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LONDON, Ont. - Ontario's Progressive Conservatives wrapped up their London policy conference Sunday, armed with new ideas that could make it into the party's next campaign platform.
Hundreds of delegates from across the province had their say on a list of about two dozen policy ideas, from cutting income taxes to selling beer and wine in corner stores.
Party officials wouldn't allow reporters to observe the voting, but some delegates leaving the session indicated that both ideas passed, as well as a controversial proposal to end mandatory union membership.
On the tax front, the initial idea involved lowering personal tax rates and reducing the number of income tax brackets to ease the overall tax load. They'd pay for the tax cuts by reducing the number of tax credits that currently exist.
Some delegates said the tax proposal was passed in principle, but that further work was needed to refine the idea.
Other resolutions that party members said got the green light: allowing municipalities in northern Ontario to make decision on re-establishing the spring bear hunt and permitting crowd funding as a source of financing for ventures.
But one delegate said the audience was divided on the union issue — which was added Sunday to the list of 24 resolutions — with about 45 per cent supporting it.
Party spokesman Alan Sakach said it actually passed with 53 per cent of the delegates in favour of it.
Other Tory members voiced concerns over the weekend that some of the proposed policies could drive unionized workers away from the party, such as opposing off-duty paid jobs for police officers, like monitoring traffic at construction sites.
The governing Liberals accused Tory Leader Tim Hudak of importing U.S.-style "Tea Party" tactics and harbouring a "horrible" agenda.
"By blocking media and observers from their policy debates, I wonder what elements from Tim Hudak's extreme right-wing agenda he wants hidden?" Liberal Steve Del Duca said in a statement.
"Tim Hudak is still hiding the PC radical white paper policies that will kill jobs, cut services, and drive down wages."
One Toronto-area delegate asked Hudak what he would do to remake the party's image, which she said wasn't helped by another delegate's public shot at NDP Leader Andrea Horwath's weight, calling her "the Great Pumpkin."
"Right now, our image is heartless, business-oriented, money first, not caring enough about people," she said.
Hudak pointed to a number of Tory policies aimed helping the province's most vulnerable, including more homecare and helping disabled Ontarians find jobs.
Conservatives want to eliminate Ontario's nearly $12-billion deficit so they can help people, not just for the sake of balancing the books, he said.
"My opponents will talk about compassion, but they rob us the ability to be compassionate in the first place," Hudak told the crowd.
Many of the draft policies debated at the Tory conference were ideas Hudak and his party had already proposed in a series of 15 so called "white papers." But that doesn't necessarily mean they'll make it into the next election platform.
Hudak acknowledged that 200-odd pages of ideas must be whittled down before the next election campaign, unless the party plans to campaign door-to-door "with a wheelbarrow," he joked.
The party is also in good shape financially for an election campaign, which could happen at any time, said Tony Miele, chairman of the PC Ontario Fund.
The party has slashed its debt from $6.5 million after the 2011 election to $3.4 million this year, he said. And it's resurrected a loyalty program that has donors contributing smaller amounts every month, rather than a single larger donation once a year.
It's a funding strategy that's worked well for the federal Conservatives, said Miele.
Hudak, who on Saturday dodged the prospect of another leadership review, ended the convention by thanking the delegates for their "vote of support."
He'd been under fire since the Tories won only one of five byelections in August. Hudak boasted that the party had finally made a breakthrough in Toronto, which had shut them out for a decade, but a small group of disgruntled Tories brought forward a constitutional amendment that would have allowed a leadership vote to be held at any time, not just after an election defeat.
Adding to Hudak's troubles were the controversies surrounding two Tory caucus members.
He stripped Toronto-area MPP Peter Shurman of his finance critic job when he refused to pay back a housing allowance that he'd collected after moving to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Hudak also demoted Randy Hiller, who represents a rural riding in eastern Ontario, after his email criticizing the party's support for a bill was leaked to the media.
Although Hillier showed up at the conference and took the stage along with his caucus colleagues, Shurman was a no-show, tweeting Friday: "my decision to stay home, no one else's ... just didn't want to be there."
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