Horwath Strong, McGuinty Steady, Hudak Gets Message Out But Denies Calling Canadian Imigrants "Foreigners"
By Susanna Kelley
One of the best things about watching the Ontario party leaders' debate Tuesday evening was that the first question was about jobs.
All three leaders spent the first three weeks of the campaign not even acknowledging that there is a mighty economic crisis shaking our European and American neighbours, and it could well be here within a month or two.
But due to the bright minds that are Canadian voters, they've finally decided to turn their attention to what Dalton McGuinty calls "serious times."
Ontarians then, right off the bat, were treated to the Liberal, NDP and Conservative job creation platforms: the Liberal vision that if we create the best educated workforce in the world, foreign companies will invest here; the Conservative idea that cutting taxes will allow Ontarians to spend more, which will rev up the economy; and the NDP's plans to give tax breaks to companies that create jobs.
Each of the leaders had a specific role to play in the debate in order to attract voters.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath needed to introduce herself to Ontarians who haven't paid the slightest bit of attention to politics since the last election (i.e. most of the population - and possibly the most sane portion at that.) If she is to increase public support for the New Democrats, she needed to avoid appearing as the "wild-eyed socialist" the NDP's opponents like to paint her party's leaders as.
Instead, Ms. Horwath came off as the disarming and pragmatic. She was aggressive, quick on the draw, outlined her party's pocketbook and job creation policies and added a touch of humour to her jabs with her quick one-liners.
For example, at one point, playing to Northern ridings where the NDP picks up a chunk of their seats, she chided Mr. McGuinty about the fact he didn't show up to the debate in Northern Ontario:
"Mr. McGuinty it's good to know you've actually been to Thunder Bay. Mr. Hudak and I were in Thunder Bay not too long ago and we missed you, we missed you when we were in Thunder Bay having that debate a week ago. And I have to say that when I go to Thunder Bay people are ... talking about the fact that 40,000 direct and indirect forestry jobs are gone from Ontario, that you've allowed the forestry industry to collapse. As a matter of fact, I met with a gentleman in Dubreuilville, I don't know if you know where Dubreuilville is, it's not too far from Wawa..."
Ms. Horwath was also able to poke some holes in Mr. Hudak's spending plans, such as when he talked about finding "savings" - a kinder sounding word for cuts:
"We'll set priorities, health and education, we'll invest more in those areas, it's the right thing to do, and find savings of 2 cents of every dollar outside of those areas."
Ms. Horwath was quick to challenge his rhetoric.
"Well Mr. Hudak I think what Ontarians need to know where that 2 cents savings is coming from ... exactly how you're going to achieve those savings because it's easy to put that down on paper but unless you're willing to show them where those savings are they're not going to believe it."
As with Ms. Horwath, the debate represented Mr. Hudak's best chance to introduce himself and his policies to Ontario voters.
And while he may not have come off quite as warm and fuzzy as the NDP leader, he certainly presented many of those policies, from his five-point job creation program to cutting the provincial portion of the HST from electricity bills to his plan to cut taxes for the middle class.
But perhaps Mr. Hudak's best performance of the night came when he raised doubts about Mr. McGuinty's promise not to raise taxes, calling the so-called hydro "smart meters" a tax grab.
"I'm not raising taxes and you shouldn't keep saying that," protested Mr. McGuinty.
"With all due respect sir, nobody believes you anymore and for good reason. You're saying tonight that you're not going to raise taxes. With all due respect we've heard you say that not once but twice, and you broke your promises over and over again," accused Mr. Hudak.
As for Mr. McGuinty, any Premier who has been in power for two terms is going to be in a defensive position in a leaders' debate. But Mr. McGuinty gave as good as he got, although in his usual polite way.
He pointed to Mr. Hudak's controversial early campaign characterization of highly trained immigrants as "foreign workers", a description Mr. Hudak repeated for days after the Liberals clarified that their program to offer a $10,000 tax credit for companies to help speed up their professional certification only applied to those immigrants who were Canadian citizens. (During this time the Tories also ran ads claiming Mr. McGuinty wanted to give $10,000 to "foreign workers, Ontarians need not apply.")
"He says he doesn't believe we should provide foreign students with scholarships. The fact of the matter is foreign students who are coming to Ontario today are spending a $ billion annually, they're helping subsidize our university and college education for all Ontarians. He says he doesn't like Samsung in part because it's a 'foreign multinational.'
"During the course of the campaign he said that, he called Canadian citizens 'foreigners'," Mr. McGuinty continued.
Astonishingly, Mr. Hudak denied ever saying such a thing.
"Now hold on a second here now Dalton you know, you know that is not at all true. You know that's not true...The reality is I never said that," said Mr. Hudak.
Asked later what exactly it was he was denying, Mr. Hudak would only say "he used a phrase I never said," but refused, under repeated questioning, to clarify what phrase that was.
There are reports that Mr. Hudak denies he called Canadian immigrants "foreigners", not that he denies calling them "foreign workers."
McGuinty also clearly won an exchange about how he'd help post-secondary students pay for their education:
"Ms. Horwath, just so we're clear, is offering a (tuition) freeze. Our plan calls for a 30 per cent reduction for families with incomes of $160,000 or less, again that's $1,600 off university tuition, $730 off college. Mr. Hudak is suddenly interested in education. Now it may be that at some point in time along the way, and I've been at many Question Periods with Mr. Hudak, that he asked me a question about education, but I can't recall a single one."
We won't know for some days yet who officially "won" the Ontario leader's election debate.
It takes three or four days of quick polls, endlessly replayed television and radio clips, and a few good sessions of water-cooler conversations before Dalton McGuinty, Tim Hudak or Andrea Horwath will be declared the winner.
However, immediately after the debate, one criticism being talked about by reporters and opposition party spinners who descended upon them within moments, was that Mr. McGuinty seemed to wave his arms too much.
Last time I checked, that wasn't a disqualification for leading the province.