Straight Talk
CHRISTINA BLIZZARD - Ontario Grit leadership hopefuls ignore elephants in the room

Leadership hopefuls (from left to right) - Harinder Takhar, Eric Hoskins, Charles Sousa, Glen Murray, Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne at the debate for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party held at the Ajax Convention Centre in Ajax, ON on Sunday Jan. 6, 2013.



AJAX, ON -- Oh, how I long for the pale pink waffle.

Back in 2002, when Tory leadership hopefuls were locking horns in a leadership battle, Jim Flaherty used a life-size waffle to depict his chief opponent, Ernie Eves, as indecisive.

It was a bit of fun, sure. But it also showed the no-holds-barred kind of leadership contests the Tories engaged in.

They hammered away at each other in fiery debate about -- gasp -- relevant policy.

Fast-forward to the so-called leadership debate between the seven contenders for the Liberal leadership on Sunday and my, how things have changed.

It was as scripted and sedate as afternoon tea at grandma's quilting bee.

There was no interaction between the candidates and precious little talk in the formal debate about issues closest to voters' hearts -- such the chaos the Liberals have created in schools.

About 200 teachers demonstrated outside, yet inside the Ajax Convention Centre east of Toronto, the school mess got barely a passing mention.

Outside, teachers demanded whoever becomes premier Jan. 26 should rip up the contracts they forced on boards.

When reporters asked the candidates to respond, most of them said they wouldn't scrap the contracts.

Only Gerard Kennedy -- who's been positioning himself as the outsider in this race -- said he'd consider it.

"That's the only way to rebargain -- is to be prepared to reopen those or to start afresh," Kennedy told reporters.

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

Sandra Pupatello -- one of the perceived front-runners, says she wants to wait until the end of the month to see how things stand.

"The teacher leadership have said very clearly and publicly that they understand that they would accept the same package -- no additional costs associated -- there's got to be room for us to manoeuvre. I don't know if that means ripping up contracts," Pupatello said.

And Kathleen Wynne, who's been critical of her government's handling of teacher contracts, said she wouldn't rip them up, but did say she was glad Bill 115 has been repealed.

"We can't start from square one," she said.

"We absolutely need to move on from where we are. It's about what the next process is going to look like. And it's not for me to pre-empt that conversation right now. It's very important to me that it be an open conversation with everyone. But there's no more money."

All the candidates danced around major issues.

They were fulsome in their praise of their government, yet quick to say what they'd do differently.

At one point, Toronto Centre MPP Glen Murray said the deficit was "the elephant in the room."

I beg to differ.

There were so many elephants in that room, there was barely space for anyone else, especially when you had to accommodate all those egos.

Elephant No. 1: This is the government that scrapped two gas-fired power plants at a cost some say will surpass $1 billion. They were in Durham Region -- home of the Pickering and Darlington nuclear plants. Yet no talk about energy.

Elephant No. 2: There was no talk about the Ornge Air ambulance scandal.

Elephant No. 3: There was hand-wringing about the debt and deficit, but no admission that it was the Liberals' lavish spending habits that racked it up.

Elephant No. 4: The eHealth spending scandal -- and $1 billion down the drain.

Elephant No. 5: Kids and parents are caught in the middle of a standoff that was entirely the creation of the Liberal government. Having spent their way into deep red ink for nine years, they suddenly decided to slam on the brakes.

There's only one more debate in this lame contest.

It sure would be a welcome change to see real issues debated instead of the platitudes and self-serving pap they've served up so far.

Before all those elephants start a stampede.

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