Yahoo! Exclusive: Former Ontario MPP Gerard Kennedy an outsider and front runner in leadership race

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

If it was up to ordinary Ontarians, Gerard Kennedy would be the province's next premier.

According to a Forum Research survey conducted last Tuesday, the former MP and MPP is the most popular of the seven candidates vying to replace Premier Dalton McGuinty as Liberal leader.

Unfortunately, Kennedy doesn't need Ontarians' support to win — he needs the support of about 2,500 delegates who are attending the Liberal leadership convention from January 25 to 27 in Toronto.

And therein lies his challenge.

While Kennedy is popular throughout the province, there is some concern that his absence from from the provincial party — while he served as a MP in Ottawa — hurts his chances at being elected as party leader.

Kennedy spoke to Yahoo! Canada News, to discuss his role as an 'outsider', about how he would do things differently from McGuinty.

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

Here are some excerpts of from the interview:

Y! Canada News: Some have suggested that you're an "outsider" and because of the short leadership window, you're at a disadvantage? Do you agree with that?

Kennedy: There's no doubt that my message is I am believing strongly and running on the premise that the party has to significantly renew itself.

There has to be a new fresh agenda. It's not a question of continuity with what we've done before.

So I think...there is an advantage because the real job — and every Liberal knows this — is to win the province. And that means to sustain our current government  and at whatever time is appropriate for the public and go back to an election. So coming from the outside with a fresh perspective is something of an advantage.

But I also have 10 years of what I think is fair to call sweat equity in the party. I helped build it up. So I think by enlarge, both things add up to being strengths: the fact that I've been in the party before and that I've been away and bring back a fresh perspective.

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 would I vote for you?

Kennedy: In terms of a sales pitch I am talking about us changing the way politics is being done.

We're a party in power so I'm saying let's give away some of the powers from the leader's office. Let's make the leader more accountable to both members of the party and [MPPs]. And that means accountability sessions that can be called under certain rules and a recall process that could work inside the party should that become necessary.

Every political party at every level of government has made the mistake of concentrating power in the leader's office in a way that's now endangering good decision making and good implementation.

Y! Canada News: You've distanced yourself from Bill 115. You've also said you would balance the books and not raise taxes. How can you pay increased public-sector salaries, not raise taxes, and still balance the books?

Kennedy: That's something that I think will be the test of this leadership, is who can identify exactly where and how we're going to be able to save the money, to deliver some of the services people need and address the deficit.

What we have to do instead of [automatically freezing public sector salaries] is we're going to have to get our public sector workers on board with us. They understand that Treasury is a tough place and they're going to be in a much better place to show us where money can be saved.

...I will get a negotiated settlement [with teachers] I will make sure that there are fair agreements.

[With regard to budget cuts] we over pay for some private services in healthcare I think we can renegotiate those contracts and there's hundred of millions of dollars we can save. I think there are areas in education around the management of benefits plans that can save us in the order of 200 or $300 million.

We have to find innovative ways to deliver programs...I don't think either of the two parties has anything really authoritative to say about this. Conservatives would cut right across the board and the NDP are not prepared to really engage what we've got to do in order to keep our important public services both affordable and done in the way to get the job done.

Y! Canada News: If you win, you're going to have to defend your party's scandals. Ornge, prorogation, the gas plant closures. How do you go about doing that and regaining the trust of Ontario voters?

Kennedy: The party owns its mistakes. No one is going to distance themselves from making mistakes but we'll be clear where it's a mistake and put it in context.

People will have a guarantee that, you know, Air Ambulance service in this province will work better than anywhere else.

And then we'll have to make sure that the structure that's there makes sense. Why would we give a monopoly to a private company is a question that I will want answered. And I will make sure that's answered in a way that everybody knows the answer.

It's about transparency. The basic thing is that people the end of the day, know that I've done a good enough job cleaning up problems and also most importantly convincing them that they will not happen again.

When we're going to make the occasional mistake that will be acceptable if we acknowledge and if we fix it. And I think that's the issue is that we weren't quick enough to acknowledge our problems and people aren't a 100 per cent sure that we fixed them.

That's the price of admission for me.

Y! Canada News: As premier would you force a quick general election?

Kennedy: I won't be forcing an election.

[The public] doesn't want an election when they don't have to have one. What they want to know is that there's going to be a functional government.

Y! Canada News: Can it be a functional government?

Kennedy: I believe it can. I think there's lots of ways to make room for the other parties. From the throne speech, to the budget to the way that committees work and so on.

But I don't think anybody wants to see the kind of hyper-partisanship and poisonous atmosphere that has been going on. How we actually make that atmosphere change is only partly up to us.