01/06/2013 11:09 EST | Updated 03/08/2013 05:12 EST

Potential Ontario premiers debate transit, priorities

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's potential successors gathered in Ajax, Ont., on Sunday to debate questions about transit and health care, as well as the priority issues they will pursue if elected party leader later this month.

The governing Liberals are in the midst of choosing a new leader, a renewal process that was triggered when McGuinty announced in October that he was stepping down after 16 years as party leader.

McGuinty agreed to remain in his position until his party chooses a new leader.

On Sunday afternoon, the seven candidates participated in a two-and-a-half-hour debate east of Toronto, in Ajax, Ont.

The candidates were asked to identify their top priorities during their first 100 days, if selected as the next Liberal leader.

Four of the leadership contenders — Gerard Kennedy, Harinder Takhar, Eric Hoskins and Kathleen Wynne — suggested that the prorogation that occurred when McGuinty announced his resignation needs to come to an end.

"We are on borrowed time," said Kennedy, acknowledging the pressure the party faces from the opposition and the public while the house remains prorogued.

"We need to come back confidently in a way that pulls the hyper-partisanship and poisonous atmosphere out of the legislature."

Takhar said that if he is elected as Liberal leader, he plans to "bring all the MPPs back" and find consensus on the priorities for the province.

Hoskins said he agreed that the legislature needs to be recalled "as soon as possible," with the Liberals reaching out to opposition parties to find some common ground.

Wynne said she was in agreement with her colleagues who say the legislature needs to get back to business.

"No one's happy with the legislature being prorogued, we need to get back to doing the business of the people in the house," she said.

Transit strategies

The debate also featured questions about transit issues in Toronto and in nearby municipalities, where the growing population creates increasing pressure on roads, rails and transit systems.

Candidates were asked Sunday about the strategies they would use to fund public transit in the region and how they would build public support for doing so.

With six of the leadership candidates representing or having previously represented Toronto-area ridings, they appeared fully aware of the local transit issues affecting millions of suburban Ontarians.

"I get it. I live in Mississauga, I commute on the parking lot every day to go to work," said Charles Sousa, who represents the riding of Mississauga South.

"It takes about two hours out of my life."

Sousa said that Toronto and surrounding cities should have a single transit system that is integrated and more efficient than the one that exists today.

Sandra Pupatello, the former cabinet minister, said that the Ontario government needs to reach out to its federal counterpart to secure more support for transit in Toronto.

"I think we have to understand that every modern economy out there has their federal government helping their biggest city on transit — everywhere but Canada," said Pupatello.

"We need to change this."

Wynne, a former transportation minister, said she favours an "incremental" approach where transit building occurs each and every year, so that the system continues to keep up with the demands in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

"We have to have a plan going forward how we’re going to every year increase the transit-building around the GTHA and quite frankly, beyond the GTHA, because in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa, there are many, many towns and cities around the province that need this kind of funding," Wynne said.

The leadership candidates will face off in a final debate in Toronto on Wednesday, before the convention later this month in which the next premier will be chosen.

Teacher dispute

Little was said about an ongoing dispute with tens of thousands of teachers who have had contracts imposed on them by the Ontario government.

The government passed a bill known as the Putting Students First Act, which gave it the power to quash strikes and impose contracts on public-sector teachers.

It then used that bill to impose contracts last week, though Education Minister Laurel Broten has said the government will soon repeal the controversial legislation.

The relationship with the province's teachers has been rocky for months. In December, teachers in every single public elementary school in Ontario staged one-day strikes in protest of Bill 115.

Kennedy, who served as education minister in the early years of the McGuinty government, met with demonstrators who picketed outside Sunday’s debate.

He was the only leadership candidate who pledged to throw out the two-year contracts imposed last week, in order to start a new round of negotiations.

"The only way to rebargain is to be prepared to reopen those or to start afresh," he said Sunday.

"And I'm not sure which will work, but I think that's probably starting again."

Helen Lockhart, a high-school teacher who was among the picketers in Ajax, told a Canadian Press reporter that the government’s move to repeal the bill will not ease tensions.

"It actually makes me more angry because they've already put it into effect, and now that they don't need it, they're going to get rid of it, which doesn't change anything for us," Lockhart said.