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adam radwanski

Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in the Ontario legislature on Feb. 18, 2014.KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/The Globe and Mail

No sooner had Kathleen Wynne announced she's given up on funding public transit expansion through sales, gas or personal tax hikes than the inevitable question starting being asked: Would this be enough to help her minority government avoid an election this spring?

If only it were that simple.

The most that can be said is that Thursday morning's announcement, which came as little surprise since Ms. Wynne's Liberals had been telegraphing it for months, was a prerequisite to Andrea Horwath's NDP even considering supporting the coming provincial budget.

Whether the third-party New Democrats actually will prop up the government again will come down to a series of considerations being weighed in their caucus meetings and backrooms – few of which, really, have all that much to do with what's in that fiscal plan.

The general belief around Queen's Park over the past couple of months has been that an election is all but inevitable. Much of the NDP's caucus wanted to join the Progressive Conservatives in bringing down the Liberals last year, and since then their party has picked up three new seats in by-elections. The Liberals are now struggling to the extent that they could collapse during a campaign, giving the NDP a legitimate shot at competing for power. The momentum is seen as too strong for Ms. Horwath to hold the hawks at bay again.

A big question she and her strategists have to grapple with, though, is whether to strike while the iron is hot, or wait for it to get hotter still.

If the Liberals hang on, there is the prospect of an ongoing OPP investigation into the gas-plants scandal resulting in a criminal charge or two. It is also entirely possible that other land mines left behind by former premier Dalton McGuinty could blow up. The deficit-plagued government is sufficiently tight on dollars that Ms. Wynne will have to make tough decisions that could alienate potential left-of-centre supporters – people for whom the Liberals and New Democrats are competing.

Particularly relevant on that latter front is that the province is heading into a series of potentially contentious negotiations with large and highly vocal unions, including those representing teachers and nurses. While the Liberals' organized-labour support has already been eroded because of disputes shortly before Mr. McGuinty left office, further conflict could completely push the unions into the New Democrats' arms.

On a related note, unhappy though the unions may still be with the Liberals, some of their leadership will be pressuring the NDP not to bring down the government just as the negotiations are about to begin in earnest. That's because the gap between the Liberals and New Democrats on labour issues is much smaller than the one between those two parties and the Tories – and there's still a good chance that an election would result in Tim Hudak in the Premier's office. Ignoring such concerns could drive some unions back to the Liberals, depriving the NDP of organizational and fundraising support they could badly use.

Then there are the worries of a handful of New Democratic MPPs – notably at least a couple in downtown Toronto ridings where Ms. Wynne's enduring popularity with the urban left could pay dividends for the Liberals. Those incumbents are said to be a little less nervous than at this time last year, but they still might want to wait a little longer. And while most of the NDP's 21 caucus members don't have much to worry about, their party tends to prize consensus more than others.

If all this sounds like overwhelming cause for the NDP to let the government live to see another day, it's not.

For one thing, much as another year in power could hurt the Liberals, it could also help them if the provincial economy significantly improves – something global trends suggest is conceivable.

But by far the biggest reason for the New Democrats to force a campaign is that, while they're fighting with the Liberals for left-of-centre votes in some places, they're competing with the Tories for "change" votes in many others.

That includes, in particular, Ontario's southwest – a hard-hit region in a very bad mood. By-elections and opinion polls suggest the NDP could be poised for breakthroughs there, largely because Ms. Horwath is perceived as a fresh face offering a big break from the status quo. And that pitch could suffer badly from supporting a third-straight Liberal budget.

For that reason, New Democrats suggested in conversations this week that it would be difficult for them to simply vote for a Liberal budget, even if it tilted left and didn't include any poison pills. To have much chance of securing their support, they suggested, the government would have to be willing to bend to some specific NDP demands – ones that allowed Ms. Horwath to claim she forced voter-friendly policies on a reluctant Premier.

That, though, will only matter if the New Democrats are looking for an excuse to keep the Liberals alive. And they have a lot of political calculus to work their way through before getting to that point.

Follow me on Twitter: @aradwanski