After 18 years representing Leeds-Grenville, Bob Runciman's candidature could be the litmus test for Tory policies that the Liberal opposition claims have pitted rural ridings against urban centres.
Runciman, Solicitor General and Minister of Correctional Services, has accumulated influence as Chair of the Ontario Cabinet and member of the Management Board of Cabinet, the inner circle of the Harris government. But with that influence, Runciman assumes responsibility for moves by the Harris government that have outraged some elements in the twin counties.
In Brockville, the largest municipality in the riding and Runciman's home town, the decision to close the Ontario Psychiatric Hospital, a major employer, means lost jobs and services in a community already reeling from hospital cutbacks and plant shutdowns.
The decision by the Harris government to build a "super jail" on the grounds of the hospital facility, along with a forensic facility under the aegis of the Royal Ottawa, has taken some of the sting out of losing the hospital, but has created resentment in Prescott which had submitted a proposal to have the jail built in that community, 12 miles east of Brockville.
The reversal of policy on charity casinos is also a bone of contention in Prescott. Prescott council was hours away from closing an agreement with Star of Fortune on a casino and much-anticipated riverfront hotel complex when the Harris Management Board pulled the rug out.
The down loading of a sub-standard water treatment facility in Prescott before it is brought up to provincial standards has also frustrated Prescott council.
Down loading of services has made the amalgamation of Prescott with Edwardsburg and Augusta townships more pressing, but the three parties have been unable to come to terms.
Cuts to health services and education are a concern throughout a largely rural riding, and among the major concerns of Liberal challenger Don Cameron, the mayor of North Grenville.
"Clearly health care is threatened in rural Ontario under the Harris government, with hospitals living under constant uncertainty, resulting in low staff morale," Cameron said. "We are looking at threats to the complete rural system. You can't isolate one sector."
"There is more to the question than just dollars," he added. "Rural schools are now pitted against urban schools for provincial funding. Schools are more than just schools in rural Ontario, they are community centres."
Cameron said there is also resentment in rural areas over agriculture cutbacks.
"Harris has pitted the rural communities against urban communities," he said, with money lost to agriculture through elimination of the farm tax rebate, with the loss being down loaded to the municipalities.
"And where will municipalities get money?" he asked. "Property taxes."
"We used to have a system where government partnered with farmers," Cameron said. "The partnership has been broken and the closure of agriculture offices is just one example. (Agriculture Minister Noble) Villeneuve, Harris, and Runciman approved taking 72 million out of the Agriculture budget (the farm tax rebate).
Cameron said the Liberals are making a four-year commitment to agriculture, "so people will know what to expect," by injecting $35 million per year back into agriculture spending.
"We are saying no to tax increases, but it makes no sense to borrow money to fund tax cuts," Cameron said.
Cameron is calling for "an ordered, responsible approach" to tax cuts.
"It is just as important to pay down the debt to restore Ontario's credit rating." he said. "Harris could have balanced budget in 1998 or 1999."
"We will aim for tax cuts in our second year for lower and middle incomes, not for the top 10 percent," he said. "We will not play Santa Claus to the top 10 percent of income earners and Mack the Knife to all the rest.
"Harris is stuck on regressive tax policies, using property taxes to pay for police, roads, welfare, health, housing," he said. "This tax system just won't work, particularly in rural Ontario."