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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is shown in her office at Queen's Park in Toronto on Dec. 12, 2013. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is shown in her office at Queen's Park in Toronto on Dec. 12, 2013. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Wynne calls Feb. 13 by-elections ahead of crucial Ontario budget Add to ...

Voters in two hotly contested Ontario ridings will head to the polls next month in a prelude to a possible general election this spring.

The ridings – one an affluent Toronto suburb, the other a small blue-collar city – sit in key electoral battlegrounds, and will provide the strongest signs yet of voters’ mood. All three parties are expected to use the by-elections, in Thornhill and Niagara Falls, to test drive the tactics and messaging they will later employ across the province.

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Earlier this week, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government suddenly announced the construction of a new hospital in Niagara Falls. And on Wednesday, just minutes after calling the by-elections for Feb. 13, she held a photo opportunity with the province’s grape growers to promise to put more local wines, including many from Niagara, on liquor-store shelves.

The Liberals will campaign on an interventionist approach to the economy, including spending public cash to encourage industrial enterprises to set up shop.

“We are competing with jurisdictions that are putting large amounts of money on the table,” Ms. Wynne said. “We have to work with the private sector to make those reasonable investments.”

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, by contrast, is promoting a laissez faire policy with corporate tax cuts and aggressive deficit reduction that he contends will attract investment.

“We are the only party with a plan to bring good-paying jobs to Ontario,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

Thornhill, which became vacant last month when PC MPP Peter Shurman resigned after an expenses dispute with Mr. Hudak, is set to be a hard-fought battle between the Grits and Tories. At the heart of the seat-rich suburban belt around Toronto, it is the kind of riding key to forming the next government.

City councillor Sandra Yeung Racco is running for the Liberals; Gila Martow and Bruce McIntosh will square off for the Tory nod. Cindy Hackelberg is the only declared candidate for the NDP nomination.

Niagara Falls, which stretches from touristy Clifton Hill to working class Fort Erie and bucolic Niagara-on-the-Lake, is squarely in the sights of New Democrats, who are looking for a sign from their base as they decide whether to vote for the Liberals’ budget this spring or team up with the Tories to force a snap general election.

Leader Andrea Horwath hinted Wednesday she could bring down the government on the basis of the Liberals not following through on promises to the NDP in previous budgets.

Asked if she would vote against Ms. Wynne, Ms. Horwath said: “We need to hear from Ontarians as to whether they feel the results are actually showing, whether they’re actually getting results from those commitments.”

There is only one contender for the NDP nomination in Niagara, city councillor and trade unionist Wayne Gates. The Liberals nominated Joyce Morocco, also a councillor, while the Tories are banking on former MPP Bart Maves to win them back a riding they held in the 1990s.

For a decade, Niagara Falls was the seat of maverick Liberal Kim Craitor, who held on to power in part by criticizing his own government, before resigning last September. Mr. Craitor was nearly defeated in the 2011 election by the Tories in the tight, three-way race.

The by-election results will not change the balance of power in the legislature, where the Liberals hold 49 seats, the Tories 36 and the NDP 20.

Follow on Twitter: @adrianmorrow

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