As they set about trying to eliminate a $12.5-billion deficit in a three-year span, the Ontario Liberals will risk angering the left-of-centre supporters who helped power them back to majority government.
What remains very much in question is whether those voters, not to mention the unions and interest groups that gave Kathleen Wynne’s party a big organizational advantage in this past spring’s election, will have an alternative toward which to turn.
After giving the Liberals a virtual free pass on their cost-cutting intentions during the campaign, Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats have recently changed their tune. Their new argument in recent weeks that Charles Sousa’s budget is a “Trojan horse” filled with unpleasant austerity-related surprises has more than a hint of truth to it, but it’s not an argument Ms. Horwath can make very convincingly at the moment. And to be credible mounting this sort of attack going forward would require repositioning both dramatic and delicate on her part.
That the New Democrats declined during the campaign to highlight the budget’s projected flat-lining of expenditures after the current fiscal year was not an accident. It was in keeping with a view that to lure new supporters, they had to allay fears about their big-government impulses. So they focused mostly on small-ball pocketbook relief, while more or less adopting the Liberals’ fiscal framework and complaining about government waste in a way that caused Ms. Horwath to sometimes appear more fiscally conservative than Ms. Wynne.
A problem with this approach, it turns out, was that Ms. Horwath and her strategists overestimated the power of their party’s brand among long-time backers. Gains outside Toronto were counterbalanced by losses within it, resulting in a wash in the NDP’s seat count and share of the popular vote.
That Ms. Horwath is belatedly challenging Ms. Wynne’s claim that she wants to “build Ontario up” is in some measure an acknowledgment of this failing and an attempt to correct it, as she seeks to limit pushback in advance of a leadership review. But to really take advantage of disillusionment with the Liberals, if it materializes, would require some tougher decisions than just choosing a decent sound bite.
If Ms. Horwath wants to credibly oppose any cutbacks or spending freezes, she will have to choose from a couple of policy alternatives she has thus far treated as anathema. One would be questioning the necessity of eliminating the deficit by 2017-18, as the Liberals have pledged. The other would be calling for the collection of new revenues to play a bigger role in achieving that target.
There are perfectly reasonable people (economists among them) who would argue for those options, and it’s not as though the New Democrats would need to go all in on either to set themselves apart; they could just propose a slightly slower return to balance, or a modest tax increase to augment spending restraint. (The NDP did propose nudging corporate taxes upward during the recent campaign, but that was mostly to fund the pocketbook relief.)
It’s not readily apparent, though, that Ms. Horwath is willing to risk alienating the new supporters she’s attracted, nor that the most influential voices within her party will pressure her to do so.
As a result of both her successes and her failures, the NDP’s caucus now consists almost entirely of members from parts of the province where her brand of populism has played well. And of the 20 MPPs who serve under her, 15 were first elected after she became leader in 2008, which limits their inclination to doubt her.
What she and they might consider is how different the recent campaign’s result might have been if they had settled on a decent attack line against the budget earlier and been able to back it up, rather than allowing Ms. Wynne to go virtually unchallenged as she built a left-of-centre coalition behind her. They could usefully try to find a way, while keeping most of the votes they got this election, to be ready to capitalize if that coalition fractures in the years ahead.