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Premier Wynne delivers keynote address at pre-election Liberal gathering in Toronto

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne takes part in the meeting of First Ministers in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. A member of the Ontario legislature is apologizing to Premier Kathleen Wynne for comments made in a radio interview after the premier's lawyers warned he could face a defamation lawsuit.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne takes part in the meeting of First Ministers in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. A member of the Ontario legislature is apologizing to Premier Kathleen Wynne for comments made in a radio interview after the premier's lawyers warned he could face a defamation lawsuit. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

TORONTO – Premier Kathleen Wynne fired up her troops Saturday at the Ontario Liberal annual general meeting – the last party gathering before the spring election – by urging them not to focus on their uncertain opponent, but on the principles they’re fighting for.

In an impassioned speech containing more than two dozen instances of the word “fighting,” Wynne took a clear shot at the opposing Progressive Conservatives, who find themselves in turmoil after the sudden resignation of their former leader Patrick Brown in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations.

Brown vehemently denies the allegations – which were made in a CTV News report and haven’t been independently verified by The Canadian Press – but his departure has led to party infighting and a rushed leadership contest to be decided March 10.

READ MORE: Kathleen Wynne won’t call snap election after Patrick Brown resignation

Wynne told supporters it doesn’t matter who the Tories pick, the Liberal government’s goals remain the same.

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“There are always going to be people who see things differently,” she said. “People who criticize our plan. Some do it in the newspapers. Some do it on Twitter. Some do it behind a podium in their mother’s basement.”

The last reference was a dig at PC leadership candidate and former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, who announced he would seek the Tories’ top job at a press conference held in his mother’s basement earlier this week.

READ MORE: Rick Dykstra steps down as Ontario PC party president amid major staff shakeup

“It’s not about who we’re fighting against,” Wynne said.

“It’s about who we’re fighting for.”

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Wynne wasted no time in addressing the tide of sexual misconduct allegations rocking Canadian politics in the opening minutes of her speech.

She did not specifically mention Brown’s resignation, but alluded to the larger controversy.

“I’m heartbroken that in 2018, we as a society are still confronted by this vile and unacceptable behaviour that is dominating our headlines right now,” Wynne said. “You already know that as a party, we have introduced a new code of conduct on harassment. We want to lead the way in establishing safe workplaces.”

READ MORE: Patrick Brown steps down as Ontario PC leader amid sexual misconduct allegations

Wynne also touted some of the party’s policy achievements – raising the minimum wage, expanding drug coverage for people under the age of 25 and free post-secondary tuition for students from low-income families.

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She emphasized the contrast between her party, the PCs and the New Democrats, while also touching on key themes of fairness and opportunity that she has stressed for months.

“We are fighting for you, we will keep fighting for you,” she said. “We will never stop fighting for you.”

Wynne mentioned the difficult road to re-election ahead by referencing her own past electoral record. Down in the polls for over a year and with approval ratings that hover in the mid-teens, she asked party volunteers to work hard.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Can Doug Ford win the Ontario PC Party leadership?

“I lost my first election in 1994 by 72 votes,” Wynne said. “Just a few more hours of canvassing or getting out the vote could have changed that result. And because every single vote counts, that means every single visit on every single doorstep counts.”

Liberal campaign co-chair Deb Matthews acknowledged that the weekend event was, in part, about further honing the party’s strategy and organization. That includes planning for whomever the PCs pick as leader.

“Obviously, we’ll need to be ready for any eventuality,” she said of the PC leadership race. “They need to figure out their party. We’ve got our party figured out. We know what we’re doing.”

Wynne said the party is not “troubled by” the loss of any advance plans they had to attack former PC leader Patrick Brown.

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READ MORE: Ontario PCs meet to set rules for leadership race

“What happened to Patrick Brown, what is happening to the (PCs) right now, is their focus,” she said. “Our focus is on our plan.”

Wynne opened the convention Friday night by participating in a candidate spotlight and taking questions from party members.

Ontario’s general election is June 7.