It was all about crisis management.
The Ontario leaders’ debate was dominated by the two-year COVID-19 crisis, the affordability crisis that now threatens post-pandemic recovery from the pandemic, and who is best to tackle the climate crisis.
As Ontarians head to the polls June 2, the four major party leaders squared off Monday night for a raucous 90-minute encounter about where the province has been — and where it is headed.
Doug Ford admitted he made mistakes in the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Progressive Conservative leader stressed he meant well.
In an electrifying exchange with Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, Ford said the pandemic was “the most challenging time of my entire life … and I don’t wish that on any premier” and pointed out that he “apologized” when errors were made.
“Did we get everything right? No, we didn’t get everything right, but I’ll tell you every decision I made was with the best intention, with the best medical advice I could get at the time,” the Tory leader said, noting for “two and a half years, literally 24/7, I was working on this pandemic.”
But Del Duca charged Ford ignored critical advice at a critical time, fuelling a third wave of COVID-19 last spring.
“Everybody watching at home knows that in February 2021 when the science table told the Ford Conservatives: ‘don’t reopen so rapidly’ — and they ignored that it made subsequent waves of COVID dramatically worse for Ontario families,” the Liberal leader said.
“And then when he scrambled, he decided he wanted to close playgrounds and give police more powers for carding that are no relation whatsoever to the challenge that we faced.”
That was a reference to Ford’s April 16, 2021 decision to impose controversial measures designed to limit Ontarians’ mobility and curb the spread of COVID-19.
One day later, amid public outcry, he reversed course ensuring children could play outside and that motorists could drive freely without fear of police carding.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Ford said “not many elected officials come out and admit when they’re wrong.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath reminded Ford of Ontario’s 13,102 COVID-19 deaths, almost 4,400 were vulnerable seniors in nursing homes.
“Lots of families watched loved ones, as the armed forces showed us when they arrived, dying in long-term-care homes of malnutrition and dehydration,” said Horwath.
“I would have made sure that an ‘iron ring’ was put around seniors in long-term care,” she added, mocking Ford’s early-pandemic claim that he was protecting the elderly in care.
The Tory leader appeared more comfortable and sure-footed when discussing the economic recovery and the affordability crisis facing Ontarians with inflation at 6.7 per cent, the highest level since 1991.
“Folks, you’re going to have a clear choice. All three of them … want to hike your taxes, bring back the licence plate stickers, and increase the gas tax,” said Ford, referring to Horwath, Del Duca, and Green Leader Mike Schreiner.
“Mr. Del Duca, I just want to remind you, under yourself and former premier Kathleen Wynne, destroyed this province, the economy was going downhill quicker than the Canadian bobsled team,” Ford said.
“We’re the only party saying yes to … building highways and key infrastructure like 413 and the Bradford Bypass,” he said, touting the proposed 60-kilometre Milton-to-Vaughan Highway 413 and 16.2-kilometre bypass linking Highways 400 and 404.
Schreiner — who, like Horwath and Del Duca, opposes the new highways, which would raze hundreds of hectares of farms and Greenbelt land — blasted Ford’s environmental record.
“Mr. Ford … dismantled all of Ontario’s climate action plans and then he started systematically dismantling environmental protection many of them actually brought in by former conservative governments, particularly Bill Davis,” the Green chief said.
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“He did say all this is about cutting red tape. Well, I’m sorry, protecting people from flooding is not red tape. Protecting the farmland that feeds us is not red tape.”
Del Duca, a former transportation minister in premier Wynne’s government, said Ford only wants to build Highway 413 “to make a few of their donors wealthier.”
“It’s not going to do anything for you,” he said, noting the Liberals scrapped the proposal, which could cost $10 billion, in 2018 because the route barely saved commuters any time.
The Grit chief countered that his “buck-a-ride province-wide” plan, which will ensure $1 fares on all Ontario public transit systems, including the TTC and GO, until 2024 will help pocketbooks and the environment.
Horwath said Highway 413 “is the wrong thing to do. It paves over farmland. It paves over the Greenbelt … and what we don’t need is more massive highways to mansions that nobody can afford.”
The NDP leader also trained some of her fire — and her ire — at Del Duca with every public-opinion poll showing the two of them jockeying for second place behind Ford.
“With all due respect, you had 15 years to do all those things and you didn’t,” said Horwath, interjecting when the Liberal was reciting a list of promises.
Shot back Del Duca: “Every time you attack me — as you have done for a year — Doug Ford smiles.”
“Progressives need real leadership and that’s what we’re offering,” the Liberal leader said.
Horwath countered that Ontario voters punished the Grits, who were in office from 2003 to 2018, four years ago and haven’t forgiven them yet.
After Del Duca chided the Tory for relitigating the last election — “Mr. Ford seems to be the only person on the stage that doesn’t realize he’s been premier for the past four years” — the NDP leader pounced.
“I understand why you don’t want to talk about the 2018 election because you only retained seven seats and that’s because you disappointed Ontarians,” said Horwath.
Ford got in his own jabs against the New Democrats, crowing that several private-sector unions have endorsed the Tories.
“You’ve lost touch. You’re out of touch with the hard-working men and women … when the trade unions are supporting us for the first time. They know we’re going to get it done,” he said.
Moderated by the Star’s Althia Raj and Steve Paikin, host of “The Agenda,” the 90-minute debate reached millions of Ontarians via CBC, CHCH, Citytv, CPAC, CTV, Global, TVO, CBC Radio and Newstalk 1010 as well as online.
About 250 placard-carrying supporters of all parties cheered and chanted outside of TVO’s studio at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue with police and security clearing a path for leaders through the throng.
Three purple-clad protesters from the Service Employees International Union, which represents health care workers attempted to block Ford’s campaign bus as it arrived, but were removed. One SEIU member was injured and taken to hospital.
A police officer grabbed a sign away from a Ford supporter as he brandished it toward Del Duca on the way in. It was then returned with a stern warning.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
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