MPP hopefuls talk business, affordability at chamber debate

Incumbent MPP Jill Dunlop absent from another debate, prompting NDP candidate to label tactic an ‘attack on democracy’

The Orillia District Chamber of Commerce hosted an all-candidates debate between Simcoe North hopefuls Thursday night, where candidates answered questions on improving the province’s business environment for small businesses, affordable housing issues, and climate change.

Moderated by The Orillia Connection host Deborah Wagner, candidates were given five minutes to introduce themselves and their platforms. Incumbent Progressive Conservative (PC) MPP Jill Dunlop was absent from the debate — the second debate she skipped this week.

Mark Douris, of the New Blue Party of Ontario, said he chose to run with the party due to its commitment to conservative values — which he said the Ontario PCs have abandoned.

“I decided to run in this election because I felt like the (PC) party had abandoned its constituents, the people that believe in them. Their policies had swayed away from classical conservative and started to move over to liberal views,” he said. “They have the true values that I believe in, the conservative values that I hold dear to me.”

Liberal party candidate Aaron Cayden Hiltz said the pandemic has given Ontarians a “really tough” few years, and said he chose to run primarily because of cuts to the health-care and education systems.

“When I first decided that I wanted to run for the Liberal party, it was to primarily combat the aggressive cuts to health care and education,” he said. “The pandemic really highlighted a lot of inequities that exist in our society today, whether that be lax policy on climate change, affordability issues — we all know the housing crisis is wild.”

NDP candidate Elizabeth Van Houtte said people are frustrated with cuts to education, health care, and infrastructure that she believes counter Ontario’s ability to have a thriving economy and population.

“As a social worker, I want to offer hope. I represent a party that is hopeful and optimistic,” Van Houtte said.

“You cannot attack our infrastructure and shave it down and expect we’re going to glide through and the economy is going to be good,” she said. “Without a healthy and educated society, we do not have a healthy and vibrant economy or workforce.”

Green candidate Krystal Brooks highlighted a desire to dismantle barriers faced by Indigenous peoples.

“My goal in this is to try my absolute best to represent the voices of Rama, and all Indigenous people, and just all who have struggled with so many similar issues as me,” she said. “There’s a reason that I’m the first person from Rama to ever have my name on a ballot.”

Ontario Party candidate Aaron MacDonald highlighted affordability issues that are the byproduct of years of governance from Ontario’s “legacy” parties.

“Vote for a party that is committed to bringing accountability and fiscal responsibility to government,” he said. “We live day to day with $2.05-a-litre gas, which impacts everything from groceries to … heating and hydro. Getting that stuff down is crucial. I, personally, have grown weary of the ever-increasing cost of living taxpayers are burdened with.”

Following opening remarks, three questions were asked by the Orillia District Chamber of Commerce, with another two provided by the event’s sponsor, the Lakelands Association of Realtors, before the floor opened to questions from the media and public. About 70 to 80 people attended the event at the Orillia City Centre.

The chamber asked candidates about their views on taxes for businesses, how they would tackle housing and affordability issues, and the importance of investing in key infrastructure such as hospitals, roads, and governments to promote growth in Simcoe North.

Cayden Hiltz stressed good infrastructure is “key” to a good economy.

“I’d rather see us rebuild our existing infrastructure. We can rebuild roads and highways, rather than push them through the Greenbelt and degrade our pristine environments,” he said.

Cayden Hiltz said he supports no new taxes for small businesses, as “the pandemic has shown us how small businesses were screwed by the Ford government with unfair closures, while mega corporations are able to operate seemingly unimpeded.”

On housing and affordability, Cayden Hiltz said Ontario is facing a “wage crisis.” On housing, he called for partnering with municipalities to develop a variety of housing options, and said the Ontario Liberals “are willing to build a million-plus new homes.”

Van Houtte similarly went after large corporations.

“Years of underinvestment and cuts from the Liberal and Conservative governments have hurt us all,” she said. “Provincial tax rates were lowered to benefit large corporations only. That lost revenue resulted in local governments increasing (taxes) to cover programs and services.”

Van Houtte said “starting with a living wage is the way to go” in Ontario, and added a lack of security is causing a number of workers to change industries.

“Tax cuts cannot solve a lack of interested or available workers. Investment in their apprenticeship programs and encouragement of the skilled trades and post-secondary education, starting with a living wage, is the way to go.”

Van Houtte also questioned whether the housing crisis might have been avoided by better policy.

“Is the root cause of inflated housing prices simply a lack of supply, or is it a history of poor planning, poor policy, poor design and intent — profitability-driven construction?”

Brooks also went after current and previous governments’ policies as contributors to the current housing crisis.

“The housing market is the biggest economy booster we have, and the government doesn’t want to fix this because the generated income is far too great to incentivize them to do anything of substance to fix this,” she said.

“From their perspective, it doesn’t need fixing. It took a matter of a few months to build that new OPP (Central Region) headquarters. Show me a low-income housing building that went up this fast.”

Brooks said she supports raising taxes on the largest businesses to “level the playing field,” and suggested a universal basic income could help tackle affordability issues.

“A universal basic income is the first step to providing economic security for our businesses, and would increase their profits because customers would also have more income to put back into their local economy,” she said.

Douris suggested different solutions to affordability and housing issues, including broadly lowering tax rates to ensure Ontarians have the money needed to afford their expenses.

“In terms of economic development, the New Blue party wants to reduce HST by three per cent, and axe the carbon tax,” he said. “This will allow tax relief to citizens and residents all over the province, and they can then invest that money back into their communities and not have to rely on government handouts or government subsidies to promote their businesses.”

Douris suggested raising the minimum wage would have an adverse effect on the economy, and that his party is “advocating for less government intervention in the labour market so it can naturally find its way back to equilibrium.”

In a similar vein, he argued lowering taxes and reducing red tape for construction “will not only combat supply of housing, but will also make it easier for Ontarians to save money to purchase homes.”

MacDonald said the Ontario Party plans on introducing “sweeping urban planning reform” to tackle the housing crisis.

“In particular, we will work to remove the red tape and regulations that impede the building of new homes,” he said. “Property owners will be given more freedom to construct two and four unit homes amidst neighbourhoods traditionally reserved for single family homes, and we will also work with developers to revitalize currently vacant property or buildings to prevent urban sprawl.”

In terms of economic growth, MacDonald said his party supports infrastructure investments, as communities “must be able to attract the qualified employees by having all the amenities necessary.”

Candidates highlighted PC MPP Jill Dunlop’s absence throughout the debate.

“The fact that Jill Dunlop is not here this evening, in my opinion, is an attack against democracy,” said Van Houtte.

“Accountability is part of the job,” said Cayden Hiltz. “It’s disappointing that we have an MPP who is unwilling to be held accountable. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had events and people have showed up, and there’s an empty chair and the refusal to be accountable.”

The May 19 debate will be broadcast on Rogers TV in Orillia at the following times and dates:

  • Sunday, May 22 at 1 p.m.
  • Tuesday, May 24 at 9 p.m.
  • Thursday, May 26 at 1 p.m.
  • Friday, May 27 at 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, May 29 at 1 p.m.
  • Tuesday, May 31 at 9 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 2 at 1 p.m.


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