Health care and strategies for taking down Premier Doug Ford in the next election dominated the final Ontario Liberal Party leadership debate held Sunday in Brampton, Ont.
The four candidates spent little time attacking each other and instead focused on issues each say they heard over the past few months as they travelled
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, the perceived front-runner, said as premier she would focus on fixing health-care staffing shortages that have plagued the province for years by paying "our people properly."
She also said she would ""turn back time on privatized health-care clinics," alluding to the Ford government's moves to do more cataract surgeries and knee and hip operations in publicly paid private clinics.
Federal Liberal legislator Yasir Naqvi said health-care was by far the most discussed issue he heard while travelling the province during the leadership contest.
"People are hurting because they do not have access to good health care," he said, adding he would first focus on getting internationally trained doctors and nurses licensed and practising in the province sooner if elected.
He also said he would create a new mental health-care system.
"We need an OHIP-like system that will cover access to mental health and addiction services so that you can get care right away," he said, referring to the province's health insurance program.
Fellow federal Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith said he'd focus on health care and housing should he become premier.
"These challenges are going to take a very long time to solve and when you look at the housing crisis, you have a situation right now where young people are leaving our province in droves," Erskine-Smith said.
Ted Hsu, a former federal legislator and current provincial Liberal representative, said he would look at the results of several current health-care pilot programs as he rebuilds the system. He said programs like team-based health care and "geographic health homes" may be able to alleviate strain on a system that has failed many across the province.
Recent research has shown that 2.3 million Ontarians do not have a family doctor, a number that has ballooned in recent years.
The Liberals also focused their attention on Ford, the embattled leader of the rival Progressive Conservatives, who has struggled in recent months in the wake of a Greenbelt land swap that has left his government under a criminal investigation by the RCMP.
"We need every Liberal working together in order to take down Doug Ford," Crombie said.
"And make no mistake, we are going to take down Doug Ford, not in 2034, and not in 2030, but in 2026 — you can count on it."
Erskine-Smith said the fight against Ford will be as much about values as it is about policies.
"If people are going to trust in our party again — and in some parts of this province, they do not trust in our party yet — we need to deliver integrity," he said.
"Integrity is Doug Ford's greatest weakness, and it can, it should be, it will be, our greatest strength."
Naqvi said the next election will come down to trust.
"Another big failure of Doug Ford, and I know there's been so many it's hard to keep a count, is that he's really broken the trust of Ontarians," he said.
"He's lied to Ontarians again and again, and he thinks by apologizing to Ontarians somehow he will be forgiven."
Erskine-Smith cautioned that the next leader must not focus too much on Ford.
"We can't just be the not Doug Ford party," he said. "We have to give people a positive reason to vote for us. Now I bring experience to this race with no baggage."
Party members are set to vote Nov. 25 and Nov. 26, with the ballots counted and the round-by-round results announced on Dec. 2 in downtown Toronto.
The Ontario Liberals have run a successful leadership campaign by signing up more than 100,000 members, far eclipsing the 38,000 members who were eligible to vote in the 2020 leadership race and the 44,000 members who were a part of the 2013 leadership campaign.
They raised enough money during the contest to help eliminate the party's $3-million debt from the disastrous 2022 election when Steven Del Duca led the party.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2023.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press