Since Ontario’s minority government was elected more than eight months ago, its most notable legislative accomplishments have been to facilitate the creation of gay-straight alliances in high schools, and to extend human-rights protections to transgendered people. Both are laudable policies, but neither does anything to address the province’s dire fiscal situation. Nor do the few other bills that have thus far found their way through the Legislature.
That might be excusable if the budget tabled by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan in March, which contains various austerity measures (though not enough), is finally passed this month. But now, there is a real chance that Ontarians will be forced into another election instead. If so, all three parties will share the blame for the Legislature’s dismal failure.
It’s understandable that Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty is so frustrated as to consider asking voters for a new mandate. Having afforded major concessions to the third-party NDP, notably a new tax on the highest income earners, Mr. McGuinty thought he had a deal to pass the budget. Instead, the New Democrats introduced amendments at committee this week to strip the budget bill of key provisions aimed at cost-cutting, including privatization mechanisms. Clearly more interested in embarrassing the Liberals than in helping advance their own right-leaning policies, the Progressive Conservatives sided with the NDP. Now, Mr. McGuinty argues, his government’s budget has been “gutted.”
But while his party has behaved less egregiously than the others, Mr. McGuinty bears some responsibility as well. He evidently did not seek enough assurances from NDP Leader Andrea Horwath when they made their deal, and tempted fate by cramming measures with questionable budgetary relevance – such as changes to environmental regulations – into the bill. Caught off guard by what happened at committee, he then overreacted by immediately threatening an election.
As Mr. McGuinty acknowledged Friday, putting off the budget for months longer because of a summer election would have major consequences, possibly including further downgrades to the province’s credit rating. Rather than plunging headlong into a campaign they all claim not to want, Mr. McGuinty and the other leaders have an obligation to act like adults and work this out.