THUNDER BAY, ONT. - Kathleen Wynne cannot outrun Liberal scandals and “corruption,” charges NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
In the first leaders debate of the June 12 election campaign, Wynne was tarred Monday as a key player in former premier Dalton McGuinty’s controversial administration.
Horwath came out swinging, attacking Wynne for the Liberals’ decision to scrap gas-fired electricity plants in Oakville and Mississauga to win seats in the 2011 election.
“We have to clean up the corruption at Queen’s Park,” Horwath said in her opening remarks before 350 people at a sold-out $45-a-head Valhalla Inn luncheon in this northern city.
“The day that the OPP showed up and took those hard drives out of Queen’s Park was the day that I heard the people of Ontario say that they had had enough,” she said, referring to a police probe into allegations computers were wiped.
“They had had enough of the Liberal betrayals, enough of their lies, enough of the wasted billions and billions of dollars for their own gain, and Ms. Wynne was at the centre of it. She was a senior cabinet minister, she was the campaign co-chair. She endorsed it all.”
Wynne — who has distanced herself from her predecessor’s decision to scrap the power plants, which could cost ratepayers and taxpayers $1.1 billion over 20 years — grimaced whenever Horwath broached the topic.
“I understand that people are upset for the gas plants’ decision and I have apologized for that,” she shot back, never once mentioning McGuinty by name during a one-hour debate dominated by skyrocketing electricity prices, the needs of cash-strapped northern municipalities and developing the mineral-rich Ring of Fire chromite deposit.
Wynne kept her cool during the debate, but in later remarks to reporters she blasted Horwath for making “personal, false allegations about me.”
“She knows that those allegations are not true,” said Wynne. “They are not true. Quite frankly, it’s a bit sad that the leader of the NDP falls back on that when we were here to answer the questions of northern leaders.”
Horwath scoffed when asked by reporters about Wynne’s indignation.
“Liberals are Liberals are Liberals. They sat around that table together. Ms. Wynne was a senior cabinet minister through the whole process,” she said.
On the stage, the Liberal leader had tried not to be drawn into a war of words with Horwath, whose party propped up the minority Grits through two budgets.
Instead, Wynne focused her criticism on Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who was 1,400 kilometres away in Thornhill after skipping the debate because of a commitment in Peterborough on Monday morning.
“Cutting 100,000 jobs from the economy, which is what Tim Hudak wants to do, will push us back, will actually slow our recovery and slow our ability to deal with our deficit,” the Liberal leader said.
That’s a reference to the PC plan to eliminate 100,000 public service positions over four years as part of an eight-year scheme to create one million private-sector jobs.
“It’s very important to me that the plan that we are putting forward is for the whole province,” said Wynne. “When I came into this office, I said I would be the premier for the whole province, and I have done that.”
Hudak’s decision to pass up the chance to share the stage with his two main rivals was a recurring theme.
“I’m really pleased that Ms. Wynne has decided to join us today. Mr. Hudak’s absence sums up, I think, his opinion of northerners and how he feels about them,” said Horwath.
Earlier Monday as she unveiled the NDP’s northern platform, she had blasted Hudak for skipping the debate as McGuinty did in 2011.
“The last election, the Liberals slapped the north in the face by not showing up. This election, the Conservatives are slapping the north in the face by not showing up,” she said.
“One thing northerners are sure of: New Democrats respect them and we’re here every time.”
In Thornhill, Hudak insisted he would have liked to be at the debate, but couldn’t change his plans.
“I wish that the schedule had worked out,” said the Tory leader, refusing to say if he would even visit the north during this 41-day campaign.
“I’ll keep working hard and travelling with my message everywhere I can. But wherever I go, I’m going talk about my plan of more affordable energy, lower taxes, less debt,” he said.
Monday’s event, which was organized by the Northern Policy Institute, also made Ontario political history: it was the first time that two female party leaders debated during an election campaign.
Despite the rancour, both women said afterward they were proud to participate in a milestone.
“Tim Hudak should have been here, but it is terrific,” said Wynne
“I hope young women across Ontario, and across the country, quite frankly, were able to see that. The fact is the two of us there debating issues that are important to the people of the north as the leaders of two major parties — that’s a very important moment in our history,” she said.
“It’s a great time when we have these firsts being made,” agreed Horwath, adding it “shows the young women of this province that there are no limits and no bounds to the kinds of careers and choices that they can make in their lives.”
Horwath and Wynne will again debate each other — this time with Hudak — on June 3 at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto for a provincewide telecast.
- With files from Alex Boutilier