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Lehman challenges local PC candidates to ‘show up’ for debates

Lehman says not attending debates is 'bad for democracy,' while Downey counters Liberals are 'trying to find an issue that the media can run with'

Jeff Lehman, the Liberal candidate in Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte (BSOM), held a news conference Sunday to call out his Progressive Conservative opponent and others from the party for not attending all-candidate meetings.

During the news conference, which was held at Lehman's campaign headquarters on Blake Street in Barrie and was live-streamed on socia media, Lehman said he wanted to address something he and other Liberal candidates have become concerned about during the Ontario election campaign.

“It appears that PC candidates have been instructed not to attend all-candidate meetings and media appearances. (They’re) avoiding debates, especially on issues where the government’s record is weak,” Lehman said. “This is bad for our province, it is bad for democracy.”

However, PC leader Doug Ford said at a campaign stop in Bracebridge that the order did not come from him.

In response to a question from a reporter, Ford said he has not told PC candidates to avoid debates.

“No, not at all,” Ford told reporters. “There’s going to be some candidates that want to do the debates and some that aren’t going to do the debates.”

It would seem Simcoe North incumbent Jill Dunlop is one that isn't going to debates. She skipped all three debates held in the riding last week — including one hosted by Lakehead University.

As Dunlop is the Minister of Colleges and Universities, NDP candidate Elizabeth Van Houtte called her absence "particularly insulting."

The BSOM riding has had three all-candidates meetings since the start of the campaign and PC incumbent Doug Downey has attended one

In a phone interview on Sunday afternoon, Downey said he has never received direction from anyone in the party about attending — or not attending — debates or all-candidate meetings leading up to the June 2 election.

“I went to the CARP meeting last week, I’m going to the Barrie Chamber of Commerce meeting next week,” Downey said. “I mean, we’re doing a ton of stuff. I’m at the doors connecting with people one-on-one, thousands of them, and I find that to be time well spent.”

Lehman says it is a “cynical move” to not attend debates and make yourself accountable to questions from the voters.

“I think the most basic part of being a public representative is being accountable to the public and showing up," Lehman said. "The most basic test of leadership is showing up.

“We’ve been praising essential workers, health-care workers, emergency service workers all through the pandemic for going to work everyday and I think the least elected officials can do, and those who seek those offices, is to show up for an hour or two and answer people’s questions," he added. 

Lehman said even uncomfortable questions are part of the job and he believes it 's important that all parties be accountable by addressing those questions. 

Downey was asked what he thought about Lehman’s “challenge” to PC candidates to be more accountable and attend the question-and-answer events.

“I think the Liberals are in trouble and they’re trying to find a story when they really should be talking about the issues,”Downey said. “The Bradford Bypass is a perfect example. One candidate says we’re not doing it, one says we’re going to study it, one says we’re going to do it later. They’re all over the place on some of this stuff.

"I think they’re trying to find an issue that the media can run with," he added. "I’d rather spend my time knocking on doors. It's just a better place to be.”

Lehman says candidates need to be at local debates so the “public can ask questions and hold candidates accountable for their party platform and their government’s actions past and present.”

“For anyone concerned about what kind of representative they’re going to have, what kind of message does it send when you are not willing to show up and answer those questions,” Lehman said. “I think it speaks to what kind of representative you're going to be for the riding in the future.”

-- With files from Dave Dawson