TORONTO — Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford faced a barrage of attacks from the other three major party leaders in the Ontario election debate Monday, but largely refused to take the bait, instead referring back to his own messages of building infrastructure and affordability.
One of the sharpest criticisms came from Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, who laid into Ford over what he called the Tory leader's disrespect for nurses as premier, including capping compensation increases for public sector workers.
"Mr. Ford, have you talked to a nurse lately?" Schreiner said.
"Have you talked to a nurse about how disrespected they feel, how overworked and underpaid and underappreciated they are, how insulted they feel being called heroes and then essentially having their wages cut by having them frozen? Mr. Ford, if you want to build capacity in our health-care system you have to make sure you invest in the people who deliver that care."
Tim Abray, a teaching fellow in political studies at Queen’s University, said Ford successfully played defence.
"I think he avoided getting dragged into any hammer and tong debates over his record," he said.
"I think he did what he usually does, which is he sidestepped a lot of those questions, threw back broad slogans, broad accusations. But yeah, he really was not interested in getting into the detail of anything tonight."
Polls suggest Ford has a wide lead in the election so far, and Abray said the strategy the Tory leader employed at the debate was a typical front-runner tactic.
"When you're going into an election with that kind of substantive lead, the general wisdom is that you simply try and maintain it by not drawing attention to yourself," Abray said.
Schreiner also criticized Ford for his handling of long-term care during the pandemic, and Ford responded by saying he is building hospitals.
"When we came into office our health-care system was broken," he said earlier in the health-care section of the debate.
"Every region in this province is getting a new hospital...50 projects right across every single region."
Ford also said the Progressive Conservatives would fund nurses' tuition fees if they work in an underserved area, and noted that his government gave personal support workers a $3-an-hour raise and are giving nurses a $5,000 retention pay bonus.
The other three leaders argued that repealing the legislation that capped the compensation increases of nurses and other public sector workers would help them more than giving them a one-time payment.
That legislation, Bill 124, also affected teachers and sparked a tense round of education contract negotiations with Ford's government.
Teachers and education staff, who staged various strikes and work-to-rule campaigns over the wage restraint, increases to class sizes and Ford mandating two online learning courses for high school graduation, though the government eventually eased its positions on the latter two. The government also briefly mused about cuts to full-day kindergarten.
"One of the things that Mr. Ford refuses to acknowledge is the cuts and the chaos he brought to our public education system," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.
"Your cuts and your chaos destabilized our education system significantly. Ask any parent and they’ll tell you the same thing. You can’t cut toward a better education system, you just can’t."
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca also slammed Ford on the education file.
"Your record on public education is an embarrassment and you should be ashamed of yourself," he said. "You, sir, have failed this province."
Ford said he is proud of his government's record on education, saying he is helping students prepare for jobs of the future.
The Progressive Conservative leader often fell back on his message of building, creating jobs, and putting money into people's pockets.
The debate kicked off with a chippy exchange between Ford and Del Duca.
Ford rattled off a list of accusations at Del Duca, including that he wants to bring back licence plate renewal fees and increase highway tolls.
Del Duca jumped in to refute each point, directing Ford to the Ontario Liberals' website to check their campaign pledges.
"There’s an old saying in life: 'You’re entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts,' Mr. Ford," Del Duca said.
Ford's opening statement emphasized his plan to build Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, saying the economy is booming.
Horwath said she is pitching hope that the New Democrats can fix what matters most to Ontarians.
She also poked fun at the 90-minute debate itself.
"I’m sure this is not the most fun thing you’ll ever do on a Monday night, but because you’re joining us it shows you care and this election has a lot at stake," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2022.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press