A newly emboldened Kathleen Wynne opened the Ontario legislature’s fall session with a stark warning to the opposition parties: Co-operate with the government or face a snap election. It was a sharp change of course for the Liberal Premier, who just a few months ago seemed willing to do anything to avoid an early vote.
Polling data suggests a reason for Ms. Wynne’s bullishness. A survey by Innovative Research Group found her Grits have opened up a seven-point lead over the Progressive Conservatives, claiming the support of 37 per cent of decided voters to the Tories’ 30 and the New Democrats’ 22.
The Premier was determined Monday to press her advantage, demanding that the PCs and the NDP help pass her legislative agenda, including a ban on tanning beds for those under 18, a bill to assist Ontario farmers and new rules to help consumers get better mobile-phone contracts. All of these measures have the support of at least one opposition party, but procedural fighting stopped any of them from passing into law earlier this year.
Ms. Wynne has asked for meetings with both PC Leader Tim Hudak and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath to reach a deal. But if that is not possible, she will pull the plug.
“I’m going to do my best to make the legislature work,” she said outside her office after the daily Question Period. “If it doesn’t, the natural outcome of that is that we go to an election.”
The minority Liberals hold 50 of the legislature’s 107 seats; they need the help of at least one other party to pass any bills.
Earlier this year, with her party down in the polls, Ms. Wynne explicitly ruled out an election. That situation strengthened Ms. Horwath, who successfully pushed the Liberals to adopt several NDP policies in exchange for New Democrat support of the government’s budget.
This time, however, Ms. Wynne is taking a different tack, trying to manoeuvre into a better negotiating position by playing hardball.
“There’s not an indefinite option to continue to wrangle on every single piece of legislation,” she said.
Ms. Horwath criticized Ms. Wynne’s words – describing the election threat as “bluster” and “arrogance” – but sounded willing to co-operate.
“We’ve been clear that we want to see results for Ontarians this session – to make life affordable, create jobs and improve health care,” she said in a statement.
It helps Ms. Wynne that the NDP is in a weaker poll position now than it was at the start of the year. Mr. Hudak, meanwhile, has faced rumblings of discontent within his party, including one group seeking to hold a leadership review later this month. Mr. Hudak is facing further turmoil after firing finance critic Peter Shurman over the MPP’s refusal to pay back controversial housing expenses he had claimed.
Innovative Research’s Greg Lyle says Ms. Wynne is in a good position: Between elections, polls tend to be referendums on the government and, by that measure, the Liberals are doing well.
“Any time as a government, when it’s not an election campaign and I’ve got a lead, I’ve got to be feeling pretty good, because the lead is as low as it’s likely to go,” he said. “Her numbers seem to be picking up, relatively speaking, and it’s likely to get even better in an election campaign.”
The telephone survey of 600 people was conducted between Aug. 21 and Aug. 27, with a margin of error plus or minus four percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The legislature’s term does not expire until the fall of 2015, but Ms. Wynne can call an early election at any time. The next opportunity for the opposition parties to vote down the government will come with next spring’s budget.