Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
About two dozen Liberal supporters from across the riding turned out to meet provincial leadership candidate Kathleen Wynne in Stratford Friday afternoon and hear where she stands on some of the pressing issues in Ontario, not the least of which is the mounting frustration between Queen’s Park and teachers.
Speaking to party faithful at the Queen’s Inn less than 24 hours after education minister Laurel Broten announced the government would impose new contracts on elementary and secondary school teachers, Wynne said she was not happy the conflict had escalated to the point collective agreements were enforced.
“I believe they should be negotiated and can be negotiated,” she added.
Rather than point fingers at one particular side, the Don Valley West MPP suggested the conflict stemmed not so much from the content of the new agreements – which freeze wages and limit sick days for teachers – but from an inadequate negotiating process between the two sides.
If elected, the former education minister said she would get to work repairing the damaged relationship and start new, meaningful dialogue with the teachers’ unions. But she stopped short of promising more pay for teachers.
“The money isn’t going to change,” she said. “There just isn’t any more money to put into compensation, that is absolutely clear.”
Wynne said she believes teachers want to put this labour dispute behind them and focus on what’s best for students, including extracurriculars – something both the elementary and secondary teachers’ unions have directed their members to stop doing.
Party members will elect Dalton McGuinty’s successor at a leadership convention later this month in Toronto, and the race to become Ontario’s next premier is expected to be a close one, with political pundits placing Wynne among the front-runners along with former cabinet ministers Sandra Pupatello and Gerard Kennedy.
As the only top candidate to currently have a seat with the governing party, Wynne said it is her recent participation in the legislature she believes sets her apart.
“The fact is, I was at the table through very difficult times, and I understand exactly what we are grappling with,” she said. “I think that gives me an experience that is helpful moving forward.”
While Wynne described these last few weeks before the convention as “the last 200 metres of an 800-metre run, because it’s been a short run,” she said the outcome of the Liberal leadership race is very important for the party and the province.
“We’re choosing a leader, but we’re also choosing a direction for the next, I hope, good period of time,” she added.
Wynne said she is ready to lead, which means working with the opposition to table a new budget that continues the province on its path to eliminate the deficit while continuing to invest in pressing areas like municipal infrastructure.
“We can’t stop building and repairing roads and bridges,” said Wynne, who is also a former transportation minister.
There needs to be a dedicated infrastructure fund, she added, so the province is creating the conditions to welcome new business, which in turn will increase the tax base and lessen the burden on municipalities as future infrastructure needs arise.
Another issue at the forefront of Wynne’s platform is closing the gap between the province’s wealthy and poor. She said she would like a review of the province’s social assistance system, noting specifically the rates for people on disability support and Ontario Works.
Rather than promise an increase in the minimum wage, which Wynne warned can carry sudden and severe impacts on small businesses, she said pay needs to be tied to an index so there is a “systematic way of saying the minimum wage is acceptable or not.”
If elected, Wynne said she would also push her federal colleagues for a national affordable housing strategy, noting the current agreement with the federal government ends in 2014.
Other issues Wynne addressed during her stop in Stratford were the Liberal’s green energy plans – she called for more municipal autonomy when it comes to wind turbine projects and solar developments – and increasing the province’s network of bike paths and walkways – she said she would act on the Liberals’ draft cycling strategy which is currently being reviewed.
Among other things, the strategy calls for cycling infrastructure funding for municipalities.