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NDP’s Horwath makes a push toward centre in courting big business

Andrea Horwath’s Ontario New Democrats could be primed for bigger gains in the provincial election likely to happen this spring.

KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Andrea Horwath is on a quiet charm offensive with big business, holding closed-door sessions with top players on Bay Street and other corporate leaders in the run-up to a possible spring election.

The Ontario New Democratic Leader has made some unexpected promises at these meetings in a bid to assuage executives' fears about her left-wing party, The Globe and Mail has learned. She has pledged not to hike corporate taxes back to 14 per cent if elected premier, and has signalled she is willing to do whatever it takes to bring the province's books back to balance in four years – including cutting government spending and playing tough with public-sector unions.

The push is part of the NDP's overarching strategy to move into the political mainstream and become a serious contender for power. The party must decide next month whether it will vote down the ruling Liberals' budget and force an early trip to the polls.

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Ms. Horwath has held at least two business round tables in Toronto in recent weeks. One was a breakfast meeting in the atrium at Ryerson University on March 24 and another a lunch-hour session at the offices of the C.D. Howe Institute March 28. The gatherings included people from the finance, technology and manufacturing sectors, a senior New Democratic source said.

Ms. Horwath has also met one on one with some of the country's top executives.

Chrysler Canada CEO Reid Bigland said he had a "friendly chat" with her, during which she told him about her auto-worker father, after the NDP contacted his company six or seven weeks ago.

"I spoke with her and she mentioned to me that she is very interested in Ontario business, the auto industry and jobs. She also mentioned that if there was anything she could do to help Chrysler, to call," he wrote in an e-mail. "I appreciated the outreach."

One executive who attended the Ryerson session said Ms. Horwath's goal appeared to be reassuring Bay Street she is not hostile to their interests and understands their importance to the economy. Business leaders, meanwhile, wanted to know more about Ms. Horwath's position on corporate taxes.

In public, the NDP has frequently criticized the Liberals for giving tax breaks to big business. But at this meeting, Ms. Horwath promised she would not return the corporate income tax rate to 14 per cent, the level it was in 2010 before the Grits started clawing it back. The NDP source said that, after her reassurance, one business leader remarked there was "a sigh of relief." Ms. Horwath did not rule out a smaller hike to corporate taxes.

Central to Ms. Horwath's corporate pitch has been a promise to dig the province out of its $11.3-billion deficit, said lobbyist Robin MacLachlan, a former federal NDP staffer.

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"One of the commitments she has made and been quite staunch in her support for is the commitment to balance the budget … this is important to business," said Mr. MacLachlan, vice-president of Summa Strategies.

Ms. Horwath has made clear she is willing to cut government spending and drive a hard bargain with unions – the party's long-time allies – to demonstrate she is serious about balancing the books, one NDP insider said.

Corporate leaders have also taken a greater interest in the party recently.

A top financial-sector executive who met with Ms. Horwath at his request said that, while some people on Bay Street still hold knee-jerk anti-NDP views, others have no problem with a social-democratic agenda at Queen's Park, provided there is no dramatic hike to corporate taxes.

Much of business's desire to build a relationship with the NDP has to do with its heightened influence in the minority legislature, Mr. MacLachlan said. The party helped shape the 2012 and 2013 budgets, inserting NDP policies such as slashing auto-insurance premiums, by allowing the budgets to pass in exchange for concessions from the Liberals.

Party insiders say Ms. Horwath is taking her cues from the NDP in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as the British Labour Party, which have emerged in the past two decades as big-tent coalitions of the broad centre-left. Roy Romanow's tenure as premier in Saskatchewan in the 1990s, in particular, was marked by a push toward the centre, as his government slashed spending to get the books back in the black.

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Ms. Horwath's makeover of the party has been reflected in her policy-making, which has eschewed the sort of grand plans proferred by Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak in favour of small-ball pledges targeted at key voting demographics.

Some of these policies have been explicitly corporate-friendly, including tax cuts for small business to offset the planned increase to the minimum wage.

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