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McGuinty phone call aims to keep lines open to NDP as budget nears

Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, left, and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath take part in the Ontario election debate in Toronto on Sept. 27, 2011.

Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Dalton McGuinty has extended an olive branch to one of his province's opposition leaders, as the Ontario Premier seeks to gain support for next Tuesday's budget and keep his minority government alive.

Sources have confirmed that Mr. McGuinty spoke on Thursday with the NDP's Andrea Horwath, after lengthy negotiations between officials from both parties to get the two leaders on the phone.

Rather than negotiating the contents of the budget, which has already been written, the conversation appeared to be intended mostly to ensure that lines of communication remain open after it has been introduced – and that the parties don't back themselves into corners and force an election campaign just months after the last one.

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With Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives having repeatedly signalled that they plan to vote against the budget, the Liberals will likely need New Democratic support in order to pass it. But while the budget is expected to include a couple of NDP-friendly policies – likely a cancellation of planned corporate tax cuts, and something to address executive salaries in the broader public sector – much of the Liberals' new austerity agenda will involve spending cuts that New Democrats might normally be expected to oppose.

In the call, Mr. McGuinty reiterated that he won't deviate from his goal of eliminating the province's $16-billion deficit by 2017-18, and won't consider requests for "unsustainable spending" that he argues would ultimately jeopardize core services such as health care and education.

Ms. Horwath, meanwhile, echoed her public stance that she won't "draw lines in the sand" before she's had a chance to see the budget and discuss it with her party.

Still, the door appears to have been left open, with what one source called "a vague commitment to keep talking" after next Tuesday, and some apparent willingness on the part of Mr. McGuinty to amend the budget to make it palatable to the NDP.

A Liberal source also noted that the government will avoid cramming all austerity measures into the budget bill – allowing some of them to be subsequently introduced in ways that would not require non-confidence votes.

Among provincial insiders, it's generally been expected that the province's first minority government since the 1980s will survive until at least 2013. As a result, this year's budget is widely seen as the Liberals' best opportunity to introduce tough measures aimed at wrestling down the deficit. But the rhetoric has recently ramped up, with Mr. McGuinty proclaiming at a fundraising dinner earlier this week that he's prepared to take his budget to voters if neither opposition party is willing to support it.

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