WINCHESTER — Provincial red ink, costly hydro policies and a recently greenlighted local wind farm energized the first all-candidates’ meeting of the Ontario election in Stormont-Dundas-South Glengary, May 17 at the Joel Steele Community Centre.
All five contenders in the district took part in the event, jointly organized by the North Dundas Chamber of Commerce and Dundas Federation of Agriculture.
While local Tory MPP Jim McDonell came into the contest with the baggage of any sitting incumbent, it fell to Liberal candidate Heather Megill of Cornwall to carry the burden of running for an unpopular governing party that has held power for 15 years at Queen’s Park. Marc Benoit of the NDP, Sabile Trimm of the Libertarian Party, and Elaine Kennedy of the Green Party of Ontario rounded out the field.
Taking a page from the broader Wynne government campaign, Heather Megille, an Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario vice president, offered that “no doubt mistakes” had been made on the Hydro file, echoing the premier’s own words.
“To say it’s a disaster would be overly kind,” said a man during the hour-long question-and-answer period, before asking McDonell to clarify the Progressive Conservative plan to cut 10 cents of tax from gasoline at the pumps.
The energy file generally, under the Liberals, has been a “mess,” the MPP said. “We’ve gone from one of the cheapest electricity rates in North America to one of the most expensive.”
McDonell pointed out that the Grits’ Green Energy Act passed into law with the help of the NDP. When Hydro customers were collectively forced to invest in wind turbines and solar panels — through surging rates — it coincided with the loss of 300,000 manufacturing jobs over the years of Liberal rule, he further asserted.
Then the government turned around more recently and borrowed billions of dollars to push down those inflated rates, he reported. This “temporary” hydro rate decrease alone, he added, will cost taxpayers $45-billion to $93-billion over the next 35 years.
The governing party forged ahead with the Green Energy Act and “ignored the science” by eschewing the advice of the Ontario Energy Board and other bodies that warned of the program’s costly price tag. So the government muzzled the Ontario Energy Board, which can no longer comment on government policy. “That’s their solution,” he scoffed.
He suggested the latest multi-million-dollar bonuses paid out by Hydro One showed a lack of respect for taxpayer and ratepayers’ money. “It just doesn’t end.”
Below: “I don’t think we can balance the budget because right now we are focusing on care, compassion and fairness,” Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry Liberal candidate Heather Megill tells a debate audience in Winchester, May 17 (at 3:50 in the video).
But incumbent Tory Jim McDonell argues that if left unchecked, the deficit will result in ever-growing provincial debt service payments of more than $1-billion per month, ultimately to impact those same compassionate programs.
Annette Angus of Winchester sparks the discussion by asking question on what the Liberals and PC’s will do to balance the provincial budget.
A precursor question on the level of provincial spending comes from Jackie Pemberton of Inkerman.
Megill described the Hydro One board salary increases as “shameful” and “outrageous.”
Asked about balancing the provincial budget, McDonell noted this year’s projected deficit of $6-billion has been identified as “closer to $12-billion” by the auditor general. Interest payments on the accumulating debt have been making an impact on social services agencies, which have been telling MPP’s they’ve seen no extra funding increases in five years.
“I think we made a deliberate choice to invest in care, as a result we’re going to have a small deficit, less than one percent of GDP,” said the Liberal candidate, a teacher and former member of the Glengarry Highlanders now serving as a vice president with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
The crowd audibly murmured when Megill went on to claim the Ontario Liberals “have been very fiscally responsible.
“We’ve done the hard work to bring the province back into balance, but right now, we need to invest in care.”
“We’ve chosen to invest in infrastructure, healthcare and other services people rely on.”
The government has spent over $190-billion on public infrastructure over the last 13 years, she said, contrasting that “with the problems they have in Quebec with bridges collapsing and crushing people in their cars.”
Local hospitals have “dramatically” improved because of the investments, she said.
Asked point blank what a re-elected Liberal government would do to balance the budget, she replied, “I don’t think we can balance the budget because right now we are focusing on care, compassion and fairness.”
Contrary to McDonell’s assertion of the hydro system being a mess, Megill said the money spent “cleaned up the dirty hydro system that we inherited.
“Our electricity is now 96 percent emissions free, and we have a generation of children who have never had a smog day.”
Asked about the CUPE strike affecting paramedic and other services shared between Cornwall and the United Counties, Megill said she would “work to ensure the rural values we have in Eastern Ontario are heard around the caucus table.”
Benoit said an NDP government would fund municipalities adequately to maintain services in the first place.
On a related question about having Cornwall and the Counties work together more closely on common problems, Megill suggested a closed door, problem-solving session as a solution. “Let’s all sit down … and try to find some solutions…. It’s really important we talk about them, and do it in a closed room so we don’t have the press here following up on everything we say,” she said, prompted an arched eyebrow or two at the media table.
Benoit said that labour problems have gotten “out of hand.”
On the “housing deficiency” in SD&G, McDonell said that new code changes have raised costs. “We have to look at making it more attractive to build new housing.”
Elaine Kennedy said the Green Party had a number of policies to encourage the building of a variety of housing stock.
McDonell and Benoit were asked what they might do to stop the Nation Rise Wind Farm project in North Stormont, subject of a 3,000-name petition in the Legislature on April 30. “Why was the project approved using outdated [noise] data?” inquired Ruby Mekker, a resident of the affected neighbourhood, noting that approval came May 5 and that surveyors arrived on her road days later.
“The Ontario government is really looking at building sustainable energy,” said Megill. “We have to deal, obviously, with the coming climate crisis. It’s not coming, it’s here now.”
“I know people who have been impacted from wifi,” added the Liberal candidate, adding she hopes to “uncover what many of these issues are.”
Benoit wouldn’t comment on the project specifically but emphasized the NDP’s commitment to the “role of communities and the people in those communities…. We do hear your concerns and would be interested in working with you on a solution.”
“As a party we’ve committed to cancelling any projects we can. We’ll cancel the Green Energy Act,” vowed McDonell, when asked a similar question. While they can’t look at the “secret” contracts at the moment, that will change if the Ford Tories are elected. “And Any off-ramps that are there, any projects that haven’t been given final approval, it will probably be cheaper to get rid of them.”
In an impassioned closing statement, the Libertarian candidate — who saw only limited questioning at the event — argued that Ontario actually has the cheapest Hydro rates in the world. “The reason why you feel ripped off is because you’re so heavily taxed that you want to blame it on Hydro…. The problem with Hydro is that it’s mismanaged.”
Sabile Trimm and Kennedy were asked from the floor about the point of running for parties with little to no chance of being elected. Kennedy, a retired teacher, bluntly acknowledged she wasn’t running to win. Trimm, a chemical engineer, highlighted the need for a proportional representation system, expressing unhappiness that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reneged on his promise to bring in such reform at the federal level.
The candidates meet again for another debate tonight, May 23, at the Best Western Parkway Inn & Conference Centre, 7 till 9 p.m.
Below, South Stormont Deputy Mayor Tammy Hart questions Liberal candidate Heather Megill about lack of transparency in Wynne government policies, during the May 17 all-candidates’ meeting in Winchester.
Discussion at the May 17 North Dundas all-candidates’ meeting turned to Hydro issues, the Green Energy Act and cap-and-trade.