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Party leaders clash over affordability, healthcare and environment during debate

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The leaders of Ontario’s four main political parties faced off on Monday night, debating a series of topics including healthcare, affordability and the environment.

PC Leader Doug Ford and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca clashed several times during the debate, exchanging jibes over their respective government records. Ford has been premier since 2018, while Del Duca sat in previous Liberal cabinets.

Andrea Horwath, Ontario NDP Leader, and Mike Schreiner of the Ontario Greens, made up the foursome. Both criticized Ford, while Horwath also went after Del Duca.

The televised debate was held at TVO in midtown Toronto. It began at 6:30 p.m. and lasted for 90 minutes.

Read more: Ford, Del Duca, Horwath and Schreiner set to face off at Ontario Leaders Debate

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The four leaders outlined their visions for Ontario — and repeatedly pointed out why their opponents did not hold the answers to the issues voters face.

Ford pushed his commitment to infrastructure projects, including hospitals and highways, while Horwath and Del Duca worked to frame the PC leader as cozy with political donors and developers.

Schreiner focused his answers through an environmental lens, with emphasis also afforded to housing.

As the incumbent premier, Ford was subjected to scrutiny over his record during the COVID-19 pandemic in particular. He admitted mistakes had been made but told his rivals it was easy to criticize from the sidelines.

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Each leader began with an opening statement.

Ford spoke first, repeating slogans, telling Ontarians to “say yes” and “get it done.”

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Horwath followed, with a message that “together” people and government can take care of each other. Schreiner said the climate crisis had to be tackled immediately and Del Duca alleged the PC Party had left people to fend for themselves.

The first question posed to leaders was based on affordability. Each leader was given a short response, with debate host Steve Paikin cutting off Horwath, Ford and Del Duca to remind them of time constraints.

“Oh my goodness,” Del Duca said, debating with Ford. “You’re entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts.”

The two talked over each other as they debated affordability, with Ford going on the offensive with his promises to cut the Ontario gas tax and license plate sticker fees.

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Schreiner called Highway 413 — a project proposed to run between Milton and Vaughan — a “climate disaster.” Del Duca alleged the project would make make some PC donors “even richer.”

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The PCs are the only major party that support the project, which was cancelled under the Liberals in 2018. Horwath said the project would connect to “mansions” that people cannot afford.

PC Leader Ford it was needed to fight gridlock.

Later in the debate, Del Duca promised a “multi-party committee” to tackle climate change.

Read more: The road to Queen’s Park: parties divided on highways, united on transit

A question around housing affordability elicited varied and impassioned responses.

The four leaders repeatedly interrupted one another with their different allegations. Ford said the other leaders would not build infrastructure for the province and Horwath, Schreiner and Del Duca all made allegations the PC Leader caters to party donors and “buddies.”

At the beginning of the debate, the party leaders were told microphones would be cut if they interrupted one another.

Both Horwath and Ford raised the fact the Liberals were in power for 15 years prior to 2018, calling out Del Duca’s record.

Read more: Ontario election 2022: Here’s what the PCs, NDP, Liberals and Greens have promised so far

On the topic of healthcare, Schreiner targeted the Ford government’s record during the pandemic.

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“Have you talked to a nurse lately? Have you talked to a nurse about how disrespected they feel? How overworked and underappreciated they are?”

Schreiner said his party would scrap Bill 124, legislation that caps the salaries of public workers, including nurses. The NDP and Liberal Party both pledged to repeal the bill.

Del Duca and Horwath repeatedly framed Ford as in favour of privatization. The leaders claimed Ford was planning to increase privatization in both healthcare and education.

Horwath called Ford’s policy “cuts” and “chaos.” She pledged smaller classes, more teachers and further supports for children in classrooms.

The pandemic topic — which recent Ipsos polling for Global News shows is a top-three issue in terms of public priorities — ended in a bout of shouting.

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Ford blamed the previous Liberal government for a failure to stockpile personal protective equipment, while Horwath said the PCs had protected for-profit care homes where many COVID-19 deaths occurred.

Del Duca reminded Ford that he and his cabinet briefly imposed stay-at-home rules during the third wave that stopped families from attending play parks.

“Was everything perfect? No, it wasn’t,” Ford said, adding he apologized when he believed he had made the wrong call.

“You have the easiest job to sit there and criticize,” Ford said.

“You ran to be premier, you have to accept responsibility,” Del Duca shot back.

Read more: Health care, pocketbook issues among top priorities for Ontario voters: Ipsos poll

Horwath relied on anecdotal examples to drive her points home. She referenced a healthcare worker who was forced to commute between Buffalo, N.Y., and Fort Erie, Ont., and a young person struggling with their mental health.

Education and job creation saw more spats between Del Duca and Ford.

“I am proud of our record on education,” Ford said, referencing his government’s spending on schools.

As Ford spoke about spending and infrastructure, Del Duca claimed he was repeating talking points. “Back to the old script,” he jibed.

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Debate on the environment danced across several topics.

The PC Leader touted job creation in the green economy and his government’s partnership with the federal government to grow the province’s electric vehicle industry.

Horwath reminded Ford electric vehicle chargers were removed from GO Transit stations when he took office, promising her party would help with green retrofits, among other promises.

Del Duca moved away from the question, accusing Ford of being absent from Question Period at Queen’s Park during the last legislative session.

The Green Party Leader said that regulations protecting the environment were “not red tape.”

Ford drew Schreiner’s ire when he mentioned gas prices during the environmental discussion. “You’re going to defend big oil?” the Green leader asked.

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The four party leaders faced each other after a week of bruising opposition research and candidate scandals.

Del Duca’s Liberals dropped several candidates after past opinions and comments were uncovered. One former candidate theorized homosexuality is “caused” by infants “rebreathing” shortly after they are born.

It was also revealed that at least eight PC candidates had been granted top-up allowances by riding associations that are funded through party donations and some public money.

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The debate was moderated by TVO’s Paikin and Althia Raj, host of Toronto Star podcast It’s Political and a member of CBC’s At Issue panel.

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Questions were curated by a wider group of journalists, with the help of data from polling firms. Members of the public are also asking questions via video link.

The provincial election will take place on June 2 with advance polls opening on May 19.

— With files from Global News’ Hannah Jackson

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