On the face of it, it was about as straightforward as could possibly be expected.
Andrea Horwath marched into Kathleen Wynne’s office, having accepted the Ontario Premier’s invitation for a pre-budget chat. The NDP Leader emerged having reiterated a handful of policy demands – among them youth-unemployment measures, shorter home-care waits and, most contentiously, a cut to auto-insurance rates – in return for keeping the Liberals’ minority government alive. Ms. Wynne said she understood where Ms. Horwath was coming from, and that was about it. The whole thing took 15 minutes.
But if there was little room for confusion in Thursday morning’s meeting, there is plenty when it comes to the broader relationship between the two parties. Among Liberals in particular, there is a difference of opinion regarding what to expect from their negotiating partners, and how best to handle them.
Senior Liberals who were around during last year’s budget process, when an apparent Liberal-NDP agreement fell apart and the parties nearly backed themselves into an election, were left embittered. Their account, disputed by New Democrats, is that Ms. Horwath agreed to a final version of the budget and then went back on her word. The lesson they drew is that the NDP is not to be trusted, and they argue that their party should approach future talks accordingly – including getting everything in writing, and avoiding an endless string of concessions.
Ms. Wynne, however, is mostly surrounded by a newer crowd that expresses considerably more optimism. The consensus-oriented new Premier is a different personality than her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, they suggest; left unsaid is that she’s also somewhat to his left. Considering that both sides have had more time to adapt to the realities of a minority legislature, they argue there’s a chance to put last year’s unpleasantness in the rear-view mirror.
Whether that latter view is wishful thinking, by Liberals who want as much time as they can get before going to the polls, is difficult to gauge because the New Democrats seem to have a lot of internal debate going on as well, about how much hardball they should play.
For their side, there are persuasive arguments for bringing down the government if they have enough of an excuse. The longer they wait, the more chance Ms. Wynne will have to establish herself as Premier, repair relationships with unions and other left-of-centre supporters alienated by Mr. McGuinty, and rebuild the Liberals’ campaign team.
At the same time, there are doubts about the NDP’s state of election readiness, considering they had by far the weakest organization in the last provincial campaign. They also have to worry about Ms. Horwath’s brand, which they have tried to build around being reasonable and pragmatic. And many of the NDP’s union supporters are putting pressure on the party to avoid potentially opening the door to a Progressive Conservative government by triggering an election over a seemingly marginal issue such as auto insurance.
On top of all that, the NDP still has to get a read on where Ms. Wynne is coming from. That’s a little less tricky than the reverse, because the Liberals have a fairly obvious interest in not falling, but the fact remains that a new Premier is still figuring out how she herself approaches the job.
For now, the two sides are mostly just trying to get a read on each other’s interests and motivations, and on their own. No wonder a few minutes in the same room, however plain the talk, didn’t resolve much.