TORONTO — A Progressive Conservative government in Ontario would not implement a planned minimum wage increase next year, no matter who ends up winning the race to lead the party through the spring election.
In an hour-long debate Thursday, the four candidates vying for the top Tory post were united in their opposition to a key Liberal government promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2019.
The forum was the first chance for former Tory legislator Christine Elliott, lawyer Caroline Mulroney, former city councillor Doug Ford, and parental rights advocate Tanya Granic Allen to present themselves as the best choice to replace former leader Patrick Brown, who resigned last month amid sexual misconduct allegations.
The candidates provided few concrete details on their plans for the province but were clear about their intention to scrap the wage hike, saying the Liberal plan would hurt the province’s economy, particularly small businesses, which have complained about the January increase from $11.60 to $14 per hour.
Ford, the brother of notorious late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, called the wage hike a “tax grab” for Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals and said he would instead eliminate provincial income tax for those making minimum wage.
“That will benefit the companies, it will benefit the person leaving their office or their factory at the end of the day,” he said.
Mulroney, daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, said she would increase the minimum wage by 25 cents over four years, while Elliott also said she would phase in a hike gradually.
“The minimum wage law is a classic example of the way the Liberals have been governing this province, making decisions that help them in the short term — in this case their electoral chances — and hurt the rest of us in the long term,” Caroline Mulroney said. “Small businesses are suffering. It was too much too soon.”
Wynne responded to the criticism of the wage hike in a video posted on Twitter prior to her town hall event in Windsor, Ont., saying raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour will make the strong Ontario economy even stronger.
“We know Conservatives say over and over again that it’s too much, it’s too fast and today they made it clear that a Conservative government would deny that raise,” Wynne said in the video.
“But we know that when they say not now, what they’re really saying is not ever, because they want to put wealthy business owners ahead of working people. That’s not okay.”
While all four candidates said they opposed a carbon tax to replace the Liberals’ current cap and trade, none of them offered specifics on how they planned to make up for the estimated $4 billion from the tax that was to fund a 22 per cent income tax cut and other key election promises in the party’s platform.
Instead, all four suggested savings could be found by cutting waste from the Liberal provincial budget.
“In a $141 billion dollar budget, do you think we can find two or three per cent (in savings)?” Ford said.
Mulroney said she would deliver her own fully costed plan if she’s elected leader.
“This government needs to learn to do more with less,” she said.
Elliott, who recently served as the province’s health ombudsman, pitched herself as the experienced candidate best positioned to win the spring election.
“I know Kathleen Wynne. I’ve debated against her before,” she said, noting later that with an election in less than 100 days, the party could not afford a “leader-in-training.”
Granic Allen, an outspoken critic of the Liberals’ updated sex-education curriculum, pulled no punches during the debate, attacking Brown as a “corrupt leader” who alienated grassroots members with social conservative views and “left the party in tatters.”
Brown’s abrupt resignation in late January threw the Progressive Conservatives into turmoil, prompting a hastily called leadership race that will see a new leader in place by March 10. Brown has vehemently denied the allegations and has vowed to clear his name.
Genevieve Tellier, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, said Thursday’s debate didn’t bring any major revelations but confirmed that the candidates appear split into two camps.
Elliott and Mulroney have positioned themselves as more moderate, centrist options, and seem to be addressing voters across the province, while Ford and Granic Allen, who lean more to the right, appeal to grassroots members, she said.
The candidates stopped short of making any detailed policy commitments, noting they would wait for further consultations on key issues, making it difficult to know where they stand, Tellier said.
“They’re cautious, they really don’t know where to go, what to target,” she said. “They are all unclear.”
In the next, and last debate, set for the end of the month, “they will have to come up with some more precise policy actions that they want to take,” she said.