Next week's Ontario budget will contain an array of New Democrat-friendly policies, on everything from auto insurance to corporate taxes to social assistance, aimed at making it impossible for the third party to justify voting against it. But beyond weighing whether the budget is sufficiently in line with her party's interests, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath will have a lot more to consider in deciding whether to join the Progressive Conservatives in bringing down the governing Liberals this spring.
Does more time help or hurt Kathleen Wynne?
Since winning the Liberal leadership three months ago, Ms. Wynne has performed well enough to give opponents concern about allowing her more opportunity to introduce herself to Ontarians and put more distance between herself and former premier Dalton McGuinty.
Another school of thought holds that the longer she's in office, the tougher her job will get. Harder decisions are coming about how to get the province's books back to balance, she'll be trying to introduce new taxes or tolls to fund transit, and there may be more land mines left behind by her predecessor.
As of now, polls suggest Ms. Wynne has the Liberals competitive again, with the NDP back in third. If that doesn't change by the budget vote, Ms. Horwath may decide it is worth giving the new Premier a few more months in hope that the honeymoon comes to an end.
Does the NDP need more time itself?
As of now, the New Democrats appear to be some distance from having a coherent agenda they can present to voters. And while they have worked to improve their on-the-ground organization since it proved a liability in the past election, they still lag behind the other two parties.
Ms. Horwath may also have some work to do on her image. In her first campaign as leader, she leaned heavily on her gender and her down-to-earth manner to set herself apart from her more scripted, less accessible male rivals; the idea was that she was someone fresh. But Ms. Wynne is plenty accessible herself, has a very different style from previous premiers, and also happens to be a woman. So the NDP will have to decide if it needs to establish some new contrasts before going back to voters.
How much does being 'reasonable' count for?
A big part of that down-to-earth image Ms. Horwath has cultivated has to do with being pragmatic in her handling of a minority legislature. So she could seriously confuse matters if she turned hawkish just as the Liberals were offering to address her various policy demands.
Conversely, there is always the worry of the fate that befell the federal Liberals, in which continually propping up a minority government compromises the ability to credibly express outrage about its conduct.
That's particularly top of mind this spring, as the NDP joins Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives in pounding the Liberals for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to cancel power-plant projects. And the Tories, who desperately want an election as soon as possible, are trying hard to persuade the New Democrats that the ongoing controversy is reason enough to overlook whatever budget concessions they get.
How much sway do the unions hold?
If an election were held this spring, the Tories would have a fair chance of winning office. Considering that Mr. Hudak is planning a full-scale war on organized labour, including "right to work" legislation, union leaders are pressing the NDP to keep the Liberals around for a while longer. That is especially the case since Ms. Wynne has restored some goodwill lost by the wage restraint measures imposed by Mr. McGuinty.
Ms. Horwath is not as beholden to unions as some NDP leaders past, so she might be prepared to ignore those calls. But she would have to be willing to risk the resources that unions have to offer during the campaign. And if she did inadvertently wind up helping bring the Tories to office, the still-considerable labour lobby within her party could be out to bury her leadership.
What does caucus think about all this?
If you're a New Democratic MPP with a relatively safe seat in northern or southwestern Ontario, you probably don't mind taking a shot at getting closer to power. On the other hand, if you represent a downtown Toronto riding where Ms. Wynne might have her strongest appeal, you might not be crazy about throwing down the gauntlet – least of all for a fight in which you'd be opposing her efforts to raise more money for public transit. And if you are Jagmeet Singh, the NDP's one suburban representative, your usual hawkishness is being tested by the Liberals' movement on the auto insurance file you've been championing.
No wonder, then, that the NDP caucus is said to be divided on what should happen this spring. While it will ultimately be Ms. Horwath's call, there could be some heated discussions behind closed doors first.