Kicking off the last full week of the provincial election campaign, the hopefuls in Kitchener-Conestoga turned down the heat but picked up the rhetoric Monday during an all-candidates debate in Elmira.
More than 100 people showed up at the Woolwich Memorial Centre to listen to Progressive Conservative Michael Harris, Liberal incumbent Leeanna Pendergast and the NDP’s Mark Cairn answer questions about topics ranging from taxation to healthcare and from municipal issues and workforce development.
Green Party candidate Robert Rose was unavailable for the meeting, citing a scheduling conflict.
This was not a debate format, with all three candidates talking to the points individually, typically keeping to the party line. Organized by the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, the event was moderated.
Harris spoke of lower taxes and hydro bills for families, Cairns focused on green energy while creating well-paying jobs and Pendergast emphasized her party’s pledges while focusing on education and health care.
One of the biggest cheers from the audience came early in the night after the candidates answered a question about farmers and risk management.
All three candidates supported the idea of a permanent risk management program for Ontario agriculture, with Pendergast saying the Liberal government has already established a risk management program for grain and oilseed farmers and will expand that to cattle and dairy farmers.
Harris said the Conservatives would also protect supply management for farmers and implement a buy-Ontario program and food policy.
Cairns focused on helping farmers maintain a decent standard of living, saying it is “a very unfortunate situation when people who are growing and producing our food often have to find off-farm jobs to make a living wage.”
He also said he would like to encourage on farm processing by relaxing municipal taxing and zoning and establish a rural school stabilization strategy for children who want to attend school in rural communities.
Another hot topic for the candidates was their parties’ commitments to the region’s rapid transit system.
Again all three parties supported the idea of a light rail transit system, with Cairns saying it is a project that is needed to modernize the region.
“We do not intend to take away the proposed funding for this project,” said Cairns. “The NDP wants to see this LRT project completed and we will fund our end of the deal.”
Harris said the Conservatives are planning to invest $35 billion into new infrastructure money over the course of the first three years, much of that would go to transit and transportation.
“We would honour the Ontario governments’ commitment to fund the local LRT as it is currently. This current government promised to fund two-thirds of the KW LRT system and reneged on that promise that will end up costing local taxpayers between $230 and $300 million,” said Harris.
Pendergast defended her party’s stand on the LRT, saying the budget for the LRT has risen from the original $530 million to more than $800 million.
“My understanding is that our support would be two-thirds of $530 million,” said Pendergast, adding that after holding meetings with the Premier he personally committed $300 million to the Region of Waterloo, which was an “unprecedented commitment to this region, it is what the people of Waterloo Region want and we have made a commitment to support their decision.”
Closing remarks from the candidates were recaps of their party’s platforms with Harris once again commenting on the increased taxes over the last eight years and the rising cost of hydro adding that in “Woolwich the Liberal government has taken the region for granted, how else can you explain a bio-gas plant being forced on Elmira or the gravel pits that a newly promised review will do nothing to stop.”
Cairns promised to hold four town hall meetings annually in his closing remarks so that he would have a better understanding of how the government was doing from the constituents and not from a consulting firm in Toronto that costs millions of dollars.
“Government CEO salaries are running amok and we need to cut those and put that money into frontline services and start saving money to reduce our deficit and get towards a balanced budget,” said Cairns.
Pendergast spoke about the improvements the Liberals have made to schools, hospitals and affordable housing and said she is proud of the fact that she was able to bring GO bus and train to the Waterloo Region.
“There is more to do, we are making groundbreaking announcements in areas such as job recovery, clean energy and aggregates in Woolwich Township, which requires serious leadership in serious times,” said Pendergast.