Ontario’s governing Liberals are signalling that they remain in charge, even though the recent election left them one seat shy of a majority.
The government has rejected two major initiatives from the opposition, both of which are at odds with its own policy agenda to rein in program spending and erase the province’s multibillion-dollar deficit.
On Friday, Premier Dalton McGuinty shot down Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak’s calls for a mandatory wage freeze for doctors, nurses, teachers and other public-sector employees who bargain collectively. Earlier this week, he rejected New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath’s proposal to exempt home-heating bills from the 8-per-cent provincial portion of the harmonized sales tax.
Mr. McGuinty met face-to-face with Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath on Friday for the first time since the Oct. 6 provincial election. The Premier wanted to hear new ideas that are “realistic,” given the province’s economic and fiscal situation, a government official said.
Mr. McGuinty has made no secret of his reluctance to take on the province’s 700,000 public-sector workers by forcing them to take a wage freeze. In the 2010 budget, the government ruled out using legislation and instead called for a voluntary, two-year freeze.
Mr. Hudak said the voluntary freeze was a “big failure,” because union leaders and arbitrators all but ignored it. According to the Ministry of Labour, wages for public-sector workers increased an average of 1.6 per cent between January and September of this year.
Mr. Hudak described his half-hour session with the Premier as “frustrating,” saying he “pretty well shot down” every one of his ideas, including the mandatory wage freeze.
But University of Toronto political scientist Graham White said Mr. McGuinty is doing the right thing by putting the opposition on notice that he won’t be pressured into abandoning his own policies just because he is now in a minority.
“At the very outset, the McGuinty government has to make it clear that they are not going to be pushed around, particularly on things where they have made their position clear,” Prof. White said.
The provincial legislature resumes sitting on Monday with the election of a new Speaker, followed by a speech from the throne outlining the government’s agenda on Tuesday. With the Liberals holding 53 of the legislature’s 107 seats and the Tories and New Democrats together holding 54, it remains to be seen how the parties will work together.
But on Mr. Hudak’s calls for a mandatory wage freeze – a policy that was not part of his campaign platform – the Liberals can count on the New Democrats as allies.
“Legislated wage freezes don’t work,” Ms. Horwath told reporters on Friday, following her meeting with Mr. McGuinty.
Instead of taking on the unions, she said, the government should delay its plans to hand out further tax cuts to corporations – the rate is set to drop to 10 per cent in July, 2013 from 11.5 per cent today.
“Maybe the big corporations and banks need to share part of the pain as well,” she said.