INGERSOLL, Ont. - Few policy differences emerged at the first all-candidates meeting for the seven men and women running to replace Dalton McGuinty as Ontario Liberal leader and premier, but Kathleen Wynne surprised the audience by promising to appoint herself as agriculture minister.
"This is such an important issue for us as a province, not just as a party, not just as a government, that I think the premier needs to take this on," Wynne told party faithful gathered in the gym of a youth centre in Ingersoll, about 30 kilometres east of London, Ont.
"So as premier I would appoint myself as minister of agricultural and rural affairs for at least a year."
The candidates faced a series of vague questions selected and posed by Liberal insiders and focusing mainly on rural issues, jobs and health care, with everyone promising to do more to win back rural support, especially among people angry over wind farms, which cost the party seats in the 2011 election.
Several candidates, including Gerard Kennedy, said the government seemed out of touch to rural Ontarians, especially on energy issues, and had to work hard to rebuild their trust.
"We get it, we understand that Mr. McGuinty has stepped down because he knows you want to see a changed agenda, not a fundamentally different one, but one that Ontarians can relate to in a fresh way," said Kennedy, who lost the 1996 leadership to McGuinty.
Sandra Pupatello, the only candidate beside Kennedy who no longer has a seat in the legislature, talked about her experience in opposition as well as government, and said mistakes had been made since the last election, when the Liberals fell one seat short of their third straight majority.
"Since moving from majority to minority, something happened along the way to the government," she said.
"It’s really important that we reconnect, that we re-engage with the party members that we had and the new ones that we’ve brought along. It is about listening to rural Ontario."
Glen Murray talked about turning around finances in the city of Winnipeg when he was the mayor, and vowed to change the tax system to give the middle class a break.
Charles Sousa and Hardiner Takhar talked about their business experience and said they too had plans to spur job creation and economic growth.
Eric Hoskins admitted he hasn't been in politics very long for a leadership candidate, but said his experience as a medical doctor and co-founder of the charity War Child Canada would help guide him as premier.
"I entered this leadership race because I believe that my experience inside and outside of politics _ yes I’m not a veteran, been in politics provincially for three years, but I’m not a novice either _ gives me the necessary experience and perspective to lead this party and the province forward," said Hoskins.
There was polite applause from the 150 people attending the meeting, but an equal number of protesters gathered outside to complain about wind farms, a local landfill project and the legislation that freezes teachers' wages.
With signs declaring "Rage Against Green Energy" and "Stop Wind Power," dozens of local residents chanted out front of the debate hall, while teachers and members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees protested out back.
Saturday was the first chance for most people to hear what the would-be premiers have to say, and for the candidates to highlight the differences from their competitors, all of whom served in McGuinty's cabinet at one time or another.
The leadership hopefuls are trying to win over potential delegates who will be the ones that actually vote for the new Liberal leader at a convention in Toronto Jan. 25-26.
Delegates will be selected at meetings across the province the weekend of Jan. 11-12, just two weeks before the convention.
McGuinty surprised everyone on Oct. 15 with his decision to resign and prorogue the legislature, a move that killed planned committee hearings into the costly cancellation of two gas plants, as well as a rare contempt motion against his embattled Energy Minister Chris Bentley.
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