All three Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) leadership candidates said it’s time for their party to hit the restart button and rebuild relationships with those in the construction industry after it was tarnished in the last provincial election campaign.
Patrick Brown, Christine Elliott, and Monte McNaughton were recently invited to take part in a leadership debate hosted by the Interior Systems Contractors Association of Ontario (ISCA). They were asked to share their views on issues such as prompt payment, right-to-work, the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) and how the party intends to repair the bridges that were burned previously when former PC leader Tim Hudak ran for premier.
"We need to be able to communicate effectively with you and of course, regrettably, that hasn't happened in the recent past. We know that some of the positions that we took in the last election in 2014 did not exactly endear us to you. We need to fix that relationship," Elliott told members of the audience, mentioning she would bring back the idea of a construction advisory council, developed by former Premier Bill Davis.
"I believe my party is broken," added Brown. "Let's be frank, many of you in this room probably worked pretty hard to make sure that Tim Hudak wasn't elected. I want to bring you back to the Conservative family. We've taken on ideological positions whether it's right-to-work or on the College of Trades. We've lost a lot of friends."
McNaughton shared a similar view as well.
"I'm looking forward to laying out a number of ideas. As leader of our party, I want to build a new Conservative coalition here in Ontario," he said.
"It's about reaching out, attracting people to our party."
One of the first questions asked during the debate revolved around the concept of right-to-work, which was a predominant discussion during the last campaign. Essentially, the idea was to make union membership and dues optional. Critics called it "union busting" and Hudak and the PCs later backed down on the idea.
"This is an issue I think that talks about what's wrong with our party," McNaughton explained.
"We have to develop a new way of creating policy. No more insiders...coming up with these ideas."
He said if chosen as leader, all members would have to approve the next election platform before any campaigning.
Brown also said new views and ideas are needed.
"I realize they backed off (of the right-to-work idea), but I think the damage was done," he explained. "We have to build a grassroots party. If there was ever an example of how we missed the cue it was that proposal. I think we need to do a better job of going back to the drawing board."
"Basically we declared war on all unions. That was wrong," added Elliott. "We shouldn't have done that. It all points to the need to be collaborative."
Another area where the Conservatives didn't gain much traction during the campaign revolved around OCOT. The party had promised to abolish the College if elected.
"Many professions are self-regulated and the trades shouldn't be any different. I think there's a review being undertaken and I think that we can fix it but we don't have to abolish it," stated McNaughton, referencing the Tony Dean review that is currently underway. It is examining issues related to the scopes of practice as well as the process for determining whether certification should be compulsory.
"The review that is underway, I think is important," added Brown. "We shouldn't prejudge that report."
Elliott did acknowledge the party's previous stance, stating, "We did oppose the creation of the College of Trades. It has been created, I wouldn't take any steps to abolish it," she said.
"I think we do need to continue to look at ways it could continue to enhance your sector and wait for the report."
Prompt payment was also among the questions asked during the debate – a topic that received resounding support from the candidates.
"Unequivocally, it would be something I would push as premier," stated Brown, who mentioned he was also trying to encourage the federal government on the matter.
"Everyone deserves to be paid promptly for the work that you do," said Elliott.
"I would want to make sure that all provincial contracts are acknowledged and paid for within a reasonable period of time and that we work with municipalities as well."
McNaughton said prompt payment was something he'd been supporting for years.
"I've been leading the charge on behalf of our caucus over the last couple of years on prompt payment," he said. "I've committed to prompt payment legislation and it's something that this (Liberal) government should be moving on immediately because there is all party support."
The convention announcing the new leader of the Ontario PC Party takes place May 9 in Toronto. Ballots will be cast by party members across the province on May 3 and 7.