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Kathleen Wynne, a candidate for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party, takes part in a debate at a Canadian Club luncheon in Toronto on Dec 6 2012.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Liberal leadership candidates in Ontario emerged from their latest debate sharply divided over Premier Dalton McGuinty's cornerstone green energy policies.

Kathleen Wynne, a front runner in the race to succeed Mr. McGuinty, was among those who defended a policy designed to replace the province's emission-spewing, coal-fired electricity plants with cleaner sources of energy and create jobs in a province grappling with a shrinking manufacturing sector.

Ms. Wynne said the seven candidates, all former cabinet ministers in the McGuinty government, would not even be debating the topic if the Liberals had not had the vision to stake the province's economic future on building a renewable energy sector.

"I acknowledge the concerns and mistakes that may have been made," Ms. Wynne said at an all-candidates debate in Ottawa on Tuesday evening. "But we took a leap to create a green economy. I don't think any other party would have done that."

Gerard Kennedy and Eric Hoskins also said Liberals should be proud of the fact that the McGuinty government is on track to phase out Ontario's coal-fired plants by 2014, a move they said has gone a long way to clean up the province's air.

Closing the coal-fired plants – a pledge first made by Mr. McGuinty during the 2003 provincial election campaign – may have been the right idea, said Glen Murray. But he sharply criticized Mr. McGuinty over the execution of the policy and for not consulting with rural communities opposed to having wind turbines in their backyards.

"We can't just get it half right," Mr. Murray said. "We didn't listen to our MPPs. I dare say, if we had done that we wouldn't be having problems."

The manner in which Mr. McGuinty pulled the plug on two gas-fired power plants slated for Oakville and Mississauga shows why the Liberals need to put all cabinet ministers and MPPs in charge of government. Mr. Murray and other candidates have said too many policy decisions were made in the Premier's Office without consultation.

Charles Sousa said he fought the gas-fired plant slated for Mississauga right from the get-go. "I opposed it because it was literally a stone's throw away from people's homes," he said.

Mr. McGuinty ultimately cancelled the power plant during the provincial election campaign in the fall of 2011, after construction had started.

Sandra Pupatello, also a front runner, said the Liberals need a leader who will stand up and defend the green energy act by pointing to all the jobs created in Ontario since the government began offering incentives to companies to build wind and solar power.

"We put Ontario on the map internationally as a green energy jurisdiction," Ms. Pupatello said. But the green energy policies have become a "yolk" for the governing Liberals, she said, and that has to change.

But Ms. Pupatello also acknowledged that the government's implementation of the green energy policies was "less than stellar."

She said the Liberals need to learn a lesson from what didn't work and make sure they do a better job of listening to grassroots members of the party.

The last time the party held an ideas conference was before the Liberals came to power in 2003, Ms. Pupatello said.

"We weren't the government, but we were acting like one and we were reaching out to Liberals for great ideas," she said.

Harinder Takhar questioned why the Liberals would even push ahead with any new energy projects, given that the province has a surplus of electricity.