant scandal and other questionable spending over the years.
Things got even testier during the final exchange of the night between the two candidates, in response to a question about students graduating with post-secondary debts and then being offered unpaid internships.
After MacDonald said he was against unpaid internships, Sandals asked why then did the Tories oppose recent Liberal efforts to enhance worker protection in this area.
“Quick answer: we wanted an election because we wanted you (the Liberal government) gone,” MacDonald snapped back.
Gordon and Green Party candidate largely agreed in their answers to this question, both distinguishing between unpaid internships and volunteers.
“Unpaid internships are exploitation . . . volunteering is an opportunity,” Gordon said.
As well as answering questions, all four candidates had a chance to make brief opening and closing statements.
“We are focused on jobs, kids and the environment,” Mike Schreiner, the Ontario Green party’s leader as well as its Guelph candidate, said after telling a standing-room crowd of over 175 people that he was concerned about his two daughters’ future.
He urged people to vote for the party whose platform they favour, rather than voting strategically or voting to punish a government. “We will never get the future we want if we vote from fear rather than hope,” he said.
Gordon, who said an NDP government would balance the provincial budget as a priority, framed the social justice issues traditionally identified with the NDP in terms aimed for broad appeal.
A growing gap between the rich and poor in the local community “is not healthy,” and “it makes business sense to close that gap,” he said.
“We don’t have to choose between Liberal corruption and the PC plan to cut all those jobs,” Gordon said, touting the NDP as a viable third option.
MacDonald, the only political neophyte on the stage, said Ontario is in crisis. “Our children are leaving as fast as our businesses are,” he told the crowd.
He consistently stressed a need to focus on Ontario’s deficit and its accumulated debt. “And it seems like no one else wants to talk about it,” he said.
Sandals said the Liberal platform is to foster a strong economy “while making sure we take care of people.”
Voters in this election have a “very clear choice” between the “fair and balanced” platform of the Liberals and the “cuts and chaos” that would accompany a PC government, she said.
Questions that were put to the candidates by Guelph Chamber of Commerce president Lloyd Longfield were a combination of queries suggested in advance by chamber members and written questions submitted by the audience on Monday evening.
PUBLIC SECTOR EFFICIENCIES
The first question asked where more efficiencies could be found in the public sector.
MacDonald, whose party promises to cut 100,000 public sector jobs over four years, said there are efficiencies to be found. “The fact is this is the only party that is going to look for them,” he said.
Gordon said an NDP government would seek savings at the “high echelons” of the public sector, rather than from “front-line” workers.
Sandals said the Liberals sought cost-cutting advice from former bank economist Don Drummond, and the government is working on implementing 80 per cent of the recommendations Drummond made in early 2012. It isn’t implementing some Drummond recommendations that “we disagreed with philosophically,” she said.
Schreiner said the way to efficiencies is not “through handing out pink slips” as Hudak wants to do, but is rather through “smarter policies and better priorities.”
A question about where the candidates stood on increasing provincial funding for post-secondary education sparked another exchange between Sandals and MacDonald.
After Sandals said her government’s 30% tuition grant for college and university students from low- and middle-income families has been very successful in boosting accessibility, MacDonald said Ontario can’t afford this kind of spending.
“We don’t have that money to spread around . . . I feel terrible about that, but I didn’t do it and Tim Hudak didn’t it,” he said, accusing the Liberals of bleeding provincial coffers through various scandals.
Asked about their top election priorities, MacDonald spoke of eliminating 10% of public sector jobs, wanting to lower corporate tax rates and making sure hydro rates are affordable.
Gordon said his party wants to raise corporate taxes by 1% and provide tax credits for job creation.
Schreiner said his party favours a $2 parking levy in the Toronto area to fund transportation improvements.
Sandals said a Liberal government would balance the budget by the 2017-18 fiscal year, and doing so would include raising income taxes for people earning over $150,000 a year.
MacDonald added that it’s important to lower corporate taxes “because our businesses are leaving . . . yes, they are (already) low, but they have to be the lowest.”
MacDonald then poured scorn on Sandals’ talk about balancing the budget, saying such talk is not credible when the latest Liberal budget would increase the province’s deficit for 2014-15. The way he made this comment drew a warning from Longfield about showing proper respect for other candidates – the only such warning issued during what Longfield had described as a “candidates’ discussion” rather than a debate.
Asked what can be done at the provincial and local levels to address climate change, Sandals cited her government’s end to coal-fired power plants as highly significant. She said Liberal efforts to boost train transportation would cut down on the number of cars on the roads emitting greenhouse gases.
“We need to put a price on carbon pollution . . . we can’t afford not to,” Schreiner said, adding that the transportation system has to change and buildings have to be made more energy-efficient.
Gordon lauded Guelph’s Community Energy Plan, which is leading to local power generation that will reduce the city’s dependence on the provincial power grid.
MacDonald said research and development into green energy is important, but a balanced approach is needed that avoids big increases in electricity prices.
The PC candidate also said he favours killing Ontario’s Drive Clean program, because so few cars fail the emissions testing.
By Doug Hallett