01/07/2014 11:49 EST | Updated 03/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Kathleen Wynne Acted Like 'Toronto Mayor' After Ice Storm: Opposition

TORONTO - Ontario's Liberal government should have been better prepared to assist people after the pre-Christmas ice storm that knocked out power to 600,000 homes and businesses across the province, the opposition parties said Tuesday.

The Progressive Conservatives and NDP said instead of having an emergency plan in place, the Liberals were forced to scramble and came up the idea to give out free grocery gift cards, which the opposition parties called a publicity stunt gone wrong.

"They did this on the back of an envelope," said NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns.

"They didn't take the steps necessary to stop blackouts and outages from happening in the first place, and didn't take the steps necessary to make sure that we could recover much more quickly than we did."

The grocery cash cards, $50 for individuals and $100 for families, were intended to help replace food that spoiled in freezers and refrigerators after the electricity stayed off for days, and were supposed to be only for those that needed the financial help.

About $840,000 worth of cash cards were given out in Toronto last week, but many people came away empty handed and angry after facing long lines and a shortage of the actual cards. Other municipalities affected by the ice storm started distributing another $450,000 worth of the cash cards on Tuesday, including Hamilton and the regions of Peel, Halton, Waterloo and York, as well as Dufferin county.

"This was an abuse of tax dollars and an abuse of corporate generosity rather than a good idea because political interference and political opportunism got in the way," said PC energy critic Lisa MacLeod.

"If I were to go anywhere in Ontario today people would be talking about this issue, not just in Toronto but everywhere, because they view it for it was, a PR stunt that's gone bad."

The Liberals failed to put any means test in place or any rules to make sure the cash cards, which were funded 50-50 by corporate donors and the province, went only to people who actually needed the money, added MacLeod.

"I think there's been a basic failure of not only communication but of leadership in this whole crisis," she said.

The opposition parties also accused Premier Kathleen Wynne of using the power outages to do some pre-election campaigning, running around Toronto with photographers in tow handing out food baskets to people without electricity.

"I went into apartment buildings in my riding that were pitch black, with seniors stranded on the upper floors, and they didn't show up with the premier on their doorstep with a basket of food, having gone up 10 storeys," said Tabuns.

"They were just simply stuck."

The government ignored years of warnings about the need to better protect Ontario's electricity system from extreme weather events, and should have been prepared with an emergency plan, added Tabuns.

"This is a government that didn't do the work that needed to be done to protect people and then had to do everything it could to try and mitigate and reduce the damage that it was exposed to," he said. "They hadn't prepared for this."

Wynne has yet to hold a media availability to comment on the criticism of the gift card program, but defended it Tuesday in an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star, saying she felt she had to do something to offer assistance following the ice storm.

"I will not be constrained by the possibility that I will be criticized or that my political career may take a hit," wrote Wynne. "I'm not in office to play it safe — I'm in office to do my best to help people."

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