In a debate with few shockers, the political sniping also came as no surprise.

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Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard at Wednesday evening's televised leaders debate, where he hinted at promising limits on medical wait times.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard at Wednesday evening's televised leaders debate, where he hinted at promising limits on medical wait times.

In a debate with few shockers, the political sniping also came as no surprise.

Only one day after an acrimonious debate in Brandon, leaders of the three major provincial parties squared off again on Wednesday night at the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Centre. The top issues: health care, housing costs... and honesty.

The leaders' forum, hosted by Winnipeg Realtors and the Manitoba Real Estate Association, was broadcast on Shaw TV. It was the first televised debate of the 2011 provincial election campaign.

Speaking in front of a crowd largely composed of political staffers and party volunteers, the leaders rarely stepped off-message -- but they didn't wait long before whipping out the boxing gloves.

On the very first question -- what scared the leaders most about the future of Manitoba's economy -- Progressive Conservative head Hugh McFadyen took his first swing, on what he later called a "phoney" NDP plan to balance the budget in three years. "What he's not telling Manitobans is that he's going to do it with a large tax increase," McFadyen said.

NDP Premier Greg Selinger called that accusation "false" and "a bogeyman," and fired back with questions about McFadyen's role in the Filmon government's decision to privatize MTS.

The debate spread across several topics, including the province's role in supporting faltering northern First Nations and the roots of violent crime in Winnipeg. But in between tackling those issues, the leaders repeatedly returned to the question of who they think Manitobans can trust.

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard said Manitobans don't trust McFadyen on the issue of whether a Tory government would privatize Hydro and Manitoba Public Insurance. (McFadyen replied it would not.)

McFadyen turned to Selinger and said Manitobans don't trust the premier and his NDP "after 12 years... of saying you're going to end hallway medicine, and breaking that promise." But when McFadyen held up a photo of an ambulance waiting to drop off a patient at an emergency room, the premier pounced.

"Those are messes that we cleaned up that you left behind," Selinger said, citing what he called an NDP record of adding more than 100 new ambulances and many more paramedics to Manitoba since wresting government from the Tories in 1999.

When not hammering away at the honesty issue, the leaders largely stuck to their political script. McFadyen touted the Tories' plan to eliminate the land-transfer tax for first-time homebuyers, and end "political interference" and improve openness at Manitoba Hydro.

Selinger ducked the question about the land-transfer tax, instead pledging to build more housing. But he did emphasize a promise to limit kindergarten through Grade 3 class sizes to 20 students or fewer, and pushed plans to train workers in northern Manitoba to fix ailing rural infrastructure.

Gerrard, meanwhile, hinted he would make a promise to limit wait times for medical treatment in Manitoba.

Despite the largely cool attitude of the event, there was enough room on the stage for a little laughter. "Playing hockey, I do shoot right," McFadyen said, after CJOB host Richard Cloutier asked about the leaders' stick-handling, and winked.

"I have a bad feeling there's another NDP attack ad coming from that comment."

 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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