Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is questioning the integrity of his one-time ally Andrea Horwath, in what critics says is a blatant attempt to "damage" her New Democratic Party's brand just as voters face the spectre of a snap election.
Mr. McGuinty said Ms. Horwath is "disingenuous" for pledging to help prop up his minority Liberal government, only to have her party strike down entire sections of the budget bill. The showdown is forcing the New Democrats to spend the weekend reviewing how to execute their plan to help pass the budget bill while opposing key portions of it.
At a news conference Saturday morning, Ms. Horwath invited Mr. McGuinty and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to meet with her this weekend and resolve the impasse over the budget, which is set to go to a vote on Wednesday.
"We can spend the next four days getting real results here and avoid four weeks on the campaign trail," Ms. Horwath said. "Every party leader has said they don't want a needless election. I know I don't. I know we can make this work."
Although the Premier singled out Ms. Horwath for blame, it is the Progressive Conservatives who played a key role in getting entire sections of the budget bill deleted. The Tories joined forces with the New Democrats during clause-by-clause debate on Thursday in striking down sections that would have changed the rules for labour arbitration and weakened environmental protections. This came as a surprise to the Liberals and the New Democrats, who had assumed the Tories would abstain from voting on most sections, the sources said. Without the Tories' vote, the changes would not have succeeded.
The finance committee got through only 30 of 215 pages of amendments during clause-by-clause debate last Thursday, and the deleted portions represent just 4 per cent of the budget. But sources said the Liberals panicked, because it appeared that the opposition parties were setting a pattern for voting on the rest of the budget.
Clause-by-clause debate on the 327-page omnibus budget bill resumes on Monday morning. If the NDP and Tories continue to delete entire schedules rather than just making changes, Mr. McGuinty said he will advise Lieutenant-Governor David Onley that his government no longer has the confidence of the legislature. Plunging the province into a summer election during challenging economic times, he warned, would threaten the province's fragile recovery.
Every section of the budget bill is essential for the government to execute its fiscal plan and work toward eliminating the province's $15-billion deficit by 2017-18, Mr. McGuinty said.
"What we're talking about here," he said, "is the economic livelihood and well-being of the province."
Sources close to the New Democrats said the party will look at whether it should just make amendments to certain sections of the bill they oppose rather than deleting them altogether. Ms. Horwath plans to hold a news conference at Queen's Park on Saturday morning on her plans for avoiding an election.
It was the personal attacks against Ms. Horwath that caused raised eyebrows around Queen's Park on Friday. Greg Sorbara, a Liberal MPP and campaign manager for the party's past three elections, said he felt like he was "stabbed in the back" by the NDP. Ms. Horwath is the most popular political leader in Ontario, according to recent opinion polls.
"The Liberals are trying to portray her as someone who can't be trusted," one source said. "They are trying to damage the NDP brand to make her seem untrustworthy," added another source.
For her part, Ms. Horwath called on Mr. McGuinty to stop the election threats.
"I made a commitment to ensure passage of the budget, and I will do everything I can to keep my word and do exactly that," she told reporters.
In a bid to save their minority government, the Liberals struck an accord with the NDP last April by adding major concessions in the budget bill, including a new surtax on the rich and a freeze on corporate tax rates.
Tory Leader Tim Hudak described the on-again, off-again relations between his two rivals as a "soap opera" on Friday. But he predicted that the "so-called happy marriage" between the Liberals and the NDP "will come together again."