Rivals focus on Doug Ford’s COVID-19 response in first leaders’ debate of Ontario election campaign

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NORTH BAY — Doug Ford was forced on the defensive Tuesday in the first leaders’ debate as the two-year COVID-19 pandemic exploded as a dominant issue in Ontario’s June 2 election campaign.

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The Progressive Conservative leader insisted the province performed relatively well compared with other provinces and US states during the world’s worst public-health crisis in a century.

Until now, the pandemic had simmered on the campaign back burner while inflation, education and economic recovery were the hot topics.

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That changed at the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities debate when moderator Markus Schwabe asked the leaders how the province fared during COVID-19, allowing Ford’s rivals a chance to pounce.

“There were some challenging times and really tough decisions,” the Tory leader conceded, blaming the previous Liberal government for leaving the cupboard bare in terms of personal protective equipment (PPE) and pandemic planning.

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“Within a couple months, we were producing our own PPE,” he said, touting his collaboration with the federal Liberal government and Ontario’s municipalities.

But Green Leader Mike Schreiner said Ford’s efforts “started to break down when the government wasn’t following the science and the data to the extent that it should have” and opened up Ontario’s economy too quickly last spring.

“Then the government’s response was to bring back carding and close down playgrounds,” said Schreiner referring to moves by the Tory government that were immediately reversed amid public outcry.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath thundered that about “4,400 seniors lost their lives in long-term care because this government, this premier … promised an iron ring around long-term care|” that turned out to be porous.

“I would have been protecting the seniors in long-term care, hiring 10,000 (personal support workers) like Quebec did, like BC did, but Mr. Ford didn’t want to spend the money,” she said at the debate attended by 300 people.

Horwath did not mention that Quebec has suffered 15,143 COVID-19 deaths — 2,128 more than Ontario’s 13,015 since March 2020, despite having just 57 per cent of this province’s population.

Ford was visibly seeing at the allegations from Horwath and Schreiner that he hadn’t listened to medical experts.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered, adding he was “shocked and disappointed” at the attacks.

“While we were in a full battle, we were working collaboratively with all 444 municipalities. I went after (US President Donald) Trump like no one ever went after him because he cut us off with PPE.”

That was a reference to Trump’s threat to withhold exports of American N95 respirator masks to Canada.

Tuesday’s event was a warm-up for a televised debate Monday evening in Toronto, where COVID-19 is again expected to take center stage.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who was a cabinet minister in premier Kathleen Wynne’s government, criticized Ford for trying to shift blame to the previous administration.

“I’ve stood here so far this afternoon and I’ve heard Mr. Ford talk as if he hasn’t served as Ontario’s premier for the past four years,” said Del Duca, who tried to stay above the fray on the pandemic.

“I listened closely as Mr. Ford talked about collaboration amongst levels of government, which … is a very good thing and I think we can all afford to see more of that,” he said.

However, like the New Democrats, Del Duca said a Liberal government would hold “a public inquiry into the COVID response, not to lay blame … but to draw out the lessons that will help us collectively prepare for whatever challenge comes next.”

Del Duca, who was the target of most of Ford’s salvos, came under fire for his performance in Wynne’s cabinet.

“Mr. Del Duca, you had your opportunity and you failed. You were the minister of transportation. You didn’t build absolutely nothing,” the PC chief chortled.

The Liberal leader, whose party is second behind Ford’s in most polls, countered that “virtually every highway project” that the Tory cited being built in northern Ontario was started when the Grits were in office.

But Del Duca warned one project a Liberal government wouldn’t build is the controversial Highway 413 between Milton and Vaughan.

“Doug Ford wants to spend $10 billion of your money… to build a highway 60 kilometers on the edge of Toronto that’s going to destroy the Greenbelt, farmland and wetlands and save only a handful of commuters mere seconds on their daily trip,” he said .

“That’s billions of dollars that we would invest in public education here in the north and beyond.”

As Ford and Del Duca sparred, Horwath pointed out that their parties have been in power for a generation.

“I know that after (almost) 20 years of Liberals and Conservatives, there’s a lot broken, so let’s get together and start fixing it,” said the New Democrat, who is contesting her fourth election as leader.

“Some of the promises that Mr. Ford is making are the same ones that were in his last platform and he hasn’t gotten around to those things,” she reminded voters.

Ford was the only leader not to scrum with reporters after the debate, prompted derision from his rivals.

“He was gone before I even had a chance to see his fast getaway,” Schreiner quipped. “It just appears that the Conservative campaign strategy is to avoid being held accountable.”

“It’s arrogant … it’s disrespectful,” Dec Duca said.

After four years, the Grit added Ford “doesn’t have that capacity and his performance today in his decision to leave before speaking with all of you really helps to emphasize that he just is the wrong person for this job — and in particular at this time.”

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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