From left, Liberal candidate Doug Joyner, PC Sam Oosterhoff, and NDP David Augustyn in a Niagara Falls TV studio. JACK CUSTERS

Range of issues discussed in meeting to air this Thursday

Affordability, housing, education, and healthcare took much of the spotlight last Friday as three of the eight candidates for the Niagara West seat at Queen’s Park gathered at the Cogeco YourTV studios in Niagara Falls for a televised debate.

Incumbent Progressive Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament Sam Oosterhoff was flanked on set by two hopefuls, each with municipal experience. Former Pelham Mayor David Augustyn rolled up the sleeves of his orange shirt to represent the NDP, while Doug Joyner, former Mayor of West Lincoln, sported a tie decorated with red maple leaves as the riding’s Liberal Party candidate.

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Green Party candidate Laura Garner was also invited to the studio but did not respond to producer Jack Custers’ invitation. The other four candidates who represent parties not currently holding a seat in the Legislature were offered a two-minute pre-taped segment to outline their platforms. Only Chris Arnew of the New Blue Party accepted the offer from Custers.

From the onset it was clear that Oosterhoff and his PC party were to be put on the defensive during the 90-minute proceedings. The two challengers repeatedly attacked the Conservatives’ Bill 124, which caps annual salary increases for nurses, teachers and others in the public sector at 1 percent. As well, Doug Ford’s proposed Highway 413 was targeted often as an unnecessary project by both of his opponents.

On the education front, Augustyn pointed to the 2022 Ontario budget, where he said premier Doug Ford cut $1.3 billion from education. He said an NDP government would reduce class sizes, hire additional educational assistants and eliminate the EQAO tests at all grades.

Joyner promised the Liberals would cap class sizes at 20 students, as well as eliminate mandatory online learning and hire 5,000 more special education workers.

“We’ll take Doug Ford’s misguided Highway 413 investment and put $10 billion into the repair backlog in our schools,” Joyner added. “And we’ll reinstate an optional Grade 13 as a more structured alternative to the more informal and often discouraged victory lap. And we’ll add Covid-19 to the list of universal school shots.”

We’ll take Doug Ford’s misguided Highway 413 investment and put $10 billion into the repair backlog in our schools

Oosterhoff pointed to a Liberal-NDP coalition from 2011 to 2014 having closed almost 600 schools across the province.

“We are building hundreds and hundreds of new schools,” Oosterhoff countered. “But more than that, we are getting back to the basics. We’re focusing on things like coding, financial literacy and skills training, all practical skills that will ensure students are prepared for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Joyner also pointed to a Toronto Star investigation that revealed that Ford’s government denied public schools rapid antigen tests for Covid-19 while shipping 175,000 such tests for free to private schools.

“What can the Parliamentary Secretary for Education say to that statement to the Toronto Star,” Joyner posited to silence from Oosterhoff.

Questions for the candidates were collected from YourTV viewers prior to the recording of the debate. As well, a few were submitted via video by community stakeholders.

Lynda O’Donnell, of Community Care of West Niagara, pointed to social and rent-geared-to-income housing as options that can help people avoid homelessness and the need to use food banks. Her video question asked what each candidate would do to meet the housing needs of the West Niagara community.

“We have to change the way we are building housing,” Augustyn responded. “We need to invest and allow municipalities to build the types of starter homes that maybe you and your family started in. We’ll offer first-time home buyers a ten percent joint-equity loan that you won’t have to repay until you sell that first starter home. And for seniors we’re offering a property tax deferral so they can live in their homes longer. And we’ll bring back rent control.”

Joyner promised to put land speculators on notice and to close rent control loopholes he said were created by Doug Ford. The Liberals, Joyner said, would double the pace of home building until 1.5 million new houses had been constructed.

“The Liberal plan will create a new Ontario Home Building Corporation to finance and build housing of all types, end the waitlist for social and supportive housing and build affordable homes for first-time buyers,” he added. “We will work with municipal partners to allow homes with up to three units and two stories to be built in residential areas across the province.”

Oosterhoff threw out the same figure of 1.5 million new homes to be built by the current Ford government within the next 10 years.

“It is a challenge that we are taking very seriously,” Oosterhoff said. “We see the NDP and the Liberals talk a good game. I respect that they want to address the issue, as it’s quite non-partisan. The reality is when they had the opportunity to vote for legislation that would encourage more homes, discourage renovictions, encourage good-faith agreements between tenants and landlords, and would provide $3 billion to address homelessness in Ontario, they voted against those measures.”

Oosterhoff touted his governing party’s record of the highest housing starts in the past 30 years as proof of their commitment to the issue. Joyner countered by saying that in 2018 Ford promised to make housing more affordable, but asserted that in four years prices have skyrocketed to a point where the average home price in West Lincoln’s urban area is $921,000.

The discussion turned to regulatory red tape holding up construction and renovations. Oosterhoff accused Liberal governments under Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty of imposing the highest number of regulations in Ontario according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“We brought forward two red tape reduction packages each and every year,” stated the MPP. “We made sure they were able to do more [government services] online. We started a one-stop-shop portal for registering your business in Ontario. We know there is more to be done, and as a government we are committed to reducing that burden on businesses and residents.”

We know there is more to be done, and as a government we are committed to reducing that burden on businesses and residents

For his respose, Augustyn reflected back on his 12-year stint in the mayor’s chair in Pelham.

“When we looked at building permits, staff said, ‘We need another person to keep doing the same thing that everyone is doing’,” remembered Augustyn. “I said that’s not good enough. We needed to innovate, to do things better. So instead, we kept the same building inspectors but had a person at the counter to organize everything and to make sure they could do their jobs efficiently. We need to do the same thing when it comes to the government as well.”

