Jill Dunlop found herself on the defensive Tuesday evening during a candidates meeting that focused on food security.
During the meeting at Lakehead University, presented by the Orillia Food Council, candidates seeking Simcoe North residents’ support in the June 7 provincial election were grilled on issues of food security, or insecurity, and how they and their parties would address the problem, though the discussion often veered to other matters.
A theme emerged among three of four candidates who attended. The Green, Liberal and New Democratic parties want more money for workers, through either a higher minimum wage or a guaranteed basic income.
The New Democrats would “develop and enforce policies which encourage food security and nutrition” in schools, NDP candidate Elizabeth Van Houtte said.
Valerie Powell, of the Green Party, said making nutritious food accessible isn’t the only priority; people need to be educated about it. “As well as providing it, we need to make people want it,” she said.
Liberal hopeful Gerry Marshall reiterated his party’s planned minimum wage hike — to $15 an hour in 2019 — though he acknowledged even $15 an hour isn’t considered a living wage in Simcoe County.
That’s where Dunlop and Marshall were at odds.
“It came too quick, too soon,” Dunlop said of the increase from $11.60 to $14 an hour that came into effect Jan. 1.She also said such increases “have no effect on reducing poverty” and warned of tens of thousands of job losses that could result from the change.
Marshall brushed off those projections, noting fears of massive layoffs were felt in British Columbia ahead of its wage hike while, a year and a half later, 50,000 jobs were added.
Each of the four candidates was given the opportunity to ask a question of an opponent. Dunlop faced three queries.
With PC Leader Doug Ford promising to cut taxes, Powell asked Dunlop where the money would come from and how social services would be impacted. A PC government would do a “line-by-line audit” at Queen’s Park, Dunlop said before questioning the feasibility of all of the social services. “How are we paying for it?”
“Our platforms are costed,” Powell replied.
Dunlop said the PCs are looking to cut “waste,” not services.
Van Houtte was next to question Dunlop.
“I am quite disturbed at your position of not promoting a minimum wage,” Van Houtte said, asking how, then, the PCs would address food insecurity.
Dunlop again focused on the impact the minimum wage increase has had on businesses, recalling a conversation she had with the owners of Fern Resort, who were worried about how they would recoup costs.
She also said she has kids living at home who do not need a $15 minimum wage, as she pays their bills.
When Marshall’s time came to question Dunlop, he brought up Ford’s previous plan to open up parts of Ontario’s Greenbelt to development. Marshall wanted to know how the PCs would protect green space in Simcoe County.
Ford abandoned that plan, Dunlop replied.
“Myself and other candidates spoke up in favour of not touching that land,” she said. “Yes, (Ford) did change his mind and I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
The candidates then took audience questions, drawn at random. The first: How would you prioritize poverty reduction?
“Jobs. People. Planet,” Powell said, quoting the Green Party of Ontario’s vision.
“Traditional manufacturing is gone. We have to look to the future,” she said, voicing her support for both greener technology and a guaranteed basic income.
Van Houtte touted her party’s proposed universal dental plan and a platform that’s heavy on health-care goals.
Marshall said now is the time to think differently when it comes to jobs: “Be bold. Be innovative.”
The PCs, Dunlop said, “are looking at it from an economic point of view,” and she went after the Liberals, saying the number of low-income residents in Ontario has increased under their watch.
In her closing statement, Van Houtte appealed for change in Simcoe North.
“PCs have been here for a hundred years. What’s gotten better?” she asked.
Marshall pointed out there has been a rise in job numbers since the recession.
Powell said she was going to be “really incensed” if she had to hear a Tory candidate say again the PCs would “put money back in my pocket” — an oft-repeated line from Dunlop during Tuesday’s event.
“I don’t want more money in my pocket,” she said, adding she would rather see the money to toward affordable housing and other services to help disadvantaged Ontarians.
Dunlop listed parts of the PC platform, including hydro rate relief, cutting taxes for the middle class, and focusing on businesses.
“Strong business leads to a strong economy,” she said.
The candidates will face off again Thursday during a meeting at Orillia city hall that will get underway at 6:30 p.m.