Ontario has been plunged into a snap election that will pit the activist, big-spending agenda of Liberal Kathleen Wynne against the small-government, tax-cutting plans of Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives in a battle of starkly different ideas for steering the province through a tough economy.
New Democrat Andrea Horwath, who triggered the June 12 election by rejecting Ms. Wynne's budget, will try to persuade voters that, in the wake of a scandal that saw the Liberals spend a billion dollars to cancel two gas-fired power plants, her party should supplant Ms. Wynne's as the dominant centre-left force at the legislature.
Most polls show a tight race between the Liberals and Tories, with the NDP several points behind.
Ms. Wynne has been cast into an election for which her party is not totally prepared. The Tories hammered out their strategy to motivate their base by presenting an unabashedly right-wing platform two years ago, and have been organizing for the campaign ever since. The PCs have built a proprietary computer program that slices and dices voter demographics to find optimal ways to reach out to them; they have also had nearly all their candidates in place for more than a year.
The Liberals, by contrast, recently had to buy a piece of off-the-shelf software to try to match the Tories' ability to identify ethnic voters, and some insiders concede they do not have as much infrastructure in place as they should. Ms. Wynne's party has, however, generally led in fundraising.
The Liberal Leader will campaign on her sprawling, left-tilting budget, which includes a massive new provincial pension plan, $29-billion for new subways and highways, and increased wages for personal support and child-care workers.
"There's only one good reason to enter politics, and that is to help people," she said outside her Queen's Park office minutes after visiting Lieutenant-Governor David Onley to ask him to dissolve the legislature. "You do that by making government a force for good in peoples' lives, a positive force, a progressive force helping to create jobs, helping our kids get the best education, putting in place the conditions to help people and businesses to thrive."
New Democrats, however, opted to vote down the spending plan because they are bullish on their party's chances in an election. Party insiders say they believe the time is right to scoop up traditionally Liberal voters upset over spending scandals.
The NDP is also worried about being seen as subservient to the Liberals, one source said, saying the party fears suffering the fate of Britain's Liberal Democrats, who have cratered in the polls since signing on as junior partner in a coalition government.
Ms. Horwath will face a challenge explaining why she triggered an election over one of the most NDP-friendly budgets the province has ever seen, and will have to fend off a Liberal party whose strategy is to take away her supporters.
On Friday, she said she agrees with the spending plan, but doesn't trust the Liberals to implement it.
"I have lost confidence in Kathleen Wynne and her ability to deliver," she told a packed news conference Friday morning. "This budget is not a solid plan for the future. It's a mad dash to escape the scandals by promising the moon and the stars. Well, I'm not the kind of woman that believes those kind of promises. I come from a simpler place."
Mr. Hudak, for his part, is striking a sharp contrast with Ms. Wynne, running on a Blue Tory platform of cuts to spending, aggressive deficit reduction and slashing government regulations on business.
"I have got a laser-like focus on job creation. That's what I'm going to be talking about each and every day," he said at an Ottawa townhall-style event that became an impromptu campaign launch. "I've got a million jobs plan to actually get hydro under control, to get taxes down, to encourage investment in job creation again, to have a government that spends within its means ... I'm excited about my plan."
With files from Bill Curry in Ottawa