THUNDER BAY, Ont. - Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne got her first taste Monday of what she'll be facing in the all-important June 3 leaders' debate â€” and next time, it'll be double trouble for the Liberal leader.
With Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak absent, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath went for the jugular in the northern Ontario debate, calling the Liberals corrupt and saying voters are fed up with their lies.
"You deserve a hard-working, honest government and that starts by cleaning up the corruption at Queen's Park," Horwath said in her opening statement, hammering the Liberals again and again in almost every response to questions.
Wynne played a role in the decisions to cancel two unpopular gas plants â€” at a cost of up to $1.1 billion â€” prior to the last election just to save Liberal seats in the Toronto suburbs, and in their attempts to cover up the scandal, she said.
"The day that the OPP showed up and took those hard drives out of (the premier's office in) Queen's Park was the day that I heard the people of Ontario say that they had had enough," Horwath said, referring to the provincial police investigation into the destruction of gas plants documents.
"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."
Horwath said Wynne can't blame the gas plants and the attempted cover up on the previous Dalton McGuinty administration.
"Ms. Wynne was at the centre of it," she said. "She was a senior cabinet minister. She was a campaign co-chair. She endorsed it all."
Horwath knows the allegations against her are "just not true," but makes them anyway, Wynne said after the debate.
"It's quite a statement, and it's a bit sad that the NDP leader falls back on that when we were here to listen to questions from northern leaders," said Wynne. "Andrea Horwath knows that those allegations are not true."
Wynne said she'd changed the process to allow more community involvement in the location of new gas plants and other energy projects, and broadened the scope of legislative committee hearings into the scandal and alleged coverup.
But Horwath repeated her accusations after the debate ended.
"I think what's sad is that after 40 minutes, Ms. Wynne didn't talk about how there was going to be any expectation of change from the way the Liberals behaved," she told reporters.
"What Ontarians need to think about when they go to the polls is who can they trust to actually keep their best interest at heart, to respect their money and to invest their money in their priorities."
There were no direct exchanges between Horwath and Wynne in the lacklustre debate because the format had them responding to questions from selected northern Ontario leaders, but not engaging with each other.
Both leaders promised they'd help develop the mineral-rich Ring of Fire deposit and take action on soaring electricity rates under questioning that covered a wide range of topics, from the province's $12.5-billion deficit to the employment skills gap to what they would do to provide more social supports, which are most costly in the north.
Wynne tried to maintain a positive tone in the debate in spite of Horwath's pointed attacks, saying she was convinced the hard-hit region would once again become an economic driver of Ontario's economy.
Only the Liberals will spend money to train young people for better jobs while the Progressive Conservatives and NDP are looking for savings, she added.
"Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath talk about cutting waste ... but the fact is that we absolutely must make investments in the future of this province, and the most important resource that we have is our young people," she said.
"Our plan is the diametric opposite of what Tim Hudak is proposing. He's going to start to grow the economy and consolidate the recovery by cutting the knees out from under the economy, taking paycheques away from 100,000 people."
The Liberals will have to ratchet down government spending to eliminate the deficit as promised in 2017-18, but Wynne wouldn't say whether that would require layoffs.
"But there isn't a yes or no answer," she said. "The reality is, it's more complex than that. The fact is that we have to make the decisions that are in the best interests of the economy and the best interests of the province and in the best interest of the delivery of health care and education to the people of Ontario. "
Wynne will likely face the same offensive from Hudak in the June 3 leaders' debate in Toronto, which is expected to be a watershed in the June 12 election campaign that may decide its outcome.
But Horwath didn't hold her fire at Hudak, saying his failure to show up at the Thunder Bay debate showed his true feelings about northerners.
Hudak, who was campaigning in Peterborough and the Greater Toronto Area, said his schedule wouldn't allow him to attend. But northern residents won't take his absence as a snub, he said.
Thunder Bay resident Erin Bellavance said it doesn't matter anyway that Hudak didn't take part in the debate, which was mostly attended by party supporters there to cheer on their leader.
"I don't think he'd stand a chance getting elected anywhere here in Thunder Bay," she said. "So I don't know. ... Very few people care what he has to say."
â€” With files from Keith Leslie