ABOVE: The leaders of Ontario’s three main political parties squared off in a debate focusing on corruption, catchphrases and bad math. Alan Carter breaks it all down.
TORONTO – If you hadn’t heard the words “gas plants,” “corruption” or “bad math” yet during the Ontario election campaign, you surely would have been caught up during the leaders’ debate.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak and NDP leader Andrea Horwath, often talking over top of each other, repeated the catchphrases that have characterized the election campaign.
(We created a handy guide of phrases repeated in the debate for those brave enough to play the Ontario leaders’ debate drinking game).
Hudak and Horwath took clear aim at the premier, and Wynne was on the defensive throughout the debate, apologizing repeatedly for the Liberal gas plant scandal that has dogged her since taking office.
The televised debate is the one and only time in the election the three leaders will be in the same room, discussing the same issues.
The debate focused on six questions asked by Ontario voters, however specific points of contention (jobs, scandals, math – to name a few) emerged at every turn.
Wynne grilled on gas plants, Liberal corruption
The first question of the night dived into trust and government accountability, asking the premier why Ontarians should trust the Liberal party with their retirement funds after wasting taxpayers money on cancelled gas plants.
Wynne repeatedly apologized for mistakes made, saying voters have a right to be angry over the $1.1 billion the Liberals spent to cancel two gas plants ahead of the 2011 election.
Wynne said trust had been broken between her government and Ontarians, vowing it would never happen again.
But Horwath and Hudak continued to bring the conversation back to the gas plants scandal.
WATCH: Hudak, Horwath attack Wynne over gas plant scandal
“You call it a mistake, but others call it corruption,” said the NDP leader.
Hudak insisted that Wynne isn’t actually sorry, saying “if someone apologizes and then they do the same thing again and again, they don’t mean it,” before referring to a campaign pledge he made earlier in the day that would enforce strict accountability rules on cabinet ministers.
While in Markham Tuesday morning, Hudak promised that, if elected, all cabinet members would have to sign an “oath to Ontario” – a promise to respect taxpayer dollars, never raise taxes and reduce red tape. Breaking the oath would result in docked pay or firing, said Hudak.
The pledge is a response to what Hudak said is a “dishonest” Liberal government mired in numerous scandals including cancelled gas plants and a proposed $317-million bailout of Toronto’s MaRS research complex.
“Nobody is ever held accountable. And when nobody is ever held accountable that means things keep happening over and over again – bad decisions, scandals, nobody’s ever watching the till anymore,” said Hudak.
While all three party leaders have waded into questionable math during the election campaign, it was widely expected that Hudak would be grilled on his “Million Jobs Plan.” The opposition has called the plan a “fantasy” and economists pointed out that it’s based on flawed math.
Hudak stood by his jobs plan, saying whether one million or 100,000, “it’s going to create jobs.” He also vowed to resign if the plan failed.
Wynne said Hudak’s centrepiece jobs plan was based on “a completely flawed premise.” She also was the first to bring up Hudak’s plan to cut 100,000 jobs if elected, adding that the PC leader’s plan will push Ontario back into a recession.
Horwath also jumped on the “bad math” train, saying Hudak’s plan has a million math mistakes. “Mr. Hudak, your tough medicine is certainly not Buckley’s – it tastes awful, but it’s not going to work,” said the NDP leader.
Horwath focused most of her attention during the debate on Wynne and the Liberals. “The corruption in the Liberal party runs deep,” said Horwath, citing the gas plant scandal, the reported MaRS bailout, eHealth and ORNGE.
Throughout the debate, Hudak was in agreement with much of what Horwath said, but criticized that she had supported the Liberals in the past.
During the debate, Horwath painted her party as a choice between “a corrupt Liberal party and Mr. Hudak’s bath math.”
But experts said Horwath should have used the debate to speak to her base – a group of voters that may be considering switching their vote.
“[Horwath] is going to have to stop what’s happening currently, bleeding New Democratic voters into the Liberal column. So she’s going to have to find a way after dispensing with Mr. Hudak, to speak to prospective NDP voters, which include some Liberals, that in fact she is worth their vote,” said Ryerson University politics professor Wayne Petrozzi.
Critics said Horwath abandoned the party’s principles by refusing to support the Liberals’ NDP-friendly budget, triggering the election, and what a group of party stalwarts said is a policy shift to the right.
An election outcome in doubt
While polls indicate the election has become a “two-horse race” between Wynne and Hudak, experts say not to count out Horwath.
There are a number of undecided voters, who could be swayed by Tuesday’s debate.
“I think it’s fair to say that for half of the electorate for half of [the campaign] month they’re not paying too much attention, if any at all,” said Steve Paikin, debate moderator and host of TVO’s current affairs program The Agenda.
Paikin said the debate is a time when a large part of the electorate become engaged.
The debate is also when voters can get a sense of who the party leaders are as people.
“It’s the one and really best opportunity to compare and contrast the gut feeling they get from these people,” said Paikin. “That gut instinct, I think, is absolutely as relevant and legitimate as the person who spends hours and hours poring over the platforms.”
It remains to be seen if this debate will move the needle at all in the election campaign – but the lack of strong momentum from any of the parties means the leaders’ performance tonight could sway voters at the polls.
“Debates offer a chance to change things up but usually don’t, so they tend to be overhyped,” Jonathan Malloy, the chairman of Carleton University’s political science department. “But because of the vulnerability of both major parties in the polls…(the debate) could attract more attention since there seem to be a lot of undecided or volatile voters out there.”
“The outcome [of the election] is still very much in doubt,” said Western University politics professor Cameron Anderson.
Click here for complete coverage of the 2014 Ontario electionFollow @heatherloney
With files from The Canadian Press
© Shaw Media, 2014