Ousted leader Tim Hudak campaigned against aid to companies as “corporate welfare” but it’s back on the table for Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives.
“We have to be open-minded,” leadership candidate and Barrie MP Patrick Brown told the party’s first debate in Sudbury on Monday night, taking aim at objections to aid for the struggling auto industry after the 2008 recession.
“You wonder why we did badly” in cities like Windsor, St. Catharines, Oshawa and others, said Brown, the only candidate in the race who does not have a seat at Queen’s Park.
“We took a cookie-cutter approach and turned off parts of the province,” added Brown, who is urging party members to choose him on the grounds he can match the federal party’s electoral success in the province that has shut out the Progressive Conservatives from power since 2003.
The two-hour debate was broadcast live over the Internet, with candidates politely fielding questions from the audience on issues ranging from electricity prices to health care at a Sudbury college.
Party members will vote in early May and the new leader will be announced at a convention in Toronto on May 9.
MPP Christine Elliott joined Brown in taking aim at policies “that ended up tanking us” in the June 12 provincial election that saw Hudak’s Conservatives lose nine seats, handing a majority to Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Those measures, including a vow to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, were rejected as “the politics of division,” she said, urging the party to build its support with a more broad-based approach reminiscent of the vaunted “Big Blue Machine” under former PC premier Bill Davis in the 1970s and ’80s.
“We need to build a new big blue tent,” Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa) told a small crowd of party members at a college in Sudbury, where Wynne will soon call a byelection to replace New Democrat MPP Joe Cimino, who quit suddenly last week for personal reasons.
MPP Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton) agreed the PC party’s base support is too “narrow” and urged activists to “reach out to everyday Ontarians.”
As a former mayor of North Bay, MPP Vic Fedeli (Nipissing) repeatedly reminded the audience he is the only candidate who has run a government and helped lure new businesses to his city.
He cited lost production at the Heinz plant in Leamington, Ont., and Caterpillar factory in London as examples of how the province has lost its allure.
“I want Ontario to once again to be that economic engine.”
The debate did not include former Toronto mayoral candidate Doug Ford, who has said he will announce a decision on entering the race as early as this week, or MPP Monte McNaughton (Lambton-Kent-Middlesex), who had a previous commitment.
Future debates are slated for Jan. 26 in London, Feb. 11 in Ottawa and April 15 in Toronto.