Questions about how to support businesses and workers dominated a two-hour all candidates debate at the Empire Theatre on Thursday night.
Candidates vying for the MPP seat in the new Bay of Quinte riding took part in the debate hosted by the Belleville Chamber of Commerce and moderated by chamber board of directors president Suzanne Hunt.
The participants included Robert Quaiff representing the Liberals, Todd Smith of the Progressive Conservatives, Joanne Belanger from the New Democratic Party and Cindy Davidson of the Ontario Libertarian Party.
Green Party candidate Mark Daye did not attend, while independent candidate Paul Bordonaro handed out flyers outside the theatre.
The discussion featured a selection of pre-submitted questions, answered by each candidate and some audience-submitted questions, which were answered by single candidates.
Liberal candidate Robert Quaiff spent the majority of the night pushing his connection to the region, as a long time mayor of Prince Edward County and says his party will make investments to improve the lives of Ontarians, while the other parties are planning cuts to major services.
The PC’s Todd Smith touted his accomplishments over the last six-plus years representing the area and says the Liberals have made a mess of the hydro file and others, while an NDP vote would be like voting for the Liberals “on fast forward”.
NDP candidate Joanne Belanger, a rookie politician and wife of former Quinte West councillor Terry Cassidy, countered that her party has the only fully-costed platform and has “the right leader for the job” in Andrea Horwath, discrediting PC head Doug Ford for his lack of provincial experience.
Libertarian Cindy Davidson, an adult educator and another political newcomer, seemed flustered at times but admitted the experience was new for her, working with a party that stands for smaller government and will look for more non-government ways to provide services like healthcare.
When asked about how they would support small businesses, Quaiff told the crowd that small businesses are the backbone of our community and that the Liberals have already made steps to help them stay competitive, like lowering the corporate tax rate, investing in youth employment and raising the minimum wage.
Smith countered that the raise in minimum wage has been detrimental to local business, forcing some to close and increasing costs for all Ontarians overall.
He did say, if elected, his party would keep the minimum wage at $14 per hour and give minimum wage earners a break on their provincial taxes, but most importantly “get back to creating an environment that creates good paying jobs with benefits”.
He also said his party would get hydro rates under control and “bring down the cost of doing business in Ontario”.
As far as improving conditions for businesses, the NDP’s Joanne Belanger told the crowd her party would make sure that contracts for government projects are awarded fairly and that certain companies won’t get awarded projects just because “they’ve backed the dominant party”.
Smith agreed that the procurement process has to change.
Davidson also said her party would end the processes that keep those contracts with large businesses and would end government monopolies.
Another question was asked to all four candidates, about making changes in the skilled trades sector, with the knowledge that many current tradespeople will soon be retiring.
The three non-liberal candidates all pointed at the College of Trades and its rules and regulations being a burden on tradespeople.
Belanger said the college’s mandate needs to be looked at and perhaps Ontario could learn from a number of European models that stream kids into skilled trades pathways as early as the fifth or sixth grade.
Davidson, a former aircraft mechanic, says the federal regulations seem to fit a little bit better as there are no “ratios” for tradespeople who want to take on apprentices.
Smith jumped on the ratio issue as well, saying the “Toronto-centric approach” of needing three journeyman electricians to hire one apprentice, doesn’t work in this area.
He and Quaiff agreed on the idea that those types of skills should be taught in high schools and even earlier, as a way to increase interest.
Quaiff said, if elected, he would be willing to take a look at instilling those programs back in schools.
One question stated that the voice of business is being drowned out by the voice of labour at Queen’s Park and asked how each candidate would tackle that issue.
All of the candidates agreed there needs to be open discussion with both sides, but there were some different opinions on labour negotiations, especially when it comes to public service employees like first responders, teachers and others.
Belanger says those negotiations need to be looked at at the regional level and not by provincial standards, with the fiscal health of municipalities being taken into account.
Smith agreed that “sometimes arbitrators think municipalities are bottomless pits” but says negotiations need to take place as early as possible to avoid lengthy strike situations, like the Ontario colleges’ strike last year and the ongoing strike of staff at York University.
Davidson says her party would try to find ways to privatize some of those services, that some of them can be run outside of government.
Quaiff says he thinks the arbitration process should be “efficient, transparent and be accountable on municipalities to be able to pay” and says he worries the PCs will just make cuts to deal with those problems.
The candidates were also asked about some non-business issues including healthcare.
Quaiff says his party has already made significant commitments to improving healthcare, citing the new hospital coming to Picton and says he’s worried that “efficiencies” being talked about by the PCs will include cutting hospital staff, like the previous Mike Harris government had done.
Smith countered that his party actually has a plan to increase long term care beds and more importantly, take money out of the bureaucracy in the health care sector and put it back into patient care.
Belanger says her party would put in a moratorium on nursing layoffs and would invest billions into capital healthcare projects, while adding 4,500 new nursing positions.
Davidson says the Libertarians want more competition in the sector and reiterated that her party would look at the possibility of adding private options to bring down costs and give people more choice.
In all, candidates were asked closed to 20 questions about their platforms and gave their final pitches on why voters should elect them on June 7.
Quinte News will be live on election night with online coverage and on-air discussion on 800 AM CJBQ, starting at 8:30 p.m. as polls get set to close.