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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty delivers a speech to the Ontario Liberal annual general meeting in Ottawa. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty delivers a speech to the Ontario Liberal annual general meeting in Ottawa. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Adam Radwanski

Even with a new premier, Ontario legislature still a House of cards Add to ...

In the context of a leadership campaign, it sounds so simple.

With varying degrees of seriousness, the candidates vying to win Premier Dalton McGuinty’s job at this weekend’s Liberal convention have insisted they’re capable of making Ontario’s legislature functional again. All it will take, they seem to suggest, is some combination of a fresh start, greater openness to working with the opposition parties, and a generally better understanding of the realities of minority government.

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What they don’t mention – what is easy to forget, after more than three months of prorogation – is that this particular configuration of the legislature was set up to fail from the outset. And while a new premier might be able to extend its lifespan, the government will remain very much on borrowed time.

The problem is straightforward, and became obvious almost immediately after the October 2011 election. Battling a large deficit, the Liberals locked into a relatively conservative fiscal agenda that would come to include fights with organized labour. But of the two opposition parties, only the left-of-centre NDP was remotely willing to seek common cause, with the Progressive Conservatives adopting a strategy of voting against the government under almost any circumstances.

Unsurprisingly, while the Liberals and NDP gamely made a go of co-operating, it was only a matter of months before their relationship began to fall apart. Although they managed to pass a budget last June, after the Liberals made various concessions that included a tax increase on the highest earners, the acrimony that surrounded it raised serious doubts about their ability to pass a second.

By the time Mr. McGuinty announced his resignation this past fall, those doubts had turned into near certainty that the government would be brought down this spring.

With the push to impose new contracts on unions that would not agree to wage-restraint measures, the Liberals had if anything moved further right – and still the Tories, whose support for legislation aimed at the province’s teachers proved a one-off, wanted very little part of it. Meanwhile, the fallout from the controversial cancellations of a pair of power-plant projects had created a toxic atmosphere that seemed to preclude further bridge-building.

Considering that none of Mr. McGuinty’s would-be successors have expressed much enthusiasm for imposing more contracts, and the main contenders are less tied than him to the power-plant decisions, the leadership campaign has offered some hope of rolling back the clock 16 months and starting anew. But what won’t change, even then, is the gulf between political dynamics and policy imperatives.

Of the two front-runners heading into this weekend’s convention, Kathleen Wynne is far likelier than Sandra Pupatello to keep the government alive for a while. Unlike Ms. Pupatello, she appears more interested in governing than fighting an election campaign; she is also somewhat closer ideologically to the NDP than is her opponent, and her personality better lends itself to conciliation.

Even Ms. Wynne, however, has embraced the basic fiscal objectives that Mr. McGuinty was trying to advance. She has indicated support for the 2017-18 target to eliminate the deficit, and made familiar arguments about the need for the government to make tough spending decisions in order to continue investing in its priorities.

“I’m interested in working with other parties, but not at the expense of our principles,” Ms. Wynne said during an editorial board meeting last week. In this instance, those principles were meant to include fiscal responsibility.

It is entirely possible, even probable, that she would be able to meet that standard to her satisfaction this spring; someone who says she wants to be the “social justice premier” would presumably be able to find a few NDP-friendly tradeoffs. But it would progressively get more difficult, because with every policy win, the New Democrats would surely grow bolder in their demands, and more resistant to voting for things that might alienate their base.

The Liberals perhaps owe it to Ontarians to try again to make this legislature work, learning from the mistakes made to date – the ill-advised claims to a “major minority,” for instance. If they can look reasonably good while doing so, they might be better positioned to compete in an election when the legislature inevitably becomes unmanageable than they would be if they just went to the polls now.

The next premier, in other words, might be able to better play the cards that Mr. McGuinty was dealt back in 2011. But she won’t be able to change the fact that it was a terrible hand to begin with.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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