As the incumbent, MPP Wayne Gates is the candidate with a target on his back, but his experience at debates and passion for his job seemed to help him rise above the barbs thrown his way at Wednesday's all-candidates meeting for the June 7 provincial election.
PC candidate Chuck McShane and Liberal Dean Demizio and their parties were also on the receiving end of some sarcasm and criticism from each other, but were united in their attacks on the NDP and Gates. They accused him several times of taking credit for the accomplishments of the Liberals, with Demizio offering to give Gates his red Liberal tie.
But there were occasions when their jabs backfired, drawing boos from the audience, and the support for Gates and his popularity with the crowd was sufficient to give his opponents reason to be nervous and combatant.
Also at the table was Green Party candidate Karen Fraser, who stuck to her notes and platform, refraining from stooping to the political nastiness of the night.
The four are candidates vying to win the Niagara Falls riding, which includes Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie.
The meeting, hosted by the NOTL Chamber of Commerce at the community centre, drew a small and polite crowd of a little more than 100 people, who provided written questions before the meeting that each candidate in turn drew from a box.
Each candidate was given two minutes to respond, and then their fellow candidates had a minute to answer the same question.
Fraser introduced herself as a Niagara Falls resident, a mother and grandmother who has been a proud member of the Green Party since 2005, has worked as campaign manager in previous elections and has served with several committees and community organizations. The Green Party, she said, is international, and has a platform that addresses and costs out many issues, not just the environment, and does not vote as a block in Queen's Park.
“We vote according to our constituents and our conscience,” she said.
Demizio grew up in Niagara Falls, is a father of two, owns a small business in Fort Erie, is on the board of Community Living in Fort Erie. He spoke of the Liberal success related to the growth in the economy, low unemployment, and improved quality of life for residents of Ontario and Niagara.
“The Liberal government is bringing growth to Ontario,” he said.
Gates said his work as MPP has had a positive impact on Niagara, including the wine industry.
He said his party, if elected, would make hydro more affordable, would improve health care by providing more hospital beds and staff, including nurses, to eliminate “hallway” medicine, and would provide universal health and dental care. His party is also the only one talking about lowering the price of gasoline.
“With the NDP what you see is what you get,” he added, promising “to continue to work hard and earn your trust, day in and day out.”
Chuck McShane introduced himself as a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident, husband, father, grandfather and small business owner. He accused the Liberals of being racked by scandal, corruption and back-room deals, “propped up for years by the NDP.”
He said it is time for real change in Ontario, adding “we trust people with their hard-earned money and we want to put more of it in their pockets.”
Hydro was a big topic of the night, and is an issue that forms a large part of the NDP platform, which criticizes the Liberal government for the decision to sell it without the support of their electorate.
New Democrats are running on the promise to buy Hydro One back if elected, and that, combined with the strong opposition to the Liberals' handling of hydro, provided questions that were taylor-made to suit Gates.
It's a subject he speaks about easily, knowledgeably and passionately, although his explanation of how the NDP would finance the purchase of shares in Hydro One — if they are even for sale — attracted scornful comments from his Liberal and PC opponents.
The NDP platform is to spend “about a billion” to buy back shares over four to six years — possibly less if the price of Hydro One shares keep falling, Gates said, by using the money the province receives from the shares and now spends on infrastructure.
He asked the audience to put their hands up if they supported privatization of Hydro One, and when no one did, he said that was why the residents of Ontario spoke out in opposition.
It was the government's responsibility to listen — but they didn't, he said.
“If they wanted to sell Hydro One they should have made it part of their election platform. Nobody, not one person said 'we're going to sell Hydro One to pay for infrastructure.'”
Gates said he would never run a business the way the Liberals run the government, allowing hydro bills to increase 300 per cent, and McShane agreed that as a small business owner he would “certainly not run a business the way this government has.”
But McShane drew boos from the crowd when he added, “Wayne Gates has worked his whole life off other people's backs.”
Demizio referred to privatization of hydro as “semantics,” and defended his government's decision, saying the sale leveraged hydro, helped pay down debt, raised money for infrastructure which created jobs, and “helps everyone in this room.”
Gates countered that instead of selling off the province's biggest asset, the Liberals would have been further ahead financially if they had held on to Hydro One and paid for infrastructure projects with public money.
If elected, the PCs wouldn't spend money to try to buy it back, McShane said.
He also criticized Gates' support of a bill that eliminated the role of ombudsman.
“People had nowhere to go and complain about hydro. (Gates) can't change anything — he voted for what's happening in hydro right now.”
The province would be deeper in debt if it buys back shares in Hydro One, McShane said.
“It won't work. We didn't support selling Hydro One but we can't buy back shares if someone doesn't want to sell them.”
“Let's do the math,” said Demizio, questioning where the money would come from.
Other issues address included: developing the greenbelt; the provincial physical health and education curriculum that teaches gender identification in public schools; minimum wage increases; health care; municipal property taxes; support for libraries; and even the absence of a flag at the NOTL community centre.
