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Toronto Centre MPP Glen Murray at Queen’s Park in Toronto after announcing his candidacy for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party on Sunday November 4, 2012.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

Liberal leadership contender Glen Murray is once again displaying a strong focus on northern and rural issues and a willingness to put forward new policy ideas.

At an all-candidates debate in Thunder Bay on Sunday, Mr. Murray called for the creation of a regional government for Northern Ontario, one that would make decisions on a range of policies that directly affect the area, including job-training programs, transportation and electricity prices.

Strengthening the relationship with residents of Northern Ontario is a key priority for the Liberal Party, one it has been accused of neglecting under outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty.

The booming mining industry – centred around an exploration area in the James Bay Lowlands known as the Ring of Fire – needs "made-in-the-North" decisions, said Mr. Murray, a former mayor of Winnipeg who now represents an urban riding in Toronto.

"Every community has an economic development plan," Mr. Murray said. "They have the ideas. They're ready for action. They just don't have the tools and the authority to execute it. Let's give it to them."

Four of Mr. Murray's rivals embraced the idea of giving northerners a louder voice in decisions that directly affect them. Doing so would mark a dramatic change in style for the Liberals. Under the leadership of Mr. McGuinty, who is stepping down after nine years as Premier, most major policy decisions have been made by him and a handful of his trusted advisers.

Kathleen Wynne, widely viewed as a front-runner in the race to replace Mr. McGuinty, said the party may end up revisiting Mr. Murray's "notion" of regional government.

"I think we need to make sure the north is heard," Ms. Wynne said during the two-hour debate, which focused on education, northern and aboriginal issues.

But she cautioned that setting up a regional government that has the autonomy to make policy decisions might look like the Liberal Party supports the idea of Northern Ontario separating from the rest of the province.

"I don't think that's where we should go," Ms. Wynne said. "I believe we're one Ontario. I believe we should stay as one Ontario."

Her priority, she said, would be to build on the idea put forward by Mr. Murray by creating a special committee of cabinet that would look at issues through a "northern lens."

But Mr. Murray immediately shot down that idea, saying he doesn't know how a cabinet committee that would meet three or four times a years would get much done.

The debate, organized by the Liberal Party, provided the fourth opportunity for the candidates to square off against each other. At an earlier session, Mr. Murray threw his support behind the Progressive Conservative Party's push to give corner stores and supermarkets the right to sell beer, wine and spirits.

Mr. Murray was not the only one calling for local residents in Northern Ontario to have greater input into decisions affecting them.

"Under my leadership, local decisions will count because not all good ideas come from the premier's office," said candidate Charles Sousa.

Eric Hoskins said lifelong Liberals he has talked to in the north are unanimous on one issue. "They feel as a party we haven't done a good enough job in listening and connecting," he said.

Gerard Kennedy said the best ideas for economic development come from local communities.

"We need to become the first modern political party to ban the concentration of power in the leader's office," he said.

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