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Politics Jim Wilson named Ontario PC interim leader as Hudak steps down

Jim Wilson, shown in 1997 when he was Ontario’s energy minister, has been chosen as interim leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

JOHN LEHMANN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The new interim leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives says the party has been "attacking people for the last decade" and needs a change of direction.

In a disarmingly frank scrum with reporters after being elected to temporarily helm the party while it holds a leadership race, veteran MPP Jim Wilson said departing leader Tim Hudak's divisive campaign pledge to axe 100,000 public-sector jobs had been thrust on caucus with no consultation.

"We shot ourselves in the foot in the last election and we've got to stop doing that," he said Wednesday morning at Queen's Park. "We were all caught off guard with the 100,000 person announcement in the last campaign. That was unfairly thrust upon caucus and upon our candidates and we can't do that again."

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Mr. Wilson said the party needs to adopt a softer touch to woo Ontarians.

"Let's not be attacking people. We've been attacking people for a decade and in my heart and my caucus colleagues' heart … we like everybody," he said. "There's no need to pick on particular groups. We've done that for no reason in the past and in the interim period we're not going to do that."

Mr. Hudak led the party to a crushing electoral defeat last month on the back of a hard-right platform that included the 100,000 job cuts, slashing taxes and cancelling tax credits for students and senior citizens. He had initially planned to stay on until his permanent successor is chosen, but decided last week to instead resign immediately, following a fractious caucus meeting.

Mr. Wilson beat out two other candidates – whip John Yakabuski and maverick MPP Randy Hillier – for the interim leadership. A former health and energy minister in the government of premier Mike Harris, Mr. Wilson is one of the two longest-serving MPPs in the Tory caucus. In the last parliament, Mr. Wilson served as Mr. Hudak's house leader. He has represented Simcoe-Grey, a sprawling rural and small-town riding that covers much of Ontario's cottage country, since 1990.

In his scrum, Mr. Wilson made clear he will not be making any major policy announcements during his leadership. But he said he would be more responsive to caucus.

"We've had a period, about a decade, where caucus has felt badly disenfranchised. They really haven't had a say in the major decisions, they were given policies that they were asked to sell that probably weren't even popular in their own ridings and they certainly didn't really always believe the policies in their heart," Mr. Wilson said. "We're going to start a new process in caucus where they're very much listened to…we should have happy MPPs."

Mr. Wilson said shadow cabinet critics will have more freedom to "hold the Liberals to account" as they see fit, with less interference from the leader's office.

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The PCs have suffered disappointment after disappointment since losing office to the Liberals in 2003. Their 2007 election loss was largely blamed on then-leader John Tory's pledge to extend government funding to non-Catholic faith-based schools. In 2011, Mr. Hudak attacked a proposed Liberal tax credit as helping "foreign workers," a tactic that backfired as the PCs blew a lead in the polls. In last month's election, Kathleen Wynne's Liberals came back from a series of damaging spending scandals to win a majority government.

Mr. Wilson was reluctant to blame Mr. Hudak personally for the 100,000 job-cuts pledge, saying the former leader got some "bad advice."

"I think everybody really likes Tim. I think he got some bad advice near the middle of the campaign that threw us off. We have to go back to earning the trust of the people of Ontario," Mr. Wilson said.

The party executive is scheduled to meet on Saturday to set a date for the leadership contest.

MPP Christine Elliott is the only declared candidate so far, but caucus colleagues Victor Fedeli and Monte McNaughton are said to also be considering bids.

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