Yahoo! Exclusive: Economy, leadership race the priority for former Ontario MPP Sandra Pupatello

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

'It's about the economy, stupid.'

Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Sandra Pupatello didn't say those exact words during her recent interview with Yahoo! Canada News, but that seemed to be the gist of it.

After 16 years at Queen's Park, the former veteran MPP and senior cabinet minister walked away from politics in 2011 because, as she says, the premier wasn't going anywhere and she wanted to try her hand at life in the private sector.

But when Dalton McGuinty announced his retirement in October, she decided she couldn't sit back and just be a spectator.

She says she's coming back to rebuild the province's economy and to rebuild the party.

[ Related: Kathleen Wynne relishes role as insider in leadership race ]

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Y! Canada News: What do you bring to the table that perhaps others don't. In other words, if I was a Liberal member why should I vote for you?

Pupatello: I think it's experience in winning elections, experience in government and experience in opposition.

I am asking my party to have a look at what that next election is going to look like: NDP leader Andrea Horwath versus Tim Hudak versus Sandra Pupatello and whose going to win that election.

Because ultimately you can have all the great leaders you want with all the great policies you want but if you can't win an election, it will not matter.

Right now we need to focus on jobs and the economy and when you put me up the other two — and frankly against my other competitors — there's no one that will be able to do the job/economy agenda like I will.

Y! Canada News: Let's talk about the economy. You've got serious debt and deficit problems in Ontario. You have disputes with the public sector. How do you fix the economy?

Pupatello: I think there are a number of things we can do. If I can say it succinctly, it's 'work locally, trade globally.'

We were very aggressive on the international scene when I was there. I served five years as the economic development and trade minister taking Ontario to the world.

It's sort of easy to do the job when the going is good. But you really get your mettle tested when it's tough. And I was that minister during our worst recession in our generation. And in those years — for three years in a row — we had more jobs created because of foreign direct investment than any other jurisdiction in North America.

So, I know that when we focus on this we can do it. So I intend to be very aggressive on investment in Ontario.

[I also want] to help our small and medium sized businesses who just need a little bit of a push to get moving and get a sense that we will have some stability here.

We will not have stability if Hudak wins and creates a right-to-work state in Ontario which he intends to do and we will not have stability in the business community if Horwath wins and returns this province to the NDP massive deficits which is their record here.

Y! Canada News: Can I get your thoughts on the education minister's press conference last week about imposing contracts on elementary and secondary school teachers?

Pupatello: I have been consistently saying that whatever happens, the history of the Liberal party is collective bargaining. And we will return to collective bargaining and I intend to do that.

Y! Canada News: As premier, can you reverse the decision to impose settlements?

Pupatello: I don't know. For those that are leadership candidates who are at the table crafting Bill 115, they may have a better sense of why they did this in the first place. There are two candidates on the outside — we don't have all that information.

What I hope will happen is that I will restore the relationship like the one I had when I was the Minister of Education. It was an open door policy, we got along, I was frank and honest with them.

[ Last week's One-on-One: Former Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine ]

Y! Canada News: It looks like you've got a pretty dysfunctional legislature there. Can you make the legislature work or do you need to call a quick election?

Pupatello: I'll be elected ideally at the end of January as the new leader and my first phone calls are going to be to Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak and I'm going to talk to them about jobs and the economy.

I actually think when you're in opposition you have some really good ideas too. If it's about jobs and the economy I think there are things they will want to see too. I do intend to use them and use their ideas. And if we can stave off an election, that would be my goal.

Y! Canada News: Once you go to election, you're going to have to defend your parties scandals. I know that you weren't there for all of them, but, as leader, you're still going to have to defend them. There's the Ornge scandal, the gas plant closure and proguation. How do you go about regain public trust?

Pupuatello: Bad things happen to every government, it's how you manage the bad things that people judge you on.

I don't think we did such a good job this year. I have to big enough to tell people that and say, when you conk us on the head we're going to listen and we're going to change.

That kind of plain and simple talk worked for me back [in Windsor] for 16 years, and that's the kind of leader I'm going to be as premier as well.

Y! Canada News: Are you confident about your chances in this race?

Pupatello: I had a very good look at the lay of the land before I jumped into the race. If I didn't believe I had a good chance of winning. I wouldn't do that to me or my party.

So, I'm feeling very good about but because it is a delegate convention — it's not one member one vote — anything can happen on that convention floor so I can't take any of this for granted.

Y! Canada News: If you don't win are you going to come back to politics or are you going to stay in the private sector.

Pupatello: I really don't know. I think I have to see the lay of the land and see whether the party will have me.

Beause there is a nomination process. You don't just want to throw yourself in some riding unless they actually want you. I think it's fair to say they really want you if you're the leader.

So I have to be open minded about it.