Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath began to back away from previous tough talk about bringing down the provincial government this spring, as she emerged from her first meeting with Premier Kathleen Wynne in more than two months.
“I feel assured that after having had this meeting, the Premier has heard the people of Ontario and knows what they expect in terms of accountability,” Ms. Horwath said on Wednesday. “I know that she heard that message loud and clear.”
Officials with both the governing Liberals and the third-party New Democrats described the discussion between the two leaders as “fruitful,” “friendly” and “productive.”
Ms. Horwath said at her press conference that “the ball is in the court of the Premier” when it comes to changing the provincial budget to address NDP concerns. But sources with both parties said that Ms. Wynne offered responses to the three policy demands – to appoint a new financial accountability officer, expand the powers of the provincial ombudsman, and backtrack on plans to introduce high-occupancy toll lanes – that the NDP made since the budget was tabled earlier this month.
Ms. Horwath will now take back to her caucus what an NDP official described as “a few different ideas,” with another meeting between the two leaders likely to happen next week. The government’s hope is that an agreement will be reached in time for the legislature’s return on May 27 from its Victoria Day break, allowing the budget motion to pass.
The two sides were optimistic that what might seem to be the most contentious of the NDP’s requests – the climb-down on HOT lanes, which would be Ms. Wynne’s first foray into creating new revenue streams to fund transportation infrastructure – will not prove a sticking point. Government officials noted that although the mechanism is mentioned in the budget motion, it is not a part of the actual budget bill, so Ms. Horwath’s call for more study might not require a major change in plans.
The sources said that the two leaders did not discuss any tweaks to the NDP-friendly policies that the Liberals have already included in the budget, including home-care investment and an effort to cut auto insurance rates, despite Ms. Horwath previously expressing some skepticism about the Liberals’ level of commitment.
In another possible sign of a looming deal, Ms. Horwath went out of her way at her press conference to express that she was pleased with Ms. Wynne’s apology on Tuesday night for the mess around the expensive cancellation of gas-fired power plants.
The NDP Leader took credit for forcing the Premier to express more contrition than previously, which Ms. Horwath said was a response to her party’s efforts to convey Ontarians’ unhappiness. And New Democrats again declined on Wednesday to join with Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives in forcing a confidence vote over the issue.
Despite the apparent willingness to set aside hostilities, there is still potential for the province to find itself in an election. New Democratic MPPs are said to be divided on the prospect of bringing down the government, so it is unclear what response Ms. Horwath will get when she goes back to them.
There is also some disagreement between the two parties regarding how the next few days should play out. The NDP wants Ms. Wynne to publicly announce her responses to the policy requests, while Liberals say they would prefer not to negotiate through the media.
Even if a deal is reached to pass the budget motion, there would still be some danger of disagreement over attempts to modify the budget legislation before it reaches a subsequent vote. Such efforts nearly led to an election last year, and Ms. Horwath has not ruled out trying to make changes again when the bill reaches legislative committee.
Feeling buoyant after Wednesday’s meeting, however, Liberals appeared less concerned than previously about the prospect of an election this spring.