Andrea Horwath seemed more comfortable than she had in weeks.
Since the Ontario budget was tabled at the start of this month, the NDP Leader had tried to mask her indecision about whether to support it with a rather unappealing combination of defensiveness, bluster and uncharacteristic grimness. On Tuesday, announcing that her party would let Kathleen Wynne’s minority government live to see another day, Ms. Horwath was back to the pleasant, down-to-earth demeanour with which she had previously won fans.
Alas, given that there was more compelling news happening in Ottawa and at Toronto’s City Hall, it’s unlikely many people noticed. So most Ontarians were likely also unaware that Ms. Horwath was finally, belatedly taking due credit for helping shape the provincial policy agenda.
Even inside Queen’s Park, her decision had an anti-climactic feel to it. And that, really, spoke to how she misplayed her hand this spring.
It was not an easy hand to begin with. If Dalton McGuinty had stayed premier, it would have been a no-brainer to bring him down over the ongoing controversy about the cancellation of power plants, and the general sense of fatigue around his government. His replacement with Ms. Wynne – less tainted by scandal, more energetic, and more willing to adopt policies close to New Democrats’ hearts – complicated matters.
Nevertheless, there were two decent options available to Ms. Horwath, both of which passed her by while she performed her Hamlet act.
The first, which Ms. Horwath never appeared to seriously consider, was to signal before the budget was tabled that she would not allow the Liberals to keep governing.
By late April, it was obvious that Ms. Wynne was granting enough policy demands that the NDP would not be able to justify rejecting the fiscal plan itself. But if she still wanted an election, Ms. Horwath could have taken an out that election-hungry Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak tried to offer, by supporting a non-confidence motion related to the power plants. Although some peculiar procedural rules might have allowed the Liberals to block that motion from even coming to the floor, endorsing it would have given the New Democrats cover to vote against the budget regardless of what was in it.
The other obvious path, if she didn’t think the time was right for an election and wanted to keep building her brand, would have been loudly and proudly declaring victory by claiming this budget as her own in the days after it was introduced.
The NDP, she could have boasted, had forced the Liberals to invest in youth jobs and homecare, lower auto insurance rates and make social assistance less punitive. She could have made herself look strong, made Ms. Wynne look relatively weak and communicated to left-of-centre voters for whom they’re both competing that she was the one actually driving the agenda. And she might even have been able to preserve her sunny disposition in the process.
Instead, with her caucus divided on whether to force an election, Ms. Horwath essentially bought time by putting forward more demands. Ultimately, an array of factors – polls showing the Liberals with momentum, as well as pressure from unions and a stunning NDP loss in British Columbia – convinced her to accept the win she could have taken earlier.
By this week, Ms. Horwath was able to claim one more substantive policy give, in the form of a new financial accountability officer. But by that point she had also confused a brand that had been built partly around avoiding political gamesmanship, let the Liberals take more ownership of the policies she herself had requested, exhausted the patience of most people who had been paying attention, and then lost the spotlight.
None of this is a disaster for Ms. Horwath; she won’t crash and burn whenever that next campaign rolls around because she stumbled this spring. At the least, though, it was a missed opportunity. And up against a new premier who makes her life more challenging than the previous one, she can’t afford too many of those.