In the first major test for her minority government, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne sketched out a wide-ranging agenda, promising everything from transit expansion to youth job creation to a strengthening of the province’s social safety net.
In an effort to appeal to both opposition parties, the Speech from the Throne – written by Ms. Wynne’s government and delivered by Lieutenant-Governor David Onley on Tuesday – tried to strike a balance between fiscal responsibility and social spending. It pledged to balance the books in four years and look for additional revenue in corporate tax while simultaneously expanding mental health programs and making changes to the welfare system.
But it wasn’t enough for austerity-minded Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who rejected the speech, chiding Ms. Wynne for doing too little to rein in spending. New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, meanwhile, said her party would vote in favour but warned the government would have to offer more specifics in the spring budget to secure her support and avoid an election.
Several pledges aligned with the NDP’s demands, including a promise to allow social-assistance recipients to keep more of their benefits when they find jobs and to clamp down on tax avoidance by companies. But it stopped short of meeting most of Ms. Horwath’s specific targets, including a 15-per-cent cut to auto insurance rates or a guarantee that no one would have to wait more than five days to start receiving home care.
And while getting young people into work was a major theme, the government did not immediately commit money to subsidize the job-placement program championed by the NDP.
Much of the speech took a conciliatory tone, promising to consult local residents before allowing wind farms or gas plants to be build nearby in an acknowledgment of the problems left by former premier Dalton McGuinty.
“We have auto workers who live on rural roads, and we have local food advocates who cycle to work in the city,” Mr. Onley said. “We have authors and artists and actors in Timmins and men and women who love the outdoors but live in the growing city of London. We are all extensions of the same landscape, part of the same province; and each citizen will inform its government’s perspective and its actions.”
It also, however, said the province would push forward with Mr. McGuinty’s green energy and education agendas, promising to continue shuttering coal-fired electricity plants, upgrading the power grid and implementing all-day kindergarten.
And it laid out a few new ideas, including provincewide infrastructure funding – for roads, bridges and new transit lines.
“If we continue to argue about the tools this investment will require, then we are deaf to the symphony of progress that echoes around us,” Mr. Onley said. In a later scrum, Ms. Wynne cited road tolls and congestion charges as possible revenue sources to pay for the plan.
On the fiscal side, the government pledged that, even after the budget is balanced, expenditure increases will remain 1 per cent below GDP growth until the province’s debt-to-GDP ratio returns to the same level as before the recession.
A vote on the speech, considered a confidence measure, could come as early as Wednesday. If it passes, Ms. Wynne said she will continue meeting with Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath as her government crafts its first budget, likely to be tabled in April. It will be the opposition’s second chance to force an election.
Both parties took a tough line Tuesday.
“We need a substantial change in direction. We didn’t see that today,” Mr. Hudak said.
Ms. Horwath, meanwhile, made a pointed jab at Ms. Wynne’s conciliatory rhetoric.
“They need a little less conversation and a little more action … We will need to see results in the upcoming budget, or the government will not be able to rely on New Democrat support,” she said.