Northern [Ontario] debate the day’s priority – (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal editorial – September 16, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

THE LIBERALS had to know this was coming. Yet they went ahead in spite of the downside, apparently preferring it to having party leaders debate Northern Ontario issues in Thunder Bay where the Liberals hold both seats. The political blowback is coming hard and fast, and with seven days to go it can only get worse.

Last month, three key regional organizations formally confirmed an invitation to provincial party leaders to debate northern issues at a conference here Sept. 23, in the midst of the provincial election campaign.

The Northwestern Ontario Regional Conference is hosted by the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA), the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce (NOACC) and the Northwestern Ontario Development Network (NODN). It brings together municipal, business and economic development leaders from across the Northwest.

There could hardly be a wider cross-section of influential northerners represented in one place at one time. Given the pressing nature of many northern issues — some on a provincial scale — a live debate among the party leaders here in the North two weeks before election day would seem to be a must-do.
It took weeks of wrangling among party operatives, but this week NDP leader Andrea Horwath agreed to participate, followed quickly by Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

The Liberals say that Dalton McGuinty won’t be there because he has a prior commitment on Sept. 23. They won’t say what it is, pointing to the practice of releasing the Premier’s itinerary only a day in advance, for security reasons, among others.

Fair enough, but political leaders at all levels have cancelled previous engagements when something more pressing arose. We’ll have to wait until Sept. 22 to learn the nature of an event considered so vital that it trumps the political backlash that’s occurring.

The NDP’s three Northwest riding candidates launched a website featuring a clock measuring the time since Horwath first proposed the single, provincially televised debate be expanded to three events, one of them in the North.

For their part the Tories have offered to pay the cost of having McGuinty participate in the Thunder Bay debate via videoconference.

It’s the long lead time between the invitation and the other commitment that raises questions. Liberals say they told conference organizers back on Aug. 16 that McGuinty couldn’t attend. Organizers deny the party mentioned a prior commitment but they came to believe the Premier would likely break it, especially if the other party leaders agreed to come. The invitation to McGuinty remains open.

A senior NOACC official said Thursday that the original letter of invitation to debate actually went out in June, two months before the Liberals mentioned the Premier’s September commitment.

The Liberal war room this week sent a letter to the broadcast consortium organizing the provincially televised debate Sept. 27, asking that Northern Ontario be added as a separate category. The Liberal campaign said Thursday the broadcasters replied that segments and questions will be determined by viewers.

“We encourage northern residents to email:, and get questions in the debate on northern issues,” the Liberal office said in an email. Deadline is Sept. 20.

We join in that encouragement, but urge northerners to likewise press their Liberal candidates and the provincial campaign to ask that the Premier forgo whatever it is that they insist was scheduled long ago and get to Thunder Bay on the 23rd.

The televised debate will minimize northern issues among six other subjects and the questioners will have nowhere near the level of northern knowledge as those from the those hosting the conference here next week.