The question regarding sufficient funding for library services took some candidates by surprise.
McShane said no, funding isn't enough, admitting, “I don't know where the dollars can come from but it's something well worth looking at.”
Demizio drew some jeers from the audience when he asked, given the increase in technology, “are people still going to the library? Are you going to borrow books?”
He quickly back-pedalled when he heard the audience response in support of libraries, and said, “we need to make sure the money is there.”
Fraser pointed out that library funding has been frozen for the last 20 years, and library staff trying to get by with limited resources wish they could do more.
“Libraries are places to learn and grow, and the Green Party will support them,” Fraser said.
Gates earned points when he referred to the 80 per cent of NOTL residents who use their public library, and said how important the facility is to “young minds and our seniors.”
He promised the NDP would support libraries, including the one in NOTL.
The question about children being able to choose their gender identification in Grade 3 brought up another unexpected topic, but Demizio used it to shoot down the PC's opposition to what they continually refer to as 'sex ed.'
“It’s not sex ed, it's physical health and education,” said Demizio.
“If kids want to make a choice, as parents we have to listen to them.”
It's a “different day and age we live in,” he said, adding it's good to know kids are learning what they need to know from their teachers.
Fraser said it's important to deal with kids on their level and teach them until they're old enough to decide for themselves. The Green Party would provide everybody with the health services they need, including mental health services, she said.
McShane stuck to the PC platform, opposing a curriculum “allowing teachers to talk to kids in Grade 3 about what gender they should be.”
Teachers should stick to subjects such as math and science, and let parents teach their kids about sex, he said, to applause from the audience.
A question about developing the greenbelt, after PC leader Doug Ford was reported to have told his developer friends they could build on protected land, was one candidates could sink their teeth into.
McShane said Ford, “after listening to the people,” changed his mind about building on the greenbelt. He said he favours more growth in the southern tier to take pressure off the greenbelt, but there will have to be infrastructure to support it, and without it, “there will be a lot of six-storey apartment buildings,” including in NOTL, because of initiatives undertaken by the province.
Demizio said he'd like to see redevelopment and a “clean-up” of existing development. Under the PCs, he said, “the greenbelt will be gone,” adding Ford is “ready to pave paradise.”
Fraser said residents need to look to their city councils and the region to be more defiant against provincial regulations, but said if that doesn't work, “it's up to us.”
She also said she's very committed to affordable housing and basic income guarantees, and talked of the Green Party's program that would eliminate poverty.
The NDP party does not believe in developing the greenbelt, said Gates, or wetlands, referring to a Niagara Falls development that was recently approved by its council.
He also referenced NOTL's historic Randwood Estate, the site of a hotel development proposal, drawing applause when he said “if we're going to protect Niagara-on-the-Lake we have to make sure the developers listen to the residents. You have to stand up and say enough is enough.”
Asked what he thought was the most important issue affecting Niagara, Demizio talked about health care and the need to build the new hospital in Niagara Falls and add more long-term beds.
That, he said, would alleviate long waits in hospital emergency rooms, backlogs for treatment and “hallway” care.
Gates agreed health care is a priority, requiring more hospital beds, more staff, including nurses, and more home care for “the seniors who built our country,” so they can stay in their homes longer. He spoke of the need to attract more doctors, and also one of his causes — to ensure the unification of couples in separate long-term care facilities.
“Seniors who have spent their entire lives together deserve to spend their last days together,” he said.
McShane said the PCs are also dedicated to building the new hospital in Niagara Falls, to more long-term care beds, and to helping seniors stay in their homes longer.
Responding to a question about the minimum wage increase enacted by the Liberals this year, the PC candidate was the only one who wasn't completely supportive of the move, with more increases to come.
“We never disagreed with the minimum age increase,” he said. “But it was too much too fast. Did seniors' pensions go up when the minimum wage went up? I don't think so.”
He spoke of people with jobs in the hospitality industry who had their hours cut, and restaurants that closed because “business owners lost 35 per cent off the top.”
“Could you afford to lose 35 per cent off the top of your salary?” he asked Gates, and answered for him, “Yes, I guess you could.”
The final question of the evening was another surprise and the only one they could all agree on — when their attention was drawn to it, they all said yes, the community centre auditorium should have a Canadian flag.
The flag should be properly displayed, said McShane. “Why isn't there one here? I don't know but I certainly would like to see it here.”
Demizio said he has flags at his office and his home. “We live in a great country and we have to pay homage to that.”
“It's important to have flags front and centre. It teaches our kids patriotism, and I feel better when I see a flag,” said Fraser.
“It promotes civic pride. It should be here and hopefully tomorrow it will be.”
Gates said he would talk to Lord Mayor Pat Darte about getting a flag in the community centre.
“It should be here to celebrate not only Canada but the great history, including that of the First Nations, Niagara-on-the-Lake has given us.”