NDP Leader Lorraine Michael spent most of the evening on the attack Wednesday, with both Premier Kathy Dunderdale and Liberal Leader Kevin Aylward on the defensive.
The three leaders squared off on the floor of the House of Assembly for one hour in the provincial election’s only leaders’ debate.
The format brought the three party leaders together for a series of questions from a panel of journalists.
Answering each of the 12 questions, a pre-selected pair of leaders squared off one-on-one to debate the issues.
Throughout the debate Dunderdale spent much of her time defending the Progressive Conservatives’ record in government over the last eight years.
Dunderdale’s favourite word seemed to be “invest” as she talked about money the government has put into economic development, infrastructure projects and government programs.
She was forced to defend a campaign promise to bring down health care wait times within the first 120 days of the Oct. 11 election — after her party has been in power for eight years.
Dunderdale also defended her government’s plans to take on billions in debt to build the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador.
But Aylward was also under pressure.
In an exchange on the fishery — one of the Liberal party’s defining issues — Dunderdale accused the Liberals of creating the problem in the first place.
“Mr. Aylward, when we came to government in 2003, the fishery was in ruins thanks to your fisheries ministers and the issuing of licences when you knew there was overcapacity,” Dunderdale said.
“Mr. Aylward, your slogan is ‘We can do better.’ You could hardly do worse, sir.”
Throughout the debate, Aylward mostly spent his time talking about the Liberals’ three core issues — Muskrat Falls, the fishery, and rural Newfoundland.
He repeated the party’s accusation that the hydro project will double electricity rates, and when it comes to the structure of the development deal, he said “no one understands it.”
But Aylward also faced pointed questions from Michael on one of the NDP’s bread-and-butter issues: pensions.
The Liberal party has promised to retroactively index public sector pensions at a rate of 2.5 per cent annually.
Deflecting a point Michael was making about home care issues, Aylward attacked her for not supporting his proposal.
“When I see the NDP leader talking about not supporting a 2.5 per cent increase in pensions, and is talking to me about this, I have to say to you that I wonder if you’ve lost your way,” Aylward said.
Michael was fierce in her response, repeatedly interrupting Aylward accusing him of having no way to pay for the pension payment increases.
“Where’s the money coming from? What’s your plan for the 2.5?” Michael asked. “Could you please tell us what your plan is?”
When Aylward responded, “We have a plan,” Michael interjected again.
“Tell us what it is.”
Throughout the night, Michael was easily the most aggressive, repeatedly talking over Dunderdale and Aylward.
Aylward seemed to struggle at times to break, sometimes saying “I agree” with Michael, or trying to interject with an “excuse me” or “If I could say...”
With the NDP polling above the Liberals recently, Michael is working hard to position herself as the alternative to the Progressive Conservative, and voters’ best choice for an opposition voice in the House of Assembly.
Michael was the first to go negative, and the quickest to attack the other two parties. She used her opening statement to tie Dunderdale to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In her closing remarks Michael took a few more shots, lamenting the other two “uninspired parties” and offering up the NDP as a fresh alternative.
Starting today, the leaders will strike out for another 12 days of campaigning before the Oct. 11 vote.
Aylward will head to the district of Port de Grave to shore up support in a longtime Liberal stronghold, while Dunderdale will fly to Labrador and the Northern Peninsula tomorrow.
As of press time, Michael did not have any public events announced for today.