TORONTO – The two frontrunners in the race to become the next Ontario Liberal leader and premier delivered lively final pitches to the 2,126 delegates for support at the leadership convention in Toronto.
Former cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello, who did not run in the 2011 provincial election and would need to win a byelection to get a seat in the legislature, insisted she was the one who could lead the Liberals to victory in the next election, while acknowledging no one wants a provincial vote right now.
“I know Ontarians don’t want an election but if we are forced into one, we will be ready and I am the candidate that can win that election,” she told cheering supporters.
Kathleen Wynne, who was in the cabinet of outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty until she left to run for the leadership, told delegates the party has to face up to its mistakes and assure people they won’t happen again.
She also vowed to recall the legislature by Feb. 19 and said she would immediately try to meet with the opposition party leaders in an effort to make the minority government work.
Wynne said Ontario is ready for a gay woman as premier and won’t judge the candidates on race, sexual orientation, colour or religion.
“The province has changed, our party has changed. I do not believe that the people of Ontario… hold that prejudice in their hearts,” said Wynne, who is openly gay and married to a female partner.
In his final pitch to delegates today, Gerrard Kennedy, who lost the 1996 leadership race to McGuinty and also lost a 2006 bid for the federal Liberal leadership, said the party needs to regain the support of public sector workers angered by the province’s move to impose contracts on public school teachers.
Kennedy warned the Liberals would not only lose an election to the Progressive Conservatives today, they’d come third behind the New Democrats.
Dozens of protesters, mainly teachers angry over having contracts imposed on them by the government, greeted the delegates as they arrived, but thousands more demonstrators are expected by this afternoon.
Kennedy said public servants are the Liberals’ partners in delivering government and the two sides must work together to eliminate the $11.9 billion deficit.
Rival candidate Harinder Takhar, former government government services minister, emphasized his immigrant roots during his final speech, saying he had to cut his hair and stop wearing a turban to get a job in Ontario, a decision he said also meant losing a part of himself forever.
All six of the candidates have now finised speaking at the leadership convention in Toronto and everyone is waiting for the results of the first ballot, which were cast as the delegates registered at the convention Friday.
Second-ballot voting is expected to begin around 1 p.m. The last-place candidate will be forced off each ballot until one of them gets over 50 per cent.
Political observers predict the Liberals are looking at a three- or four- or even five-ballot convention, which means the race could go on until late Saturday, or early Sunday.
The leadership convention was called after McGuinty’s surprise resignation in October, when he also prorogued the parliament and said he wanted a new leader in place by the end of January.
Pupatello leads in committed first-ballot votes with 27.4 per cent, and says she has about one-quarter of the ex-officios on her side.
Wynne, who represents Toronto-Don Valley West, is a close second in delegate support at 25 per cent.
Kennedy is in third place at 14 per cent, followed closely by Takhar at 13.25 per cent.
Former labour minister Charles Sousa, pulled almost 11 per cent of first-ballot delegates, and former children’s services minister Eric Hoskins finished last in delegate support at 5.6 per cent.
In recent years, the Liberal government has been plagued with scandals, including the costly cancellation of two gas plants, a police probe at the province’s air ambulance service and a nasty labour battle with public school teachers.