TORONTO - A thorny proposal to scrap Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal could stir up the kind of controversy that sunk the Progressive Conservatives in the last provincial election, leadership hopeful Christine Elliott warned Tuesday.

Rivals Tim Hudak and Randy Hillier both say they'd abolish the human rights body and have discrimination cases heard in courts.

They argue the Ontario Human Rights Commission -- established in 1961 by a Tory government -- and the Human Rights Tribunal are trampling on individual rights and wasting taxpayer dollars on "nuisance" claims.

It's become a hot-button issue in the race, which will soon see all four candidates face off in a series of debates across the province.

There are problems that need to be fixed, but abolishing the tribunal would "throw the baby out with the bath water," Elliott said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The ruling Liberals would rejoice if the party adopted the proposal, which could tank as badly with voters as former leader John Tory's doomed promise to extend funding to faith-based schools in the 2007 election campaign, she said.

"If we are very serious about winning the next election, I think we need to take a look at this policy and how that will be perceived by the people of the province of Ontario," Elliott said.

"I think there's nobody that would like to see us get rid of the human rights commission and tribunal than (Premier) Dalton McGuinty, because I think this particular issue has the potential to be the faith-based issue that 2007 was."

Tory never recovered and resigned the leadership after failing to win a seat in a March byelection.

Hudak's campaign team insists there's no comparison between the two policies.

"This is a dysfunctional system that is doing a grave disservice, and the proposals that are being put out there -- to find new and better ways of dealing with this -- are certainly realistic ones," said Jeremy Adams, a spokesman for Hudak.

Hudak is proposing that complaints of discrimination go to specially trained judges, similar to those in family law courts, which would move the province towards an "evidence-based" system rather than one "built on hurt feelings," he said.

"It's not a system that's bound by the rules of evidence, which creates problems for legitimate complaints getting through the system, because there's no ability to deal with complaints that are frivolous and politically motivated."

The proposal may win votes in the leadership race, but it could cost the Tories dearly in a provincial election, said Henry Jacek, a politics professor at Hamilton's McMaster University.

The Tories need to win Toronto-area suburban ridings to defeat the Liberals, but could end up alienating new immigrants who live in those areas and feel the tribunal is protecting them from discrimination, he said.

"If I were an adviser, I wouldn't advise a Conservative candidate to essentially make this a big issue in the general election campaign, because I think it will probably hurt them in ridings that they need to win," he said.

Elliott echoed that sentiment, adding that the party must "be careful" with the idea of scrapping the tribunal, which is still needed in Ontario.

Most victims of discrimination can't afford the high cost of taking their complaints to court, said the 53-year-old Whitby lawyer.

"Certainly there is a need to make some changes, because I think that the commission has gotten away from its original mandate, which is to protect people from legitimate cases of discrimination," Elliott said.

Frank Klees, who is making a second run at the party's top job, also opposes the idea of scrapping the commission. However, he is in favour of repealing some of its power that "threatens freedom of expression."

"It needs to be fixed, not annihilated," Klees said in a statement.

"People need access to a system that will help them against wrongs without having to enter into our expensive legal system."

Much of the criticism surrounding the Ontario commission stems from its condemnation of a Maclean's article in April 2008 that it deemed to be Islamophobic, even though it could not legally proceed to a hearing on the complaint.

The article, which suggested that Muslims pose a threat to North America, "promotes prejudice towards Muslims" and has a "negative impact" on Muslim communities, the commission said.

That drew the ire of critics, who complained the commission was pushing for more powers that would allow it to muzzle journalists and interfere with free speech.

A number of prominent Conservatives have called for human rights commissions to be abolished, saying they are doing more harm than good.

Hillier was the first to float the idea in the provincial leadership race when he launched his campaign March 30. Hudak announced his support for the idea last week, leading some to speculate he was trying to win over Hillier supporters.

Adams denied this, saying Hudak has "been on the record" about his views on the issue before the race began.

The party will vote for a new leader on June 21 and June 25, using ballots that will ask voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. Ballot boxes will be sealed and sent to the convention, taking place June 26 to 28, to be counted.

Experts say the candidates will be jostling for the No. 2 spot on the ballot, which could be crucial for victory if no single candidate wins a majority in the first round of counting.