A month ago, throwing their weight behind legislation imposing new deals on Ontario's teachers unions, Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives offered a glimmer of hope that co-operation with Dalton McGuinty's governing Liberals could make the province's minority legislature moderately functional again.
On Monday, Mr. Hudak went pretty far toward dashing it.
With the Tories saying they don't support new legislation aimed at gradually freezing wages across the broader public sector, we're right back where we were heading into the summer – with the Premier having shifted too far right for the previously open-minded NDP to back him, and the Tories showing little interest in supporting even those policies with which they're widely perceived to agree. The Legislature is back on borrowed time, and poorly positioned to address the province's dire fiscal situation in the meanwhile.
It would have been naive to expect otherwise. In a minority, the balance between policy and politics shifts even more heavily toward the latter than usual. And Mr. Hudak's party decided after last year's election that there was no political advantage in being seen to prop up the third-term Liberals. To do so, many Tories have suggested, would risk being seen as weak, the same way as the federal Liberals were under Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Instead, they prefer to stick to a clear line that Mr. McGuinty isn't doing what needs to be done to get out of deficit.
The teachers' legislation was an exception, because the Tories knew a trap when they saw one. The Liberals scheduled the vote for right before a pivotal by-election in Kitchener-Waterloo; if the bill had been defeated, the ensuing chaos at the start of the school year would have bolstered Mr. McGuinty's argument that he needed voters to restore his majority.
Now the minority has been preserved, albeit with an NDP win in that by-election rather than a PC one. So the Tories have gone back to saying that they can't support Liberal measures that don't go far enough, in this case largely by complaining that wage freezes would only be imposed as contracts expired. Mr. Hudak is instead demanding that the existing agreements be torn up, which would be hard-pressed to survive a court challenge but has the advantage of sounding tough and straightforward.
It's conceivable that the Tories – who have some major election-readiness challenges – will yet settle for more minor concessions to at least abstain, if voting against the legislation would force an election. And that may not be a concern anyway, because the Liberals – who just finished alienating some of their core supporters with their rightward lurch, and are struggling to attract new ones – have reason to think twice before making it a confidence vote. In other words, it remains unlikely there will be an election before 2012 is out.
That may be a relief to Ontarians. But it bears noting that much of the reason the Liberals want to move toward wage freezes is to appease credit raters. If that effort instead demonstrates that they're extremely hard-pressed to legislate austerity measures, the downgrades – and other negative market reactions – may be unavoidable.
If that happens, it could indeed add to the woes of a Premier already struggling to show he can still lead. It's never a sure thing, though, how voters will react when they're given reason to be fed up with politics in general. And it looks like those in Ontario will soon have plenty of reason to feel that way, if they don't already.