The end of Augustyn’s time as mayor saw controversy erupt over a $3 million dollar land-for-development credits scheme brought to light by a developer whistleblower, reported in a series of stories that won the Voice a provincial Best Investigative News Story award for 2018.

“For much of the past two years, Ontario hasn’t been open for business,” Joyner said during his 90-minute response. “The pandemic’s impact was made worse by Doug Ford’s chaotic decision-making. It’s time to get the fundamentals right for small businesses again. The Liberal government will eliminate corporate taxes for small businesses hurt deeply by the pandemic and backstop loans to tens of thousands of small businesses and make strategic investments into hard-hit businesses like tourism, music, culture and sports.”

Joyner went on to accuse Ford’s government of siding with big-box stores and big businesses during the pandemic at the expense of mom-and-pop shops.

Kim Rossi, from Pathstone Mental Health, wanted to know what each candidate planned to do to address and fund the increasing mental health care needs for youth.

“This year we have allocated over $80 million for student mental health in the classroom,” Oosterhoff said. “We’re also working with organizations like [Pathstone]. Another project that I was thankful that we were able to bring into the region was a rural mental health mobile clinic, so rural areas of Pelham and Wainfleet that might not have access to mental health supports were able to see the mobile clinic for support.”

Augustyn referenced his current role as development director at Family and Children’s Services Niagara (FACS) before speaking of the NDP’s commitment to invest in mental health care.

“We will include it in OHIP,” he promised. “You won’t have to use your credit card, you won’t have to wonder how you are going to pay for it. Mental health care is health care. It will have a child focus, it will have a family focus. The pandemic shone a spotlight on this.”

Joyner, who was the former co-chair of public health and social services in Niagara Region, said the Liberals will reverse cuts to mental health care by investing an additional $3 billion dollars in four years on mental health and addiction services. He also promised to hire 1,000 more mental health professionals for children.

Both Augustyn and Joyner brought up the 4,000 residents who died in long term care (LTC) homes during the pandemic.

“The vast majority of them were in private long term care homes,” said Augustyn. “We will end private long term care homes. We’ll get the profit out and the care back in by having only public and not-for-profit long term care.”

Joyner said under the Conservatives, seniors have not been able to age with dignity.

“In the past we’ve seen our seniors in long term care suffer to the point our military had to be called in,” said Joyner. “We cannot let this horrible memory fade from our mind. While Doug Ford’s Conservatives continue to spend billions on for-profit providers that delivered the worst outcomes, only Ontario’s Liberals will treat seniors with dignity and respect.”

“We’ll provide our seniors with relief by increasing the Old Age Security top-up by $1,000 a year for those who need it,” Joyner continued. “We’ll increase the income threshold to $25,000 for single seniors and $50,000 for a couple. And we’ll help them to live independently by paying for home repairs and tools like wheelchairs.”

Oosterhoff, who was the last to answer the question, said it was governments of all stripes who neglected the LTC sector.

“No one has gotten it right,” said Oosterhoff, “but we are making a commitment to get it right. We have put into law four hours of hands-on care, substantially up from what it is currently. We’re hiring 27,000 PSWs [Personal Support Workers] to ensure that each and every resident receives the care they deserve. Four thousand new beds are under construction in Niagara and Hamilton right now.”

The candidates also sparred on the topic of lockdowns, with the challengers both insinuating that Oosterhoff’s Conservatives moved too quickly this spring to remove pandemic restrictions. Oosterhoff defended his government’s plan to keep schools and businesses open safely in the wake of the Liberals and NDP wanting to keep lockdowns going.

Highway 413 came under fire again when the topic turned to climate change.

“We have to stop the highways that Doug Ford and Sam Oosterhoff are building,” Augustyn said. “We will cancel the 413 and all the highways that just help this buddy, that buddy, or this buddy. It ruins the environment. We also need to stop the sprawl. There’s 1,000 acres that are proposed to be developed around Smithville. We have to stop that and support the farmers so they can survive.”

We will cancel the 413 and all the highways that just help this buddy, that buddy, or this buddy

Joyner said Ontarians know the climate emergency is happening now.

“An Ontario Liberal government will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. We’ll slash all public transit fares across the province to a dollar until January 2024, getting 20,000 cars off the roads.”

Joyner also defended the development in Smithville against Augustyn’s promise to stop new builds there, saying his opponent knows that is one of the only areas in Niagara that can accommodate future growth.

Oosterhoff touted the Conservatives’ investment in an electric-arc furnace at the Dofasco steel plant as an example of his government’s commitment to new green technologies. He claimed the furnace’s reduced emissions is equivalent to removing one million cars off the road.

Three other candidates —Populist Ontario representative Jim Torma, Dan Dale of the Ontario Party, and Libertarian Stefanos Karatopis, did not submit a video to be run at the end of the in-studio proceedings.

New Blue Party candidate Chris Arnew, a chartered professional accountant who recently retired as superintendent of business at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, said he has become disappointed with Doug Ford’s alliance with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.

“The Conservatives have become a party of the left,” said Arnew, “and moved far away from traditional conservative and Christian values. New Blue will allow me to represent the people of Niagara West. We’ll get rid of the woke Liberal activism that’s infused itself in our public education system. We’ll hold public education accountable by providing a tax credit for parents who opt for alternative education.”

Arnew also said his party would keep Ontario safe during any future pandemics while avoiding “the unnecessary, ineffective and divisive lockdowns at schools and businesses.”

The Niagara West riding debate will air on YourTV this Thursday, May 19 at 7 PM. It will be re-aired May 21 at 3:30 PM, May 24 at 8:30 PM, and Saturday, May 28 at 11:00 AM. It is also available online on yourtv.tv/niagara

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