INGERSOLL, ONT.—A high-profile candidate for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s job warned that Saturday’s sedate leadership debate won’t prepare Liberals for the political rumble ahead.
“Our next election will not be like this, where all of us are sitting and getting along,” said Sandra Pupatello, the former MPP for Windsor West, as the event dubbed a “love-in” by one party stalwart wrapped up in this small town near London.
The two-hour affair, which spotlighted rural issues, was the first of six to be held across the province as seven candidates – all former cabinet ministers – prepare for a leadership convention at Maple Leaf Gardens on the last weekend of January.
Toronto Centre MPP Glen Murray came the closest to swiping at rivals in talking about the minority Liberal government’s economic aid funds for businesses in southwestern and eastern Ontario, two regions where manufacturing was ravaged in the recession.
“Wrong. Doesn’t work,” said Murray, 55, a former Winnipeg mayor who was McGuinty’s minister of training, colleges and universities. “We don’t want to be in the business of picking winners. Please find me a government that got in the business of picking which companies.”
That line, along with Murray’s frequent mentions of tax cuts for the middle class, echo messaging frequently used by Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
Pupatello, 50, who sat out the last election to work on Bay Street, said the 2,500 delegates to the convention must size up candidates based on how they would play against Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in a provincial election widely expected for next spring.
She touted her experience as McGuinty’s scrappy deputy leader before the Liberals came to power in 2003, suggesting it would help her run a smoother minority government than most of her rivals, who never served in opposition.
“I want you to have a leader with opposition experience to know how they think … and respect opposition because I was there,” she told 150 party members gathered in an old school gym.
Gerard Kennedy, 52, the only other candidate who served in opposition, was one of several to acknowledge that the Liberals lost touch with rural voters – as evidenced by the loss of many rural seats, such as Elgin-Middlesex-London, which left the government in a minority.
“We have to acknowledge we made some mistakes,” said Kennedy, who hails from a small Manitoba town and left Ontario politics in 2006 to run federally before losing his Parkdale-High Park seat in the Commons to the NDP in 2010.
He cited wind turbines, the feed-in-tariff program for small-scale electricity production and the abrupt end to the revenue-sharing program for slots at racetracks that costs $345 million a year – a move that infuriated the horse-racing community and breeders and prompted the government to re-examine aid for the industry.
The candidates were greeted on the foggy street outside the building by several dozen protesters angry about wind turbines, garbage dumps and the controversial law freezing wages for teachers and curbing their bargaining rights – resulting in threats of teacher strikes any day. The turmoil in education was never raised in the debate.
One-time municipal affairs minister and Don Valley West MPP Kathleen Wynne, 59, said the Liberals need to get back in tune with voters outside big cities – which she would do by serving as agriculture and rural affairs minister “for at least a year” in addition to being premier.
Eric Hoskins, a doctor and the MPP for St. Paul’s who was McGuinty’s children and youth services minister, called for a “rural-urban bridge” so that all government policies apply equally well to the countryside, small towns and cities.
Calling for fresh thinking, Mississauga South MPP Charles Sousa, 54, a former banker and immigration minister, took a shot at the centrally controlled nature of government and declared “not all good ideas come from the premier’s office.”
Harinder Takhar, 61, a former businessman and the last entrant into the race, proposed an export fund to help Ontario farmers and agricultural businesses to sell more of their products abroad.