Gas plants, corruption, energy prices top issues in Ont. leaders' debate
Maria Babbage and Keith Leslie, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, June 3, 2014 5:32PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, June 3, 2014 11:13PM EDT
TORONTO -- Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak upped the ante Tuesday in defending his widely questioned plan to create a million jobs over eight years, saying he would quit as premier if he failed to deliver on all of his campaign promises once elected.
"I'm so confident in my plan that it's going to work that if I don't actually carry through on my plan, if I don't keep my promises in the Million Jobs Plan, I'll resign," he said during the Ontario election debate. "I'll step down from office."
Hudak insisted he would eliminate the $12.5-billion deficit in two years even if Ontario falls into another recession, challenging his rivals -- who are promising to get rid of the red ink in three years -- to do the same if they win.
His stunning statement followed an acrimonious televised exchange where the Tory leader was hammered repeatedly about his job-creation promise and controversial measures to reduce spending, including cutting 100,000 public sector jobs.
"You're talking about putting a million people back to work -- there's no evidence that your plan would create a million jobs," Premier Kathleen Wynne said during one testy exchange.
Hudak defended his plan, casting himself as the honest politician telling voters what sacrifices they'll have to make to eliminate the deficit and spur economic growth, while painting Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath as rivals with duelling plans to hike taxes.
He accused Wynne of not giving a straight answer to one voter on how she can eliminate the deficit in 2017-18 without cutting a single job in the public sector and possibly adding even more.
"We're so deep in debt, where are we getting all this money?" he said. "He's asking how you're going to cut spending, you talked about spending more."
Wynne said the Liberals would make the right investments -- such as pouring billions into infrastructure -- to spur the growth that's needed to create jobs and balance the books. The economic shock from the massive cuts Hudak's planning would tip Ontario back into recession, she added.
Economists have warned that one of the dangers of making job-creation promises is that politicians are banking on many things that are beyond the government's control.
The global economy could rebound over the next eight years and create a million jobs, they say. But if it slows into recession, even the best policies in the world won't allow them to hit that target.
But Hudak has refused to back down from his job numbers, despite a growing number of economists who say some figures appear to be inflated because the data used to back up the numbers was misinterpreted.
Wynne and Horwath missed their opportunity to explain to voters why that's important, said Wayne Petrozzi, politics professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.
"They never attempted to explain what's so terrible about the math," he said.
"They didn't offer anything except to keep saying his math was wrong. Well, what was wrong with his math? If you're someone who was waiting for an answer to help you decide, you didn't get much of an answer. He got off lightly."
The rookie Liberal leader was in the hot seat from the start, forced to explain soaring electricity rates and apologize repeatedly for the cancellation of two gas plants, which is expected to cost up to $1.1 billion.
Those bad decisions, which have sparked a criminal investigation into the deletion of government emails, is responsible for rising hydro bills, Hudak said.
Voters have a right to be angry, Wynne admitted.
"The decisions around the relocation of the gas plants were wrong," she said. "There was public money that was wasted, and in the process the public good was sacrificed to partisan interests."
Wynne said she's taken action to ensure that "the breach of trust between the government and the people" does not happen again.
But "corruption in the Liberal party runs deep," Horwath said, calling it the central issue of the election campaign.
The NDP leader also took aim at Hudak, warning voters that his plan to cut public sector jobs to create new ones doesn't add up.
The Tory leader's "tough medicine" for the province isn't like Buckley's cough syrup, she said. "It tastes awful, but it's not going to work."
Howarth, who has to convince voters that she's a better alternative to the Liberals to stop a Conservative government, went on the attack early in the debate.
She invoked former prime minister Brian Mulroney's 1984 knockout punch, asking Wynne point blank why she didn't refuse to sign a cabinet document cancelling one of the two gas plants.
"You had a choice when you were going to sign off on those gas plant documents," she said. "Why did you not choose to stand up for the people of Ontario and ensure that those documents weren't signed? Why did you make the wrong choice?"
Voters have their own choice to make, Horwath said.
"You don't have to choose between bad ethics and bad math," she said.
The three leaders answered six questions posed by voters on topics including government ethics, job creation, education, transit and the deficit.
Ontario voters go to the polls on June 12.