Liberal leadership hopeful promises to repeal parts of education legislation, review casino plan
Echoing a theme he’s repeated at stops around Ontario, Gerard Kennedy says the province’s contentious bill imposing a contract on teachers is a mistake.
Kennedy, whose running to replace Dalton McGuinty as leader of Ontario’s Liberals, was in Chelmsford on Sunday afternoon for an informal chat with about a dozen people. They peppered him with questions on everything from Cliff’s proposed smelter in Capreol, to the province’s plans to build casinos in cities across Ontario.
It was a high school teacher who asked him what he would do about Bill 115, the Liberal legislation that imposes a contract on teachers and takes away their right to strike.
In response, Kennedy touted a “peace plan” he’s proposed that would essentially turn back the clock. The unpopular provisions of Bill 115 would be repealed, and teachers would continue working under the provisions of their expired contract. At that point, teachers and the government would work together to try and achieve common goals, he said.
“There’s no need for this approach,” he said. “Our approach has never been divide and conquer. But there’s something about this current process that didn’t work.”
He said his government would restore full collectively bargaining to teachers, adding he’s confident a solution can be found without confrontation.
“Give us time.”
A former foodbank director in Toronto, Kennedy was education minister under McGuinty before he turned to federal politics. He ran for the first time against McGuinty, and lost, before turning to federal politics, where he lost a race for the top job to Stephane Dion.
He lost his Toronto-area riding to the NDP surge in the 2011 federal election, but is now ahead in the polls to succeed McGuinty, with the party enjoying a similar bounce in popularity.
But Kennedy knows all too well what a mirage positive poll numbers can be when a party that has been in power for a long time holds a leadership race. It is possible, he says, to rejuvenate a party in the public’s mind while still on power. He cites the example of Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who turned the Progressive Conservative Party’s fortunes around and won a majority government.
Redford’s example stands in contrast to B.C., where Christy Clark took as Liberal Premier, only to see the party’s popularity decline further.
“So I want to go the Redford route, not the Clark route,” Kennedy said.
The way to do that, Kennedy said, is to offer an alternate vision of how government should work. For example, he said he would give regions of the province the power to recall him if they believed he was no longer serving their interests.
“We need to convince Ontarians to look at the Liberal Party with fresh eyes,” he said.
His government would attempt to find consensus on most issues, he said, and envisions a system where the government, stakeholders and experts work to come up with solutions, rather than imposing them, as McGuinty did with the teachers.
He wants to change the label of social programs to “potential” programs, where the idea is to focus on how to develop people’s potential and move them off reliance on government help.
“Because every time there’s a two per cent drop in welfare rates, the government saves $120 million,” Kennedy said.
While he’s known to appeal to the party’s left wing, Kennedy said polls show he’s also in the best position to pick up disenfranchised Tories, who may be turned off by the recent right-wing turn by Tim Hudak.
“We don’t need extreme politics,” he said. “Hudak is lurching to the extreme, and also cultivating division.”
Closer to home, Kennedy gave a similar response when asked about Cliff’s Resources Ltd.’s plans to build a smelter in Capreol, instead of northwestern Ontario. He said all stakeholders should meet to plan how to maximize the benefit for all.
“We have to decide how we want the North – all of the North – to participate in this development,” Kennedy said.
In particular, First Nations must see the benefits of developing the chromite deposit, he said.
He also questioned whether the province’s plans to build casinos across the province should move forward. More time needs to be spent, Kennedy said, weighing the social problems that will be created if casinos are built in cities, where everyone can easily access them.
“It’s a concern for me,” he said. “It’s on the list to be reviewed.”
Kennedy is up against Eric Hoskins, Charles Sousa, Harinder Takhar, Glen Murray, Kathleen Wynne and Sandra Pupatello for the province’s top job. The convention is scheduled for Jan. 25.
If he wins, Kennedy says his first priority will be making the minority parliament work. Calling a new election would be done only if that fails.