Much more than a financial plan, the budget unveiled on Thursday by Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa – after most of it had already leaked, strategically or otherwise – is an election platform.
Senior Liberals say they are keeping few other policies in their back pocket, for a campaign that could begin as early as next week. They clearly believe their budget gives them more than enough to run on, and appeal to one group of voters in particular.
Opinion research suggests there are far more swing voters on the Liberals' left than on their right. So the government's agenda, which includes a 2014-15 deficit significantly higher than the one previously forecast, all but abandons hope of appealing to moderate fiscal conservatives. Instead, it is mostly about competing with the NDP.
The most obvious ammunition for that fight is the budget's centrepiece, the promised provincial pension plan that would mirror the CPP. That idea supplanted new revenues for public-transit expansion as Ms. Wynne's biggest policy gamble, because her campaign team found it tested better. Liberals were going out of their way on Thursday to describe it as a policy that New Democrats, who to date have hedged on the matter, should not be able to credibly oppose.
While Ms. Wynne will talk about public pensions more than any other platform plank, a host of other policies are aimed at demonstrating the Liberals' social conscience, and can be narrow-targeted to left-of-centre voters depending on their priorities.
Many of these policies are important in their own right to Ms. Wynne, a long-time activist who talked about "social justice" while campaigning for her party's leadership. But the broad range of investments announced all at once – from an increase in the Ontario Child Benefit to an expansion of low-income health benefits to more money for kids' breakfast programs to additional support for adults with development disabilities to higher wages for personal support workers – is at least partly about matching or trumping the NDP on social conscience.
On top of that, there are infrastructure investments that can be invoked in specific ridings where Liberals are competing with New Democrats, Progressive Conservatives or both. Notwithstanding that it's still not entirely clear how the government intends to pay for it, the promised $29-billion fund for transportation projects over the next decade doesn't just allow promises of new public transit lines in the Toronto area; it also gives room to announce or re-announce new projects in Kitchener-Waterloo or London or other places Liberal seats are in jeopardy.
Much the same goes for the Liberals' new "jobs and prosperity fund," which, while reflective of a genuine belief in economic interventionism, also allows for feel-good announcements about new business investments, supported by provincial subsidies. And for their pair of Thunder Bay MPPs at risk of losing their seats to the NDP, there's the Liberals' promise of $1-billion to facilitate development of the nearby Ring of Fire (contingent on a similar investment from the federal government).
None of this is to say the budget will wind up serving as a platform, since there is still a chance that NDP Leader Andrea Horwath will opt to support it.
That would make the document a political success, insofar as its encroachment on the New Democrats' traditional turf helped the Liberals stay in power longer. In terms of policy, the outcome would be much murkier.
Despite the Liberals' insistence they remain committed to getting out of deficit by 2017-18, this budget actually moves them further away from what already seemed an overly optimistic goal. Whichever party won power in an imminent election might get more serious about sorting out the finances shortly thereafter, or else level with the public about realistic fiscal goals; the budget passing would achieve neither.
The old NDP complaint that Liberals campaign from the left and govern from the right might not ever quite fit Ms. Wynne. But if their campaign document winds up standing as Ontario's fiscal plan, the Liberals could end up governing a little further left than even she would normally wish.
Adam Radwanski is The Globe's Ontario politics columnist.