OTTAWA - Candidates vying to succeed Dalton McGuinty went to varying lengths Tuesday to distance themselves from some of the controversies that triggered the Ontario premier's abrupt retirement.
All seven leadership contenders admitted during their third debate that mistakes were made in implementing the Liberal government's green energy plan.
And one — former education minister Gerard Kennedy — went so far as to meet with chanting, placard-waving elementary school teachers who protested outside the debate hall at Ottawa's Carleton University, demanding the repeal of Bill 115.
The bill gives the government the power to freeze wages and remove teachers' right to strike. Kennedy, who quit McGuinty's cabinet to run for the federal Liberal leadership in 2006, told protesters he'd restore full, fair contract bargaining.
Inside the hall, the debate was largely a friendly affair, with no fireworks between candidates.
It was punctuated, however, by several odd moments as the contenders discussed ways to rebuild the Ontario Liberal party, which was reduced to a minority in the last election, reduce poverty and promote clean energy.
Former minister Sandra Pupatello raised eyebrows with her novel assertion that the party needs to indulge in more patronage to fill positions on provincial agencies, boards and commissions.
"We need Liberals appointed to those. We need that so that we know, if that's the arm of the Ontario government, it too will be reflecting centrist Liberal values," she told some 200 Liberals.
That remark drew an immediate rebuke from NDP MPP Gilles Bisson.
"Ontarians want the most qualified people working at boards, agencies and commissions, not the best connected Liberals," Bisson said in a statement.
Kennedy, a former food bank founder, also drew puzzled looks when he insisted that the poor "don't want a handout and they don't want to be condescended with a hand up; they want a hand hold." He said Liberals should set themselves a "hard target" to reduce provincial welfare rolls by eight to 10 per cent.
While the contenders sprinkled their remarks with praise for McGuinty, their discomfort with aspects of his recent record was obvious during debate on clean energy.
"That Green Energy Act was a positive plus for the environment. Somehow in all of this, our energy policies became quite the yoke that we had to carry around," said Pupatello.
MPP Kathleen Wynne acknowledged "mistakes that may have been made" but argued that McGuinty's record on green energy is still something Liberals should be proud of.
"We took a leap to create a green economy and I don't think any other party would have done that."
MPP Glen Murray went the furthest in directly criticizing the McGuinty government for ignoring community opposition to wind farms and plans for two gas power plants, one in Mississauga, the other in Oakville.
Construction had not started on the Oakville gas plant when the Liberals decided to cancel it in 2010, after well-funded local opponents brought in famed environmental activist Erin Brokovich to speak against the project. The Mississauga gas plant, however, was under construction when the Liberals cancelled it two weeks before the Oct. 6, 2011 election.
McGuinty's retirement announcement came in the midst of a scandal over allegations of a coverup of the $230-million price tag for scrubbing the plants. The opposition parties have contended that the total cost of cancelling the plants exceeded the government's estimates and was closer to a billion dollars.
During Tuesday's debate, Murray pointed to rival candidate Charles Sousa, who fought against the plant next door to his Mississauga riding.
"He fought really hard to try to stop something in his constituency. He said, 'It doesn't work, my folks don't want it.' Did we listen to Charles? No," Murray said.
"We got into an election and then someone else made that decision in a New York minute."
Murray insisted he's "darned proud" of the government's green energy plan but he said Liberals failed to persuade Ontarians of its merits because they ignored community concerns and the advice of local MPPs.
"We didn't listen to our MPPs ... I daresay if we just had simply done that, we wouldn't be having some of the difficulties we're having today."
MPP Eric Hoskins agreed Liberals need to "recalibrate, and in some cases, I think, press the re-set button" on its environmental policies. He said he'd give priority to clean energy projects that have the support of local communities.
For his part, Sousa suggested the party could avoid such fiascos in future if it reins in the power of the premier's office, giving grassroots members more involvement in policy development and backbenchers more clout through increased free votes and private member's bills.
"What we don't want is more power centrally ... We do not want to be that party that's disconnected."
MPP Harinder Takhar agreed that policy ideas must trickle up from the grassroots, saying "if we don't get the ideas from the grassroots, we cannot come up with a platform or a plan that actually meets the needs of the people."
Liberals will choose a new leader to succeed McGuinty on Jan. 26.