Manitoba’s three main party leaders squared off over health care, the cost of living and other issues during a one-hour televised leaders debate Thursday night in advance of the Oct. 3 provincial election.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew, whose party is leading in opinion polls, was a frequent target of the other two leaders.
Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson, aiming to lead her party to a third consecutive term, accused Kinew of promising $3 billion in new spending, which she said would require a hike in the provincial sales tax. The former NDP government raised the tax in 2013 and was voted out in the next election.
Kinew flatly denied the accusation.
“I will never raise the PST,” he said.
Stefanson used her first opportunity to direct a question at Kinew to ask him why he has promised to search the Prairie Green Landfill north of Winnipeg, where the remains of two Indigenous women — Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran — are believed to be.
A feasibility study said a search of the landfill is possible, although it would have no guarantee of success and searchers would face hazards from asbestos and other toxic material.
“Inhaling the fibres can cause cancer and other serious health issues,” Stefanson said.
“Why are you willing to put $184 million and Manitoba workers at risk without a guarantee?”
Kinew said Stefanson was trying to divide people with wedge issues.
“Yes, I will search the landfill. And you know what? I will balance respect and dignity for these families while also being responsible with the public purse,” he said.
“But what I won’t do is use wedge politics to try and score a few political points.”
Stefanson later said she was trying to get clarity on Kinew’s stance on the issue.
Recent opinion polls have suggested the NDP have a strong lead, especially in Winnipeg, where most legislature seats are.
Kinew challenged Stefanson on health care, asking her whether she stood by former premier Brian Pallister’s decision to downgrade three hospital emergency departments in Winnipeg to urgent care centres, which are not aimed at dealing with life-threatening cases such as heart attacks.
At times, Stefanson used her debate time to attack Kinew indirectly, by posing a question to Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, and asking his opinion on questions that were critical of Kinew.
The strategy meant Lamont, whose party has three of the 57 legislature seats, got more airtime.
“I just wanted to make sure that Dougald Lamont had a chance to get up and let Manitobans know what he stands for,” she told reporters after the debate.
Lamont, whose party has dropped in opinion polls, accused Kinew of abandoning NDP principles by promising property tax cuts and a temporary lifting of the fuel tax. He tried to portray his party as the true alternative to the Tory government.
“We’re the only party that really wants to change things,” he said.
Kinew used his closing remarks to appeal to Liberal supporters to vote NDP this time. He launched the party’s campaign earlier this month by releasing a personal letter of support from Lloyd Axworthy, a former federal Liberal cabinet minister.
Kinew said he will never raise the sales tax if elected premier.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont accused Kinew of offering false hope on health care by promising to reopen hospital emergency rooms while there is a lack of nurses and other workers.
The provincial election is Oct. 3 and advance polls open Saturday.