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Ontario Conservative party leader Tim Hudak picks up his copy of the provincial budget at Queens Park in Toronto on March 27, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Ontario Conservative party leader Tim Hudak picks up his copy of the provincial budget at Queens Park in Toronto on March 27, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Adam Radwanski

Hudak got off too easy for his role in Ontario’s budget crisis Add to ...

As Ontario teetered on the brink of its second election in less than a year, attention was squarely focused on the public spat between Dalton McGuinty and Andrea Horwath.

But to understand why the province’s minority legislature is still very much on borrowed time, even after a summer campaign appears to have been narrowly avoided, there’s no getting past the role of the party leader who actively avoided the spotlight during the past week.

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For all that Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals and Ms. Horwath’s New Democrats have at various points been guilty of bluster and false bravado and overplaying their respective hands, it’s Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives who are most responsible for this legislature’s dysfunction.

Faced with a $15-billion deficit, Mr. McGuinty has decided that he needs to adopt a relatively fiscally conservative agenda. That should leave him looking to find common ground with the right-of-centre Tories. But because they’ve shown very little interest in engaging, he instead has to keep tilting left to appease the NDP. And the more that becomes obvious to the New Democrats, the more they keep pushing him away from what he wants to do, and toward impasses.

This situation began to play itself out around the tabling of Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s budget this spring. Although the Tories now insist otherwise, it was obvious to most anyone around Queen’s Park that they had no intention of voting for it, no matter what was in it. That meant the Liberals had to table a document the NDP could conceivably be willing to support, then add various concessions – most notably a tax increase on the highest income earners – in order to get the budget motion passed in April.

But only last Thursday did it become clear just how much the Tories are prepared to set aside their own policy goals, if it makes the Liberals’ lives more difficult.

That was when the NDP used the finance committee to introduce a series of amendments in advance of the final vote on the budget bill. By the account of their own officials, the New Democrats never expected to get support from the other parties for removing privatization mechanisms or a slight toughening of arbitration rules from the legislation; it was just supposed to be a harmless way to play to their union supporters, and cut into some of the Liberals’ organized-labour support. What they hadn’t counted on was that the Tories would vote with them.

Days later, Mr. Hudak’s officials and MPPs would argue that the components they helped remove from the budget were actually left-wing policies masquerading as fiscally conservative ones. It would be fairer to say the policies went somewhat in the direction the Tories would want, just not far enough. And the simplest explanation for how they voted is that they saw an opportunity to embarrass the Liberals, and took advantage of it.

In a sense, it worked. Mr. McGuinty proceeded to overreact, crying wolf with an election threat he wasn’t prepared to follow through on. The Liberals and New Democrats then spent several days arguing publicly about what their original budget deal had entailed, and whether or not the NDP has broken a promise. Suffice it to say neither the Premier nor Ms. Horwath came off particularly well.

But Mr. Hudak’s conduct was embarrassing in a different way. In the midst of a legitimate budget crisis, he stayed as far as possible from Queen’s Park. Although he had no less a hand in this mess than Mr. McGuinty or Ms. Horwath, he was Tweeting about what he had for lunch while they were trying to sort it out. In one of the stranger moments of a strange week, he issued a statement from afar that more or less lamented that the other two leaders weren’t getting along.

It can be debated whether or not this was smart strategy. On one hand, he got less negative coverage the past few days than his counterparts, and Mr. McGuinty’s posturing might have sowed a little dissent in Liberal ranks. On the other, it didn’t exactly enhance Mr. Hudak’s efforts to rebrand himself as a more serious leader than the one we saw during last fall’s election campaign, and he may have made it easier for Mr. McGuinty to argue that he needs voters in a coming by-election to hand him a majority.

What’s more straightforward is that, unless and until he forms government, Mr. Hudak is currently making the least productive contribution of the province’s three leaders. While they may have let their egos get the better of them in nearly marching the province over a cliff, Mr. McGuinty and Ms. Horwath at least did so in a way that was consistent with their views of how the government should be run. That’s a pretty low bar, but Mr. Hudak would have had a hard time explaining how he met it, if he’d bothered accepting ownership of the situation at all.

 

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