POLITICS
09/19/2011 12:15 EDT | Updated 11/19/2011 05:12 EST

Manitoba party leaders debate crime, health care in two-hour radio debate

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's three main party leaders frequently interrupted each other in a two-hour radio debate that, despite all the heated exchanges, might leave voters wondering where the parties differ.

Incumbent NDP Premier Greg Selinger, Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen and Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard all promised to hire more police officers, unclog the court system and address poverty and other root causes of crime during the live broadcast Monday on radio station CJOB.

Crime was a key focus of the debate — not a surprise in a province that routinely posts the highest rates of murder, theft, assault and other violent offences. Hours before the leaders squared off, two people were shot on a downtown street and taken to hospital.

"We are the violent crime capital of Canada. It is a disgrace," said Gerrard, who accused the New Democrats of failing to keep children in school and off the streets.

Most of the testy exchanges occurred when McFadyen and Selinger tried to accuse each other of being soft on crime.

At one point, Selinger praised his government for supporting a new federal law that reduces the amount of credit that accused criminals can receive for time served while waiting for a trial. He accused McFadyen of not supporting the federal law.

"I did support it," McFadyen said.

"After we had taken the initiative," Selinger replied.

"Your falsehoods have gone one step too far," McFadyen fired back.

"Your falsehoods will be playing in commercials during the break," Selinger responded, referring to Tory campaign ads that accuse the government of letting criminals run free.

McFadyen was the first in the campaign for the Oct. 4 election to promise to expand the use of ankle bracelets to monitor criminals. Currently, only chronic car thieves are required to wear them.

He said a Tory government would also require sex offenders to wear the machinery. The next day, Selinger promised to have people convicted of other crimes such as domestic abuse wear them as well.

Even in health care, the parties have made promises that sound similar. Plans to hire more nurses and doctors feature prominently in all three party platforms. Last week, McFadyen promised to set up a specialized stroke unit to improve response times. Selinger and Gerrard said Monday they support the idea.

The similarities are typical in Manitoba politics. Parties that win power tend to be centrists who promise good management rather than radical reform.

That trend has continued this time. Selinger is in his first race as NDP leader, having served a decade under former premier Gary Doer, and has promised mostly to add to existing initiatives.

McFadyen is in his second race, while Gerrard, the lone Liberal in the legislature when the election was called, is in his fourth race.