Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has played his hand, tabling a budget he says will steer the province out of deficit. Tim Hudak, the Leader of the Opposition Conservatives, has played his hand, too, insisting his party will vote against it.
That leaves New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party finished third in the last election, to determine whether the province has another one.
Ms. Horwath was careful not to signal her intentions on Tuesday, saying she was keeping her options open and would seek public input before deciding on how to respond to the budget. But it is with her that Mr. McGuinty's budget will live or die, and with her that the decision on whether to head back to the polls rests.
The next few days will see a flurry of behind-the-scenes talks between the Liberals and New Democrats as Ms. Horwath attempts to wring concessions that will play to her supporters.
The New Democrats got their way on corporate taxes, with the government agreeing to freeze them until the deficit is eliminated. But they are not at all happy that Mr. McGuinty is taking aim at one of their key constituencies –organized labour – by threatening to impose wage freezes on doctors, teachers and other public-sector workers.
The wage front is where the New Democrats will likely attempt to wrest compromises from the Liberals. Ms. Horwath has pushed for hard caps on compensation for public-sector executives – it was one of her recommendations in her pre-budget letter.
At the same time that the Liberals are leaving executives largely unscathed by their austerity measures, she said, they are threatening to legislate wage freezes for the rank and file.
“You don’t have a respectful conversation with someone while you’re holding a gun to their head,” Ms. Horwath said.
The New Democrat suddenly found herself in the role of king maker, with the ability to help bring down Ontario’s minority government just five months after it was elected, when Mr. Hudak said his party will vote against the budget just hours after it was tabled on Tuesday.
Ms. Horwath said she plans to talk to the same people who elected her and ask them if they are happy with the budget or if they want to go back to the polls.
“We’re going to take our cues from everyday people,” Ms. Horwath said. “I’m going to talk to them about whether or not they bought a pig in a poke when they elected the Liberals in a minority situation last October.”
As she stood at the podium on Tuesday, dodging repeated questions from reporters, her party’s finance critic provided some hint of how she might respond to the budget. Michael Prue said it will take the party about 10 days to come to a “logical” conclusion.
Mr. Prue then reminded everyone about the federal budget back in 2005, when Jack Layton, the NDP leader at the time, asked for billions of dollars in concessions. Mr. Layton helped the minority Liberal government survive through the spring after he negotiated an additional $4.6-billion in spending on health care and other areas. It became known as the NDP budget bill.
“I’m not saying that’s going to happen here, but it could,” Mr. Prue said.
For her part, Ms. Horwath deflected questions by suggesting her rival, Mr. Hudak, was a bit hasty in outright dismissing the budget and stressing that it’s incumbent upon her to talk to Ontarians.
“I don’t think this is just a game of chicken or a game of power trading here at Queen’s Park,” she said.