09/14/2011 09:26 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:19 EST

Accusations flung between parties in leaders' debate for Manitoba election

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's political leaders sharpened their verbal barbs in a televised leaders debate Wednesday night.

NDP Premier Greg Selinger took the sharpest tone, accusing the former Tory government of dismantling the health-care system.

"You fired a thousand nurses and stacked people up in the (hospital) hallways," Selinger told Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, who served as an advisor to former Tory premier Gary Filmon in the late 1990s.

"We have more doctors, more nurses, less people in the hallways and more people looked after in the community by home-care workers whom you tried to privatize."

Selinger has made the spectre of Tory cuts a central theme to his campaign. He has accused McFadyen of having a secret plan to privatize Manitoba Hydro -- something McFadyen has repeatedly and consistently denied.

McFadyen has recently started firing back with a hidden-agenda accusation of his own. He accuses Selinger of having a secret plan to raise taxes in order to meet his goal of cutting the province's deficit by 2015.

"What he's telling people is that he'll balance in three years, what he's not telling Manitobans is that he's going to do it with a large tax increase," McFadyen said.

The partisan sniping extended to the audience. NDP and Tory supporters cheered their leaders in mid-sentence during the live broadcast, despite requests from the moderator not to do so. At one point, several Tory supporters decked out in sweatshirts with McFadyen's name said "liar" as Selinger spoke, and were told by the moderator to stop.

Selinger admits the tone of the campaign has changed.

"I think the tone is sharpening in the campaign because people care passionately about the issues," he said after the debate.

"I think Manitobans need to know the difference between people that talk and people that deliver on things."

Opinion polls suggest the Oct. 4 provincial election is shaping up to be the closest contest in more than a decade. The NDP has scored three successive majority governments since taking power in 1999, but polls suggest Tory support has climbed since Selinger took over from former premier Gary Doer in 2009.

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard, the party's lone legislature member when the election was called, has tried to place himself as above the fray. He has run television ads portraying McFadyen and Selinger as bickering children.

"I think the kind of bickering and accusations that are going back and forth is not healthy. It's gone too far," he said after the debate.

Still, Gerrard himself tried to get a few digs in during the two-hour debate. He accused the NDP of leaving the school system in "a mess" and allowing Winnipeg's north end neighbourhood to be as crime-ridden as Detroit.