By Kevin Werner, News Staff
Progressive Conservative candidate Donna Skelly hammered incumbent Liberal MPP Ted McMeekin in a televised debate demanding to know why a potential $477 million bailout of the MaRS innovation hub in downtown Toronto was kept secret from taxpayers.
“You didn’t want that to come forward, you didn’t include it in your budget and you certainly didn’t tell the media or the public about it,” said Skelly during the Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale provincial debate taped by Cable 14 May 29.
“We had to learn through the whistleblower,” said Skelly calling it a “secret plan” to bail out MaRS. “Is that transparency and were you present in that cabinet meeting signing documents?”
During the free-for-all segment of the debate, Skelly repeatedly asked McMeekin, a cabinet minister in the Liberal government, if he was present when discussing the potential bailout of MaRS and an American developer.
“Why were we not told about it?” asked Skelly. “This was a week after the writ was dropped. Were you in the meeting?”
McMeekin said there is “nothing secret” about the potential deal, which did not go through because the election was called before the Treasury Board didn’t approve it, a requirement.
“MaRS is out there. It’s doing a good job. (It) does a lot of great work. They deserve to be supported.”
McMeekin added that the Tories are confused about how to blame the Liberals for any industry trouble. If a company struggles, the Liberals are criticized, but if the government bails out an industry, as it did with the auto sector, it’s called corporate welfare.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said McMeekin. “We said we will continue to make strategic investments in research and innovation.”
McMeekin then tried to turn the tables on Skelly, saying the Progressive Conservatives when they were in power kept secret from taxpayers the details of an agreement when they sold Highway 407 to a consortium of multi-national companies. He said as part of the deal, the details of the lease were prohibited from being publicly released for 99 years.
“So don’t talk to me about accountability and transparency,” shot back McMeekin.
Prior to the Cable 14 debate, the Tories revealed the Liberals were considering purchasing the MaRS Phase 2 tower and the land in downtown Toronto for just over $300 million because the research business was bleeding money. As part of the arrangement the government would also provide additional funding for a total of $477 million over three years to MaRS and Alexandria Real Estate. The deal would have essentially eliminated the province’s $234 million loan it provided to MaRS in 2011. MaRS was established by the Tories in 2002.
The Liberals have countered that the deal did not receive Treasury Board approval which is necessary for the deal to go ahead. In addition, the Liberals argue the documents the Tories received are merely “drafts” of a deal which had yet to forward.
But that didn’t stop Skelly who painted McMeekin and the governing Liberals as a party that couldn’t be trusted after the $1 billion gas plant cancellation and the Ornge debacle.
NDP candidate Alex Johnstone also corned McMeekin during the debate repeatedly asking why should the people trust the Liberals?
“How can we trust you Ted? It seems like the same show over and over again,” said Johnstone. “How can we believe anything will change?”
Johnstone repeated the NDP charge that the party didn’t support the Liberal’s budget because in the 2013 budget the government didn’t follow through on its promises to improve health care for seniors, establish an accountability office and lower auto insurance, requirements for the NDP to support the minority Liberals.
“It’s not a progressive budget,” said Johnstone.
But McMeekin pointed out that other NDP supporters, such as Michele Landsberg, the wife of Stephen Lewis, and Ontario Federation of Labour’s Sid Ryan both endorsed the Liberal budget.
“They haven’t been part of the NDP for a very, very long time,” responded Johnstone, as McMeekin responded that “Tommy Douglas would be rolling over in his grave.”
Skelly, during the entire debate hammered at the fiscal mess the province is experiencing under the Liberal watch with a $300 million debt, and the highest unemployment rate in the country. She warned that if the Liberals are re-elected, they will begin a spending spree again, while raising taxes.
“How will you pay for all the goodies in your budget?” said Skelly.
McMeekin, who played defense for most of the debate, managed a few sharp counter attacks, arguing the party’s One Million Jobs Plan will mean hundreds of lay offs in Hamilton that could include firefighters, paramedics and other civil servants.
“Who will you give the pink slips too?” he asked.
McMeekin also said the Tory plan will balance the budget on the “shoulders of the poor.
“It doesn’t make sense.”
Johnston, a public school trustee representing Ancaster, said with the Liberals mired in another scandal, and the Tories with their own poor track record, voters need to look at the NDP.
“It seems to me there’s not much difference between the red door and the blue door, so it’s time to change to the orange door,” she said.
Also participating was Barry Spruce of the Freedom Party, who was drowned out by Skelly and Johnstone for most of the debate as they went after McMeekin.
Two candidates who didn’t take part in the debate but are running in the election are Ray Dartsch of the Green Party and Glenn Langton of the Libertarian Party.
The debate will be repeated on Cable 14 until the June 12 election. For more information check out www.cable14.com.